Simpson and his Donkey – unveiled!


It’s certainly been quite a journey, but Adelaide’s public tribute to the service and sacrifice of our medical health personnel in all theatres of war, now stands proudly on the banks of the Torrens on the corner of War Memorial Drive and King William Road.

First commissioned in 2007 it’s been a labour of love for internationally renowned and local artist Robert Hannaford in producing his representation of the legend of Simpson and his donkey.

Leigh: What do you think of the work? What do you think it symbolises? What does it evoke for you?

Brigadier Robert Atkinson: Well I think Robert has encompassed the passion of the whole circumstances, the legend that goes with the reality, and a symbol of what health carers can do in the force. And so it is almost a landmark at the beginning of our country, the beginning of a significant military commitment and it’s a watershed and a symbol for the future as well.

Leigh: So why is Simpson and his donkey particularly important to “our’ State?

Brigadier Robert Atkinson: Well there’s a huge South Australian connection because the unit was pretty well raised In South Australia. A lot of Queenslanders involved and the unit was rounded out in Western Australia in Fremantle in fact. But the main unit was raised here and trained here before they went overseas. And Simpson was ah, well he was an Englishman who had come here and basically jumped ship to join 3 field ambulance, which was pretty much this South Australian unit.

Leigh: The story has travelled around the world.

Brigadier Robert Atkinson: Exactly. And it’s an interesting story, you might say the wounded weren’t badly wounded, but these days it was before antibiotics, before tetanus vaccine so a mosquito bite, minor wounds unless they were cleaned within 6 sort of hours, equalled gangrene and tetanus and possibly death.

Until now, South Australia had been one of the few States in the country which didn’t have a memorial to the man who became a national symbol of courage.

Brigadier Robert Atkinson: Well it went back to the 100 year celebrations of the army, and so we did a number of things around the nation, and we went to the Lord Mayor here, it was Michael Harbison at the time and said look the city has got some strong links, we should do something, for example how about a statue of Simpson and his donkey? And he said what a good idea, why don’t we get Robert Hannaford to do it? And we thought ‘Okay” and that’s pretty much how it started.

Robert Hannaford: Well all the sculptures of Simpson I’ve seen, and I’ve seen them all, don’t look anything like him. There are a few photographs of him, I want to particularly get a very good likeness of the man and his body, he was very muscly and strong. Apart from the action and the pathos which I think the other sculptures don’t have, I want a true portrait of Simpson.

…And what a job that became. The sculptor started with lines on paper then a clay maquette which evolved into this life-size clay creation, before the final bronze tribute.

Robert Hannaford: Sculpture is different to painting, 3 dimensions you’ve got to really know what you’re doing. That’s what I love about it; you’ve got to explore the whole form. That’s why you’ve got to walk right around it; it’s got to look right from every angle. And the form itself has got to be dynamic, it’s not just a matter of copying what you see, well it’s the same as painting, it’s got to be so put together that it looks special, it looks good, but true too.

But a project like this isn’t cheap and bringing it to life needed the determination and dedication of private citizens, like Rosemary Militsis, who joined the effort to honour her great Uncle Frank. Rosemary Militsis: Francis Bonner was at Gallipoli with Simpson. And he was a local Adelaide man, who was an apprentice Tailor, he joined the Army at the age of 26, he was not all that young, he was sent over in 1914, and he was a stretcher bearer.

Leigh: He worked alongside Simpson?

Rosemary Militsis: Apparently yes, yes. But unlike Simpson he lasted. He survived the war, and was then sent back to Australia for a break and then went to France, and was in the Battle of the Somme & survived that.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick was a plucky 21 year old from Britain whose deeds in world war one have come to encapsulate the courage and fortitude of all Australian servicemen and women. Day and night, Simpson ferried the wounded to safety at Anzac Cove until the unarmed soldier was killed by machine gun fire.

Rosemary Militsis: They relied on the treaties to be obeyed, the treaty that you don’t shoot medical people, and he took his arm band off and put it on donkey, on Duffy, and Duffy wore it like a little hat, so he apparently went up through shrapnel fire and I think it’s called shrapnel gully, he went up 15, 20 times a day to bring over 300men back in the 4 weeks that he lived. Which is quite extraordinary…now because Simpson died a lot of it has been documented but with great Uncle Frank nothing was documented because he survived and it was just part of the job.

Leigh: How important do you think that statue is?

Rosemary Militsis: I think it’s wonderful for the people of Adelaide, people of South Australia, it’s in the appropriate place and the children will come up and pat the donkey on the nose.

So the man who has left his mark on the Adelaide landscape with his tributes to Bradman and Roy Rene, has now delivered another stunning masterpiece…

Robert Hannaford: I read the other day in a book about what would happen if human beings left the earth, and how all the cities and things would grow pretty quickly. Some of the things that will be around in thousands of years are sculptures, bronze sculptures.(laughs) Which means they’ll be around a lot longer than the paintings and buildings have disintegrated, plants have grown over them and wind and erosion has taken them away, the bronze statues will probably be around for thousands of years.

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