VC plea for deserter who saved 300 with a donkey

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John Simpson Kirkpatrick's inauspicious teenage years did not mark him out as a man who would save the lives of the soldiers who lay dying in the carnage of the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick's inauspicious teenage years did not mark him out as a man who would save the lives of the soldiers who lay dying in the carnage of the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War.

Much of a misspent youth was passed working the fairgrounds of his native South Shields on Tyneside. He joined the merchant navy, but soon deserted, jumping ship at Sydney before the outbreak of war.

But Kirkpatrick confounded all expectations. As a stretcher-bearer with Australian forces at Gallipoli he plodded tirelessly into no man's land with a donkey he called Murphy (after the Murphy's Fields fairground back home in South Shields) and lugged hundreds of soldiers back to base. He had, his commanding officer later wrote, "earned the Victoria Cross 50 times" before dying in the course of his duties at the age of 22, in 1915.

This weekend, Kirkpatrick (or plain Jack Simpson as he is known to millions of Australians) will be remembered in South Shields at a service on the 90th anniversary of his death - an anniversary which his devotees believe may persuade Australia finally to give him the posthumous Victoria Cross he so obviously deserves.

Simpson has always been denied such an honour in Britain, where the only monument to his selflessness is a statue of him, with donkey, on Ocean Drive in South Shields. An error on the application form blocked a first application to the British War Office in 1915 and three subsequent requests, the most recent in 1995, have also been turned down. (The donkey was posthumously awarded the Purple Cross - the highest military honour afforded to animals - by the RSPCA eight years ago.)

Britain's indifference contrasts sharply with the affection felt for Simpson in Australia, where he is a national hero and remembered by many as "the man with the donkey". A motion recently put before the Australian parliament argued that he should be decorated with the country's VC.

"He is a national hero, a national identity and the epitome of what Australian servicemen stand for - a person prepared to put his life on the line for his mates," said the Australian Labor MP Jill Hall, who is leading the campaign in Australia.

The beginnings of his heroism lay in his decision to drop the Kirkpatrick from his name and sign up as a stretcher bearer for Australia's 3rd Field Ambulance. He borrowed his first donkey soon after landing at Gallipoli, having apparently recalled tourists riding them on the beach at home. Several of the animals were killed as they ventured on to the battlefield.

In the last 24 days of his life, he saved 300 men. Those who served alongside him said he had escaped death so many times that he became fatalistic, telling them he was prepared for anything. He died on 19 May, 1915, a day that began with his usual stop-off at the post where he ate breakfast. Finding none prepared for him, he said: "Never mind. Get me a good dinner when I come back."

He was transporting two wounded soldiers when a burst of machine-gun fire hit him in the chest. His commanding officer, Lt-Col Alfred Sutton, recommended him for a VC in a petition supported by General Sir John Monash. "Pte Simpson and his little beast earned the admiration of everyone at the upper end of the valley. They worked all day and night," the recommendation said.

Pte Simpson's supporters in the British St Dunstan's charity, which provides support for blind ex-service men and women, believe the British authorities may have been prejudiced because he deserted from the merchant navy. "There's no other reason why he should not have one," said Colin Williamson, St Dunstan's co-ordinator for the North-east, who will welcome a representative of the Australian High Commission for tomorrow's service at St Hilda's Church, South Shields.

The Ministry of Defence says that, while it is sympathetic, Pte Simpson's case is unlikely to be reopened because of the time that has elapsed.

A film of Pte Simpson's story is about to be made - but supporters say he would want simply to have been remembered the words on his headstone. They read: "He gave his life to others."