Doctor Nelson and his donkey

25 Aug

It’s a nice story of altruism, and of a slightly shady character who did do heroic things. I remember first reading the story fifty-three years ago in my Grade III Social Studies text, along with stories about the boy who stuck his finger in the dyke, Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce, the boy gunner at the Battle of Jutland, and even Abraham of Ur and Mohammed.

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I guess all these stories were meant to inculcate such virtues as daring to stand against the crowd, and valuing the needs of community above one’s own selfish interests. Altruism and sense of community are not actually values the current government always practises, but what is a little hypocrisy between friends after all?

There are some questions that can be raised, however, about mythologising and sanitising history. Here is the legendary version faithfully replicated by Bundeena Public School, pretty much just like what I read fifty-three years ago. You might like to compare it with this version:

Jack Simpson Kirkpatrick was born in 1892 at South Shields in the north east of England. He came from a large family, being one of eight children. As a child during his summer holidays he used to work as a donkey-lad on the sands of South Shields. He had a great affinity with animals, in particular donkeys. Later he deserted ship in Australia when he heard of the war with Germany.

Fearing that a deserter might not be accepted into the Australian Army, he dropped Kirkpatrick from his name and enlisted simply as John Simpson.

He was to become Australia’s most famous, and best-loved military hero…

During the morning hours of April 26th , along with his fellows, Jack was carrying casualties back to the beach over his shoulder – it was then that he saw the donkey.

Jack knew what he had to do.

From then on he became a part of the scene at Gallipoli walking along next to his donkey, forever singing and whistling as he held on to his wounded passengers, seemingly completely fatalistic and scornful of the extreme danger. He led a charmed life from 25th April 1915 until he was hit by a machine gun bullet in his back on 19th May 1915.

In these amazing 24 days he was to rescue over 300 men down the notorious Monash Valley. His prodigious, heroic feat was accomplished under constant and ferocious attack from artillery, field guns and sniper fire…

See also Wikipedia. Author of the recent best-seller Gallipolli, Les Carlyon, makes some good points in this excellent 2004 Bulletin article:

On Anzac Day in 2000, I was walking up to Lone Pine. A retired Australian army officer paused, turned to another retired officer, pointed towards the scrubby hills above Russell’s Top and said: “Now if we’d turned left here instead of right…” A young schoolteacher from Çanakkale overheard this. “You Australians never learn,” he said, a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. We all laughed, Turks and Australians.

Part of the trouble in trying to explain Gallipoli is that it means different things to different people. It is a set of facts, and these facts are impressive enough by themselves. But the facts are also mixed up with legends and myths and symbolism and sometimes, most of the time perhaps, these latter things become the larger part of the story.

Gallipoli is an episode of military history and, in the context of the Great War, not a big one. In Australia, Gallipoli is also a state of mind, a place in the heart, and the stuff of warm inner glows for those of us who were lucky enough not to have been there. Gallipoli is part of the folklore, one of the few words spoken in Australia with something approaching reverence. Gallipoli has become a church and even secular churches need myths. Gallipoli had become a faith and faiths are hostile to analysis. As Bill Gammage wrote long ago, Gallipoli is bigger than the facts…

Soon the Gallipoli campaign had a hero: Simpson the Christ-like figure, Simpson the one-man epic with the donkey, Simpson the man who didn’t carry a gun. In death, he enjoyed a grace he had never enjoyed in life. He became Everyman at the Gallipoli front. He was beatified, then canonised. He was described as a six-foot Australian when in truth he was a Geordie who wanted to go home and stood five foot nine. He lodged in Australia’s collective mind and grew bigger and bigger. And indeed he was a brave man who performed selfless acts. But — and I hope this doesn’t sound unkind, because it isn’t meant to be — there were larger heroes on Gallipoli, dozens and dozens of them. Men like Harry Murray, who became the most decorated Australian of the war; his mate Percy Black, who died at Bullecourt; Alfred Shout, who won the VC at Lone Pine and talked cheerfully as they carted him off to die; Walter Cass, who the following year became one of the heroes of the battle of Fromelles in French Flanders; Fred Tubb, who won the VC at Lone Pine and died two years later during the battle of Menin Road; the irrepressible Pompey Elliott; Bert Jacka, who won the VC on Gallipoli and should have received another at Pozières; and William Malone, the New Zealander who became the martyr of Chunuk Bair. Gallipoli was also a fine training ground for future Australian generals. Monash, Glasgow, Gellibrand, Rosenthal, Hobbs, Holmes, Blamey and Morshead — all were on Gallipoli, but for reasons that are unclear, we remember Simpson best of all.

In some ways the mould for the Gallipoli story was cast back then, back when the Great War was still going. The story, so the legend had it, was essentially about the beach and the rushing of the hills. It was essentially romantic. And, as time passed and the Allies had to evacuate the peninsula, it became a sort of romantic tragedy, and eventually the best remembered tragedy in Australia’s military history, which surely sells short what happened to us at Singapore in 1942. Gallipoli was about Simpson and the beach…

Why all this? Because Brendan Nelson, the Australian Minister for Education, has unfortunately shown that for him the distinction between myth and history is somewhat blurred, and that he is not really interested in history. He has also not scored too well in diplomacy by advocating to Muslim Australians an episode from a conflict between Muslim Turks and Aussies and Brits, even if today that age-old battle is in fact a shared experience between Turks and Australians in what might be seen as a positive bit of multiculturalism. But it is a bit rich (and patronising) to address Muslim schools thus:

He says there are nine key values:

BRENDAN NELSON: Responsibility, care for one another, tolerance, understanding, fair go, doing your best – the whole range of values, and over the top of it, I’ve superimposed Simpson and his donkey as an example of what’s at the heart of our national sense of emerging identity.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: The story of Simpson and his donkey comes from World War One veteran John Simpson Kirpatrick, who was a private in the Australian Army Medical Corps.

BRENDAN NELSON: Simpson, which is part myth and part truth, is about an unarmed man with a donkey, who over some 40 days, rescued a number of injured and wounded men. He was unarmed and he represents everything that’s at the heart of what it means to be an Australian.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Iqbal Patel, President of an Islamic school in Canberra told local radio this morning he’s already teaching Australian values to his students.

IQBAL PATEL: We have in all our schools the very ethos of Australian education, namely respect for each other, mateship, although that’s a much-used word in the last few weeks. And you know, teaching the national anthem, flying the flag, teaching Waltzing Matilda…

“He was unarmed and he represents everything that’s at the heart of what it means to be an Australian.” That’s just a bit glib, isn’t it, and overgeneralised?

Funny, too, that “everything that’s at the heart of what it means to be an Australian” applies to someone who entered the country illegally…

Les Carlyon also pointed out this morning on ABC 702 that there were several donkeys. But I guess that doesn’t matter too much.

Politicians can be really silly.

And if we are looking for a figure who encapsulates “Aussie values”, how about Fred Hollows? Even if he was born in New Zealand.

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Posted by on August 25, 2005 in Australia and Australian, Brendan Nelson, culture wars, education, History, John Howard, OzLit, right wing politics


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