Key Points:

As soon as they heard that war was on, a young Auckland schoolteacher and a Perth-based merchant seaman signed up. Both had secrets - one would tweak his age, the other his name. They had different motives: one to serve God, King and country, the other to get to England.

Their lives would converge in the shooting galleries above Anzac Cove in April 1915. Both were stretcher bearers at Gallipoli who saved hundreds of wounded soldiers from the hell of the Monash Valley - using donkeys. Both used one named Murphy to carry the injured and sick from the front lines to the relative safety of the beach, dodging shrapnel and rifle fire.

History would treat them differently. The name John Simpson Kirkpatrick came to symbolise Australian digger values of valour and sacrifice. Although he was killed by machine gun fire just 3 1/2 weeks after landing at Gallipoli, the story of Simpson and his donkey remains embedded in the nation's psyche.

It is claimed Simpson rescued 300 Anzacs over 24 days, walking alongside his donkey "forever singing and whistling as he held on to his wounded passengers, seemingly completely fatalistic and scornful of the extreme danger".

On this side of the Tasman, few can name his New Zealand equivalent, Private Richard Alexander Henderson, who picked up where Simpson left off - even using his donkey in the Valley of Death (Monash) and Shrapnell Valley - and somehow survived the war.

Simpson's exploits were immortalised in a famous painting, Simpson and his Donkey, by the celebrated New Zealand wartime artist Horace Moore-Jones, who served at Gallipoli until discharged on medical grounds. In 1917, while touring his Gallipoli works in New Zealand to promote the war effort, he was shown a photograph of a medic using a donkey at Gallipoli to ferry a wounded soldier to safety. He used the photograph to paint several watercolours of "the man with his donkey", and dedicated one to "our hero comrade Murphy [Simpson]".

Simpson's exploits were already part of Anzac folklore but the painting would keep the legend alive for generations of Australians. One version hangs at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The image of a man supporting a wounded soldier while leading a donkey adorns the Anzac Medallion (known here as the Gallipoli Medallion) issued in 1967 to surviving veterans and the families of those who died.

Sculptures in Canberra and Melbourne pay homage to Simpson, while every schoolkid learns of his bravery. Countless works and children's books eulogise him. Two years ago, Education Minister (now Opposition leader) Brendan Nelson suggested the Simpson legend be used to teach Australian values to immigrants.

What few on either side of the Tasman know is that the photo used as the basis for the painting wasn't of Simpson, but of the New Zealander, Henderson. It was taken by Private James Gardiner Jackson, a New Zealand Medical Corps comrade of Henderson. Moore-Jones was shown the photo in Dunedin in 1917 by Jackson's brother. At the time, the stretcher-bearer's identity was not known, as Jackson was still overseas.

Moore-Jones claimed to have seen Simpson at Gallipoli. By then, however, the "donkey man" story was widely known. And the gaunt face of the stretcher bearer is certainly that of Henderson, not Simpson.

Jackson challenged the Australians in the 1930s over the discrepancy. But the Australian War Memorial director J.L. Treloar wrote back to him: "There is no need to advertise the fact that Moore-Jones' picture does not show Simpson. The trouble is, however, that those most interested in Moore-Jones' picture have claimed that it is 'a perfect portrait'."

Controversy about the painting - and Simpson - has ebbed and flowed ever since.

Last week a version of the painting fetched $110,000 at auction in Auckland. Publicity by the auction house, Webb's, made no mention of Henderson but concentrated on the artist and the Simpson myth.

Does it matter that the soldier leading the donkey is Henderson, not Simpson?

It didn't much bother the modest Henderson, an Auckland schoolteacher who, unlike Simpson, survived Gallipoli and discussed his accidental role in the development of the myth only late in life.

"I never really worried about the legend, but I'm getting old now and I would like the full story told before I die," he told a newspaper in April, 1950. "There was nothing really heroic about the work Kirkpatrick and I did with that donkey. It was easier carrying a wounded man on a donkey than it was on a stretcher or on one's shoulder."

Among the Anzacs at Gallipoli, Simpson's fatalistic exploits attracted both admiration and bemusement. A common refrain: "Has the bloke with the donk stopped one yet?" After 24 days, they had their answer.

But as the disaster unfolded, the Australian authorities badly needed a hero to boost morale. Simpson became the country's Anzac hero and a symbol of national identity - one which some critics claim ignores the reality of the man himself.

After all, Simpson wasn't even Australian. He was a merchant seaman from the northeast of England who jumped ship in Australia in 1910 and, some allege, enlisted because he thought it would get him home.

Simpson was not his real name - he was born John Kirkpatrick and seems to have adopted Simpson (his mother's maiden name) after deserting ship. He used the name John Simpson to enlist.

Other facts were conveniently overlooked in the idolisation of Simpson, some decidedly un-Australian critics say. He was a socialist who had little time for authority. He camped with an Indian regiment rather than the Australian troops.

