Dust donkeys and delusions
Dust donkeys and delusions by Graham Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most military historians have a greater respect for historical records than they do for oral history, an irony given the father of Australian military history, Charles Bean, was a master at efficiently interviewing eyewitnesses soon after combat. What sets the trained historian apart from the populist is, I think, the insistence in ensuring that the record agrees: they triangulate, they test, and they reject. Popular historians are driven by the need to tell a story, but this is not history.

I have always found the hero-worship of Kirkpatrick profoundly silly, particularly when a dunce-like Federal Minister attached his image to a poster to be displayed in all schools. If Simpson was the man of the myth, he was hardly the person to hold up as an educational ideal: dishonest, drunk, insubordinate and disobedient. But we must acknowledge that it fits the whole edifice of Gallipoli: elevating the diggers from the semi-trained rabble that gallantly failed on the first day to heroes and moral icons. There is much more to admire in the dour professionalism of the AIF in the last two years of the war, or even in the steadfastness of the Somme campaign, than in the madcap improvisation of the Peninsular.

The Simpson that emerges from the dust, once WIlson has done his work, is actually or more human figure. The donkey evacuations were not acts of bravery but a sensible means of moving men with leg injuries of the non-life-threatening sort down to the Beach. Simpson was no super-human, but did useful work. No larrikin, he appears to have been a hard-working man who had worked a variety of jobs with some credit, including Territorial service. Never recommended for a VC, his MID was proper recognition of a good job within a unit that performed outstandingly as a whole. There were braver men than John SImpson Kirkpatrick at Anzac Cove and later; and to single out him above others because of an attractive iconography and a fabricated legend is to insult the mate-ship which he has somehow come to represent.

This is no easy read, but it amuses in its exposure of so much twaddle surrounding Australia in the Great War. Like so many other myths, it detracts from the real meaning of our heritage of that great conflict and diminishes the AIF, not enhances it.

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