VC snub for ‘not so brave’ Kirkpatrick

John Simpson Kirkpatrick at Shrapnel Gully.
John Simpson Kirkpatrick at Shrapnel Gully.

THE bravery of a legendary South Tyneside-born First World War hero has been questioned as hopes of him receiving a posthumous Victoria Cross were dashed ‘Down Under’.

A two-year Australian defence tribunal has concluded there was “insufficient evidence” for John Simpson Kirkpatrick and 12 other former soldiers and sailors to be recognised.

The tribunal found that his superiors followed the correct process at the time.

The federal government has accepted the judgment – meaning Kirkpatrick will not be awarded a VC retrospectively.

The decision is a bitter blow for his supporters both in Australia and in his home town of South Shields.

But worse still, the official inquiry has punctured the most popular legend of the Gallipoli campaign – by declaring that the “man with the donkey” was “not exceptionally brave”.

The Defence Department committee ruled that the British-born private was no more gallant than scores of other stretcher-bearers who transported wounded soldiers in the first weeks after the Gallipoli landing in April 1915.

“The tribunal found that Simpson’s initiative and bravery were representative of all other stretcher-bearers of the 3rd Field Ambulance,” the report says. Evidence was also heard which suggested it was impossible for Kirkpatrick to have rescued more than 300 wounded soldiers whose lives he is widely credited with saving.

Instead, it was estimated he ferried fewer than half that number before his death, all of them lightly wounded and none with life-threatening injuries.

The tribunal was told that there was no evidence in military archives to support the popular belief that Kirkpatrick had repeatedly ventured into no-man’s land under Turkish fire to rescue badly wounded soldiers. And one submission detailed how several witnesses, whose vivid accounts of Kirkpatrick’s bravery have reinforced the legend of the man with the donkey, were not even at Gallipoli at the time.

The tribunal ruled Kirkpatrick’s bravery had been “appropriately recognised” by a Mentioned-in-Dispatches award made to him and seven other members of the 3rd Field Ambulance in May 1915.

Tribunal chairman Alan Rose told a news conference that Kirkpatrick was “a curiosity” who, having chosen a donkey as his method of transport, was “largely only able to bring lightly wounded men” down from the front lines to the beach at Anzac Cove.

Last year, a motion was passed by South Tyneside Council supporting the posthumous VC campaign.

Today, Coun Iain Malcolm, leader of South Tyneside Council, expressed his disappointment at the decision but called on campaigners to “fight on”.

He said: “It’s obviously a disappointment, and I’m not sure if there is a chance to appeal.

“What we do know is that Kirkpatrick was a profoundly brave man who saved lives and lost his own as a result.

“Despite this setback, I would hope that the campaign for him to receive recognition will continue.

“Look at the example of the Russian Convoy veterans who have just received overdue recognition. It took time but justice was done in the end.”

Pte Kirkpatrick was born in Bertram Street, South Shields, in 1892 and emigrated to Australia at the age of 17.

A statue of the ‘Man and His Donkey’ takes pride of place in Ocean Road, South Shields.

And in 2011 a play, ‘The Man and His Donkey’, written by North Tyneside playwright Valerie Laws, was staged at the town’s Customs House.

Jackie Fielding, who directed the play, said: “I think it is tragic that a little man who did an extraordinary thing has not received the recognition he deserves. Kirkpatrick used the skills he learned helping with donkey rides on the beach at South Shields to save lives with his donkey at Gallipoli.

“He used a sniper gully to transport the injured men, and could have been picked off by the enemy at any time. There is no doubt he was a very brave man.”