When a long-running campaign to award Simpson the Victoria Cross reignited in 2006, heritage consultant Graham Wilson wrote in a scathing commentary: " ... Simpson absented himself from his unit, refused to report to said unit, and created for himself a job that was far easier and, despite all that has been said about the perils of his job, far safer than carrying wounded men down Monash and Shrapnel Cullies as part of a bearer team."

Gerard Henderson, executive director of the Sydney institute, responded: "The fact remains that Simpson was a courageous soldier ... Whatever his background and whatever his views, the values which Simpson demonstrated in Gallipoli are much admired - from the bottom up.

Indeed, the debate on Simpson demonstrates the strength of deeply held opinion in the face of intellectualised cynicism."

More weight should probably be given to accounts of his exploits from the trenches and his posthumous nomination for the Victoria Cross by the Australian commander, Colonel John Monash.

His courage has possibly grown in the retelling of his activities. The Anzac Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland's website,, is among the more evocative: "An all day long symphony of discord rang out and through it all strode Simpson, walking along next to his donkey, forever singing and whistling as he held on to his passenger, scorning the danger, in sweet defiance of all the explosions, the barking rifle fire and the harsh machine gun chatter, clutching on to one small piece of reality, of nature, in a mechanised world gone mad around him."

There's no dispute that Simpson inspired Henderson to continue the donkey ambulance after his death on May 19 - Henderson even using one of his donkeys, Murphy. But Simpson may not have been the first to use donkeys to carry the injured. Much like the pavlova debate, which country's soldiers were the first to use donkeys to pluck wounded troops from battle may never be settled - and arguably doesn't matter.

The Waiouru Army Museum website says the original "man with the donkey" may have been another member of the NZ Medical Corps, Private William Henry. Soon after arriving at Anzac Cove, Henry organised two donkeys into "an independent unit for evacuating wounded". Subsequently other members of the unit used donkeys but "Henry remained the leading figure".

Simpson is recorded as finding a donkey while carrying casualties back to the beach on the morning of April 26; Henry used them "very early in the campaign" after landing at Anzac Cove on April 25.

Simpson used several donkeys - with names including Murphy, Abdul and Duffy. It's also claimed that Henry named a donkey Murphy and acquired the same name "as man and beast were often seen as one".

While Henderson used donkeys just as heroically and for considerably longer than Simpson, his name remains unrecognised by most New Zealanders. He survived Gallipoli only to be posted to France and the Western Front. He was decorated for gallantry for repeatedly bringing in wounded men under heavy shellfire during the battle of the Somme in 1916. In October 1917 he was stricken by gas poisoning at Passchendaele. The effects would eventually leave him blind.

But Henderson's exploits are not taught in schools, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography has no reference to him, internet searches reveal little.

Military historian Glyn Harper and illustrator Bruce Potter attempted to redress the balance with their children's book, The Donkey Man, published in 2004. It tells, through a donkey's eyes, how Henderson copied Simpson and used a donkey to carry wounded men to the beach.

"The Australians have certainly made a lot of the Simpson story," says Harper, an associate professor at Massey University's Centre for Defence Studies. "He became a folk hero but he was not the only one doing it.

"One of the reasons for the book was that I was concerned the Australians had hijacked the legend - and paintings of Henderson labelled as Simpson were a bit disconcerting.

"In some ways Simpson was the perfect Australian hero - a bit of a larrikin who became a martyr because he was killed in the line of duty. The irony is that he was actually British but the Australians claimed him.

"Seeing Henderson described as Simpson and seeing the number of children's books on Simpson and his donkey, I thought it was about time I told the story of Henderson.

"He was a quiet achiever who didn't make a fuss - which fits in with the New Zealand character," says Harper. "He did the same brave things as Simpson and suffered for it for the rest of his life."

In 1990 the Returned Services Association moved to honour Henderson's courage, commissioning a bronze statue of him and his donkey for the 75th anniversary of the landings. Sculptor Paul Walshe used Jackson's photograph as his model. The statue sits outside the National War Memorial in Wellington, dwarfed by the Carillon tower and shaded by a pohutukawa.

Unveiled by Henderson's son, Ross, the memorial plaque states: "The stories of Simpson and Henderson are the stories of all stretcher-bearers ... these men exposed their lives to danger to save comrades and so built up the tradition of unselfishness and cool courage that is a feature of their service."

In war, truth may be the first casualty - but history's contrasting treatment of Simpson and Henderson probably says more about the differing psyches of Anzac neighbours than any calculated attempt to deceive.


Horace Moore-Jones enlisted with the British section of the NZ Engineers in October 1914, aged 46. His artistic talents were soon recognised at Gallipoli and he was employed to make topographical sketches of enemy positions and terrain.

Wounded in his right hand, he was invalided back to England in November 1915 and, while recuperating in hospital, made a series of watercolours of Gallipoli. Back in New Zealand, he toured the Anzac pictures in aid of the newly formed NZ Returned Soldiers' Association.

