A Memory of History or History of Memory? – A War Memorial ‘Simpson and His Donkey’

Author: Irina Samsonova has a BA from the University of Adelaide and BA (Hons) from the ANU. She is currently a 2nd year anthropology PhD student at the Research School of Humanities and Arts, ANU. Irina studies digital Indigenous art and its link to Indigenous self-representation and identity.

I remember when I was a little girl, I was fascinated with war memorials. Stone colossi towering over people, gravely staring into the infinite as if seeing something none living can see. Looking at these selfless men and women who exchanged their mortal lives for the immortality of memory made me wonder why certain people and events are chosen to be remembered, and others – to be forgotten.

Memorials, monuments, and shrines – they embody people of the past and their deeds, ensuring that memories of them will live on when all the living witnesses have perished. At least, this is the general idea. In practice, the process of memorialisation is much more complicated. In their essay ‘Meaning in social memory and history: anthropological perspectives’ (2002), Cattell and Climo define social memory as a collective and selective way of remembering, forgetting, and interpreting. But what makes people want to remember certain things and forget others? Let’s look deeper into this using an interesting case of the monument to ‘Simpson and his Donkey’ in Angas Garden in Adelaide.

The monument of ‘Simpson and his Donkey’ (Australian Defence Force Health Services Memorial; ADFHS) is a tribute to the service and sacrifice of Australian medical health personnel in all theatres of war. The life-size bronze sculpture was created by acclaimed South Australian artist Robert Hannaford AM and is of Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey carrying a wounded soldier from the front lines at Gallipoli.

Being born overseas, I had never heard of John Simpson until I moved to Adelaide. When I first discovered this unusual monument, I got an impression that Simpson was a brave and masculine man who put his life at risk saving wounded soldiers. Simpson’s bronze face is tense and it seems to reflect his dignity, bravery, and knowledge of his approaching death. As he is depicted on the monument, Simpson appears to manifest the main virtues of the ADFHS: strength, fearlessness, selflessness, and self-sacrifice. 

It is curious that the public also remembers Simpson’s donkey. Possibly, Simpson, being one of many other stretcher-bearers participating in military rescue operations, had attracted so much public attention specifically because of his donkey. A contribution of a simple animal, usually owned by peasants, to the Australian Imperial Force, had touched and inspired people. An ordinary man with an ordinary donkey had accomplished something extraordinary – entering the battleground to rescue their comrades, hoping that bullets and explosions would not reach them.

Yet, the monument ‘Simpson and his Donkey’ is a subject of multiple memory distortions, which are typical for war memorials. In their book Anthropology of violence and conflict (2001), Schmidt and Schröder discuss the complex subject of memories of conflicts and violence. The authors point that social memories about such events are generally highly subjective and politicised. Such high levels of subjectivity in war symbolism is typical. It is usually defined by a strict dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Likewise, the inscription on Simpson’s monument states: ‘We will care for those who dare place themselves in harm’s way for us’. The use of such explicitly delineating terms as ‘we’, meaning Australian and allied forces, and ‘harm’, meaning everyone who opposes them simplified to an undefined ‘evil’, shows a clear separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ with no option for hesitation and the belief in a superior moral cause. While the heroism of Simpson and his donkey is something the Australian public choose to remember, there are a lot that people choose to forget about him.

Simpson’s monument represents only one account of past events and embodies selective memories of his personality and achievements, which suits the patriotic purpose of the monument. The creators of the monument ‘forgot’ and omit controversial and unconventional accounts of Simpson’s life, frontline deeds, and personality. While researching the history of this monument and the real person depicted in it, I encountered a multitude of different accounts of, opinions on, and facts about Simpson’s life. However, it is absolutely typical for a monument that embodies a view of national identity, values, and patriotism to become an idealised icon of a real human behind it. 

Memories are not perfect sources of information, but we cannot avoid using them to reconstruct history. Memories create the continuity of the past, connect it with present and future, and help build the group identities and personhood. Although social memory can never be absolutely accurate, it is not all lies – this memory is built from multiple subjective accounts of individuals in the attempt to establish the ‘truth’. However, the credibility of social memories may not always matter. For example, in their essay ‘Remembering’ (1992), Fentress and Wickham explain that people remember folklore and legends because they are the sources of moral lessons and folk wisdom. If a community believes in the agreed version of the past, it does not matter whether the memory is true, or not. It provides people with identity, unites them, and maintains their connection to their past. 

Memories of actual events or people are imperfect but ideas can live forever. Simpson, a human with weaknesses as any other, is forgotten as a person, but he is remembered as a symbol of patriotism, kindness, and duty. Sometimes it is necessary to forget in order to remember.

Further reading

Schmidt, B & Schröder, I 2001, Anthropology of violence and conflict, Routledge, London, pp. 1-24.

Fentress, J & Wickham, C 1992, ‘Remembering’, in J Fentress & C Wickham (eds), Social memory, Blackwell, Oxford & Cambridge, pp. 1-40.

Cattell, M & Climo, J 2002, ‘Meaning in social memory and history: anthropological perspectives’, in M Cattell & J Climo (eds), Social memory and history: anthropological perspectives, AltaMira Press, Lanham, pp. 9-31.

[Image of the bronze monument is provided by the author and taken by Sam Roberts sourced from Experience Adelaide website.]

[Photo of Simpson and his donkey is provided by the author and sourced from the National Archive of Australia website.]

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