Donkey Wins Medal

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Heritage & Historical ~ by Press on  31 Jul 2012

Author, historian and ex-soldier, Graham Wilson’s divisive book Dust Donkeys and Delusions shatters the well-known and loved myth of the quintessential Australian “hero” of Gallipoli, Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick the “Man with the Donkey.”

In July 2012 the Defence Honours Awards & Appeals Tribunal (DHAAT) considered a call for Simpson to receive one of the highest Defence honours, a Victorian Cross, that Wilson strongly believes should not happen.

Commenting on the push by Wilson to debunk the “Simpson myth” and any expectation of awarding Simpson, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy AC (Retired) said Wilson’s book highlights the folly of contemporary populist campaigns to reinvent history and grant honours and awards to individuals from past wars. 

Many will disagree with Graham Wilson’s conclusion that Simpson should not be awarded a Victoria Cross.  But they will not be able to disagree with his exhaustive research and meticulous use of the historical records to debunk what he calls the Simpson Myth."

It may be acceptable to reinterpret history but as Wilson shows in this book we should not try and remake history. We were not there and we should leave the decisions to those who were there at the time.”

Wilson says people have taken him for task for actively setting out to destroy one of Australia’s few myths. In response he says he is a great believer in myths, that every nation needs myths and Australia, being such a young country, has precious few of them.

Far from criticising John Simpson Kirkpatrick – the man, Wilson recognises that he was a good soldier and the work he did at Gallipoli was valuable. However, he points out that Simpson was no more or less brave than any other man at Gallipoli and the “myth of Simpson” needs to be corrected.

The legend of Simpson and the donkey is one of the most powerful Australian myths and, I would have been more than happy to leave the Simpson myth alone, if it was acknowledge that it is a myth, a moral fable, an uplifting story, but not good history. 

I believe it was Charles Bean’s first despatch from Gallipoli to Australia that established the Simpson myth – everything that has come after has been built on Bean’s original statements. We then have the legion of ex-soldiers of the Great War who embraced the Simpson myth and added to it by spinning old soldier’s yarns designed to connect them to the rapidly burgeoning myth. Next, we have generations of writers who have been happy to simply
regurgitate a mass of unsubstantiated anecdote and label it as history.”

To then utilise this supposed history as evidence to support a campaign to have a posthumous VC awarded to Simpson – a VC, by the way, that he never did anything to earn or deserve – would result in the decoration of a myth, not a man," Wilson says.

Wilson’s interest in Simpson was forged during his ten years employed by the Directorate of Honours and Awards in the Department of Defence. Much of that time he spent in the Policy Section, undertaking historical research and drafting complex ministerial and departmental correspondence. One of DH&A’s perennial topics is Simpson, and Wilson’s job to draft responses and undertake research related to the recommendations for a posthumous VC for "poor, brave Simpson."

As Wilson notes, "Apart from my professional involvement with the Simpson story, I began to spend as much of my own time as I could going through every contemporary record I could locate and comparing that record with what I refer to as the “Simpson Canon”, that is, the corpus of existing work that is popularly accepted as the factual historical record of Simpson.”

And guess what? The “Simpson Canon” and the actual historical record don’t actually match up."

Dust, Donkeys and Delusion sets out to correct the historical record around Simpson and rehabilitate the memory of other soldiers whose bravery and sacrifice at Gallipoli has been overshadowed by the myth of Simpson.

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