No Victoria Cross for John Simpson Kirkpatrick


His name will be forever woven into the fabric of the Anzac legend, but there will be no posthumous Victoria Cross for Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick (centre) with his donkey Duffy carrying a wounded soldier at Gallipoli.
John Simpson Kirkpatrick (centre) with his donkey Duffy carrying a wounded soldier at Gallipoli.

British-born Simpson became an Australian hero for ferrying injured soldiers to safety on a donkey after Anzac troops stormed ashore at Gallipoli during World War 1.

Simpson, who had enlisted with Australian forces, was among the first attacking waves, supporting the 3rd Brigade covering force.

As a stretcher bearer, he carried casualties with the rest of the bearers on the first day of the campaign.

Command and control was stretched, and as operations continued amid very high casualties, Simpson, like many others, became separated from his unit.

He stumbled across a donkey in a hut, and used the animal up and down the dangerous valleys, collecting slightly wounded servicemen and carrying them to the dressing stations.

Simpson soon became known among the soldiers fighting in the tight confines of the Gallipoli beach head.

He continued this work for 25 days until May 19, 1915, when he was killed in action by Turkish machine-gun fire.

His exploits earned him a Mention in Despatches, but his supporters have long argued that Simpson deserved the highest British Commonwealth military medal for bravery, the Victoria Cross.

His name was among 13 individuals whose cases went before the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal in 2011 to consider whether he should be awarded a Victoria Cross.

The tribunal has reported back, having received 166 written submissions from 125 individuals, organisations, and the Departments of Defence and the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Tribunal heard from 72 witnesses during the public hearings.

The report, released by Secretary for Defence David Feeney, recommended that none of the individuals receive a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Feeney said the Australian Government had accepted the findings.

The tribunal concluded that Simpson’s initiative and bravery was representative of all other stretcher bearers of 3rd Field Ambulance and that he was appropriately honoured with a Mention in Despatches.

Feeney said the gallantry and valour of the 13 individuals was beyond question.

“What this inquiry was about was whether Australia should award a VC decades after the decision-maker at the time came to an alternate conclusion,” Feeney said.

“I do agree with the tribunal’s findings,” Feeney said. “A VC must only be awarded in the most convincing of cases. It should only occur when there is clear evidence that maladministration has taken place by the decision-maker or if compelling new evidence has come to light.”

The inquiry found no case where allegedly new evidence proved acceptable or compelling.

“This is the right decision. It will undoubtedly be a decision that will cause relief for some and anguish for others. Nevertheless, it is the only reasonable decision I could come to,” Feeney said.

“It is not my wish, nor the wish of the Defence community, to second-guess commanders who made decisions at the time. This would cause irreparable damage to the integrity of the honours and awards system.”

Fenney noted that 12 of the 13 individuals who were the subjects of the inquiry had already received some form of recognition for their actions.

The tribunal’s chairman, Mr Alan Rose, said the inquiry had been a demanding but interesting exercise that stretched almost two years.

“We heard from witnesses at hearings in Melbourne, Sydney, Launceston, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra. The witnesses included family members, historians, current and former members of Parliament, and officials from the Departments of Defence and the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“We conducted over 4500 hours of research and sought advice from a range of government departments, organisations and individuals. There was more than 45 hours of testimony from 72 witnesses.”

John Simpson Kirkpatrick was born in South Shields, England, on July 6, 1892.

After a brief association with the local Territory Army, Kirkpatrick joined the merchant navy and deserted to New South Wales in May 1910.

While in Perth in August 1914, he joined the Australian Imperial Force as John Simpson.

Part of the 3rd Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps, Private Simpson landed at Anzac Cove on April 1915, and the legend was born.

The 22-year-old showed considerable bravery in the field. Under threat from shrapnel and snipers’ bullets, he and his donkey ferried casualties to the safety of Anzac Cove.

He was even known to sing or whistle as he tended to the injured, prompting Indian troops fighting with the British forces to name him “Bahadur” – bravest of the brave.

Colonel John Monash wrote of Kirkpatrick’s exploits: “Private Simpson and his little beast earned the admiration of everyone at the upper end of the valley. They worked all day and night throughout the whole period since the landing, and the help rendered to the wounded was invaluable.

“Simpson knew no fear and moved unconcernedly amid shrapnel and rifle fire, steadily carrying out his self-imposed task day by day, and he frequently earned the applause of the personnel for his many fearless rescues of wounded men from areas subject to rifle and shrapnel fire.”

He died on May 19, 1915 – three and a half weeks after arriving – cut down by machinegun fire. His body lies in Beach Cemetery at Gallipoli.

His exploits have been honoured in statues in South Shields, in England, where he was born, and in Australia.

His exploits were immortalised in a 1916 book, “Glorious Deeds of Australasians in the Great War”.

The tribunal received 23 written submissions and heard six oral submissions regarding Simpson. Of those, 12 supported additional recognition, 15 were against additional recognition and two took no position.

“There are many witness accounts of Simpson’s conduct,” the tribunal found. “The tribunal was, however, unable to find any witness accounts of a specific act of valour … which could single out Simpson’s bravery from the other stretcher-bearers in the Field Ambulance.

“Some submitters suggested that Simpson deserved a VC because he represented what it means to be Australian, and there was strong community support for such recognition.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick
John Simpson Kirkpatrick

“While this might be a popular proposition, the VC can only be awarded for valorous conduct in the presence of the enemy.

“The tribunal found that Simpson’s initiative and bravery were representative of all other stretcher-bearers
of 3rd Field Ambulance, and that bravery was appropriately recognised as such by the award of a Mention in Despatches (MID).

“The tribunal concluded that on both process and merits, Simpson’s case was properly considered at the time. The process and procedures were not followed precisely, but considering the circumstances, they were appropriate and fair.

“Private Simpson was appropriately honoured with an MID. A merits review was unable to sustain any alternative outcome.

“The tribunal recommends no action be taken to award Private Simpson a VC for Australia or other further form of recognition for his gallantry or valour.”

Simpson used several donkeys during the 25 days he survived the Gallipoli campaign.

Murphy, the best known of Simpson’s donkeys, was posthumously awarded the RSPCA Australia Purple Cross Award by the then deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer, at a ceremony at the Australian War Memorial on May 19, 1997.

The award was made to Murphy as a representative of all the donkeys used by John Simpson Kirkpatrick for their exceptional performance in helping humans while under continual fire at Gallipoli during the First World War.


The tribunal’s report can be found here.

A movie is being made about the exploits of Simpson:

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