The legend of the Anzacs began during World War One in Gallipoli and included the myth of “Simpson and his donkey”. This myth began with the death of John Simpson Kirkpatrick in 1915 and the subsequent press release in the Sun Herald by C. E. W. Bean, the official war correspondent. Bean’s writings about Simpson and his bravery have long been accepted and reproduced in popular texts, school books, etc, portraying Simpson as a national identity. Peter Cochrane has since challenged this myth of Simpson and has begun to decentralise him and argue that the story of Simpson was embellished to serve a valuable and social purpose.
This essay will analyse these two different histories of Simpson and the donkey and the social purpose the myth served. Beginning with the traditional view of Simpson and his donkey, I will look at the legend that Bean created and some possible reasons for this image. Bean was born in 1879 in Bathurst, New South Wales and grew up in a strongly imperial environment. 1 His home life and education reflected the ‘values of service honour, patriotism and valour’2 that were ethnic of imperial England. Bean worked in law in both England and Australia and then took up Journalism and during this time he explored and wrote about outback Australia.
When he went ashore at Gallipoli he began to identify the characteristics of the soldier with the men he had come to know whilst travelling in the outback. Bean thought that this outback life of Australian men made them great soldiers. Amongst these characteristics was the extremely powerful “mateship”3 among the soldiers and the creation of the term the “Australian digger”. Alistair Thompson4 says the term digger’ was a culture that conjured up images of behaviour and language common to the Australian Anzacs. Bean wanted to portray an ideal Australian and anything that did not fall within his ideal he made excuses for.
He made distinctions ‘between the ‘genuine’ Australians and an alien minority’5 and he chose to leave those he considered un-Australian out of his writings altogether. Bean embellished his history of what happened in Gallipoli by including in his writings stories about ‘typical’ diggers to corroborate the general motivations and behaviour of soldiers and the strong positive characteristics of the Anzacs6. By understanding this view that Bean had of the Australian soldier we can now look at the myth that was developed by Bean about ‘the man and his donkey’.
Bean created Simpson as a typical Anzac and thus he became a true Aussie hero. Bean described Simpson as ‘completely fatalistic’7. He was able to continue his work in shrapnel gully throughout the midst of all the firing of bullets and escaped death many times. Bean was interested in chivalry and he bestowed this image on the digger. He talked about ‘the decency of the typical Australian’8. Bean describes the Australians as having their own form of bravery. They were to stand up and fight back in the face of adversity. They never gave in. He said after being injured they were ‘eager to get back to the front’9.
These descriptions of the Anzac character Bean uses to portray a certain kind of image. This is the image that Alistair Thompson described as being a ‘romantic notion’10 that has been used to exaggerate the role of the Anzac and war heroes such as Simpson so that the home front can find it easier to deal with their men going off to war. They can be proud of their soldiers. Through these notions of who the Anzacs were and the definition of ‘Australian manhood’11 Bean describes, those left at home and the soldiers themselves were able to ‘make some sense of their experiences’12 of war.
Bean used these images he painted of the Australian Anzac to highlight the importance of Simpson. Bean created Simpson as the typical Anzac, an anti-authoritarian and Aussie bushman. He glorifies Simpson’s adventures to tell a story. Bean finds the unification of people an important element in surviving the war and uses this to create a story that all people can relate to and feel comfortable with. The story of Simpson is one that Bean created so that all soldiers could make sense out of the war, that some good had come from it and the death that occurred was not without just.
‘Both Christians and secular humanists could see their reflection in his image’13. Patsy Adam-Smith in ‘The Face of a Hero’ supports Beans’ legend. Adam-Smith said ‘there had to be a hero, the people demanded one’14. Adam-Smith relates Simpson’s story to that of all stretcher-bearers and how they ‘exposed their lives to danger to save their comrades and so built up the tradition of selflessness and cool courage that is a feature of their service’15. She goes on to portray him as an ‘Englishman with all the qualities of the legendary Australian’16, and talks about his pride in the country.
This pride is something that Bean develops in his talk about ‘mateship’ in the Australian soldiers. Adam-Smith like Bean, writes about Simpson and his relationship with his mother and sister and of his other good deed of always staying in contact by letter and sending money home. This helps give a picture of Simpson as the true Australian hero, the man who is ‘brave beyond the courage of mortal man’17 and ‘a good Christian’18, who is ‘devoted to his mother, his family and his empire’19.
Patsy Adam-Smith ‘claimed to have revealed the “real man”20, however, according to Cochrane this version of Simpson was the same as the official version, only worse. She called him a ‘delightful man’s man’21 and said that no-one else ‘could have done what Simpson did’22. In the 1990s Peter Cochrane, who is a teacher of history at the University of Sydney, began to give a different picture of Simpson. He set out to investigate Simpson and discovered that he was an Englishman, born and educated in Britain. Cochrane wrote several articles pulling apart the myth that Bean had created of Simpson.
Cochrane argues that Bean created the legend of Simpson as a political ploy to promote conscription. Cochrane begins to tell of Simpson the ‘man’, rather than Simpson the ‘Legend’. He argues that Simpson was not portrayed for who he was, such as his ‘fury and compassion about political and industrial affairs’23, but emerged because of a need for ‘military manpower’24. He argued that the diaries of the soldiers are not necessarily written in context and therefore ‘the date of the entry is no sure sign of when the writing took place and what appears to be first hand evidence may well be hearsay’25.
Cochrane believes that some of these accounts were by men who ‘sought to secure a place in the legend’26. To Cochrane it is not the story but the message within it that is important. What Simpson did was not unusual and ‘his feats of daring were equalled by many others’27, however the witnesses indicated that Simpson was known everywhere and that ‘soldiers noticed him and were impressed’28. Cochrane denies the possibility that everyone knew Simpson. He argued that some of the supporting evidence could be disputed because of the rewriting of transcripts such as that of Ion Idriess, a trooper in Gallipoli.
Cohrane claims that Idriess’ original diary makes no mention of Simpson, but later in 1932, a rewritten version from Idriess talks about the infantry and how Simpson Kirkpatrick has them ‘quite cut up’29. Simpson died on the 19th May, however the diary of trooper A. S. Hutton notes this entry on the 18th May. Cochrane states that the legend ‘could influence men to alter their diaries’30 so as to become a part of this legend. These types of discrepancies Cochrane argues were influenced by a need to create the legend that the government, newspaper editors, correspondents and others needed to ‘inspire and move’, ‘men to enlist’31.
Cochrane described Simpson as an epic hero who was embellished to ‘set a stirring example’32 and a role model for the present and the future. Cochrane does not dispute Simpson’s courage and bravery but argues that he was ‘a social creation’33, that Bean helped to create, in order to fit the ‘ideological needs’34 of the Great War and later politics. He argues that Bean deliberately omitted some elements about Simpson that would render him unsuitable as a hero so that his example could be used as a ‘model to stir the common man’35.
Adam-Smith P. (1978) The Face of a Hero, The Anzacs, Nelson, Melbourne Andrews E. M. (1993) The Anzac Illusion Anglo-Australian Relations during World War I, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne Bean C. E. W. (1921) Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 – 1918, A & R Sydney Cochrane P. (1992) Writing for the Cold War, The Man with the Donkey, The Making of A Legend, Overland Fewster K, (1983) Gallipoli Correspondent, The frontline diary of C. E. W. Bean, George Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, NSW