Rose Young, curator of history at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, says while giving a talk in Dunedin the subject of Simpson's donkey work came up and Moore-Jones "implied that he knew him". He was shown a photograph taken at Gallipoli of a stretcher bearer leading a wounded man on a donkey to safety. The photo gave no clue as to the identity of the subject but Moore-Jones used it as the model for several paintings of "the man and his donkey", one of which he dedicated to Simpson.

After the war, Moore-Jones offered to sell his Gallipoli paintings to the Government but was turned down. The Australian Government bought the collection for £1500 in 1920 and it is held by the Australian War Memorial.

In 1922 Moore-Jones was staying overnight in the Hamilton Hotel when it caught fire. He escaped but returned to save others trapped in the building. He died soon after in hospital of severe burns.

(Mostly) innocent players in the growth of a legend
The Kiwi unsung hero
Private Richard Alexander Henderson was born at Waihi on August 26, 1895. A popular trainee teacher at Mt Roskill (later renamed Three Kings) School, he enlisted as a stretcher bearer with the NZ Expeditionary Force on August 10 1914, giving his birthdate as 1893 to make him nearly 21 instead of only 19.

Within days of landing at Gallipoli he saw Australian stretcher bearer John 'Jack' Simpson using donkeys to ferry the wounded and when, on May 19, Simpson was killed, Henderson continued the work, using one of Simpson's donkeys, named Murphy. At one stage he was hospitalised with gastroenteritis but returned to action.

After Gallipoli, Henderson served in Moascar, Ismailia and France, according to Richard Stowers' book Bloody Gallipoli: The New Zealanders' Story. At the Battle of the Somme he was awarded the Military Medal on October 22, 1916 for repeatedly bringing in wounded men under heavy shell fire. The citation reads: "During operations on the Somme on 15th September he went out repeatedly under heavy shellfire and brought in wounded who were exposed to it. He set a fine example to other bearers."

During 1917 he was posted to light duties at No 3 New Zealand General Hospital in Codford, England. He returned to France only to be stricken by gas poisoning at Passchendaele on October 12, 1917.

He was discharged on medical grounds on May 21, 1918 and awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.

Henderson resumed teaching in Ponsonby, Towai (in Northland) and Tomarata, near Wellsford. But he never fully recovered and was forced to give up teaching when he went blind in 1934. Sick for most of his later life, he died in Green Lane Hospital, aged 63, on November 14, 1958.

The true Aussie digger?
John Simpson Kirkpatrick was a stretcher bearer who became famous for using donkeys to transport wounded men day and night from fighting in Monash Valley to the beach of Anzac Cove.

His affinity with donkeys stemmed from his childhood in South Shields, northeast England, where he worked summer holidays at Murphy's Fair, providing donkey rides on the beach for children at a penny a ride.

A crewman on the Yedda in 1910, he jumped ship on arrival in Australia and spent the next few years moving around the country - cane cutting, cattle driving, working at the gold fields and on coastal ships. When, in 1914, he learned that war had broken out he jumped ship in Fremantle and enlisted, hoping for a free trip back to England.

Landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 he ignored snipers and shrapnel to rescue hundreds of wounded. Repeatedly warned of the risks he was taking, he would respond: "My troubles." On May 19 he was killed by machine gun fire while moving two wounded men. He was buried on the beach at Hell Spit.

He became the enduring legend of Gallipoli for most Australians, a symbol of the courage of the Anzac stretcher bearers. Glossed over was the fact that Simpson was a "Pommy socialist and internationalist" who didn't support the war.

To most, however, his maverick streak and disregard for authority only underscores the digger ethos. Campaigns continue for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Murphy, Abdul, Duffy and Queen Elizabeth
Donkeys were brought to Gallipoli by the Anzacs from nearby Greek islands and Egypt to carry fresh water and supplies from ships to the soldiers in the hills, records Glyn Harper's book The Donkey Man. Others were captured from the Turks. They were also used to test drinking water as it was believed they would not drink poisoned water.

The story goes that stretcher-bearer Jack Simpson saw one grazing in the wild, overgrown gullies the day after landing. Having already carried two heavy men from the front line, he responded to a call from a wounded man and decided to use the donkey to carry him to the beach. Simpson named his favourite donkey Duffy but used others, including Murphy, Abdul and Queen Elizabeth.

Other early adopters of donkeys as ambulances included New Zealanders Richard Henderson and William Henry.

Though many donkeys were abused, the troops reportedly grew very attached to the beasts. When the British forces withdrew after eight months, it's claimed that many donkeys were evacuated with them and returned to Greece or Egypt.

Acknowledgement is made to:
Rose Young, curator of history, Auckland War Memorial Museum; Stephen Clarke, historian, Returned Services Association; Glyn Harper, Centre for Defence Studies, Massey University; Hocken Library, Otago; Christchurch Star: The true story of Gallipoli painting, April 3, 1965; Richard Stowers' Bloody Gallipoli: The New Zealanders' Story
Waiouru Army Museum; NZ History online; Australian War Memorial Museum;;

Online link: The Auckland War Memorial Museum has a Book of Remembrance on its website for people to post messages on to remember those who served and died in war.