About Tom Curran - Author of Not Only a Hero

In 1994 Tom published his book Across the Bar, The Story of ‘Simpson’, the Man with the Donkey; Australia and Tyneside’s great military hero. (Ogmios Publications PO Box 3100, YERONGA Q 4104; ISBN 0 646 16524 0)

In his introduction to this book Tom explained how and why he came to write the Simpson story.

“My own personal background bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Simpson himself. I too, was born and bred on Tyneside and raised in a working class home. My father was a shipyard painter. After qualifying as a pharmacist at Edinburgh in 1961, I followed a similar adventurous route to that of Simpson; working my way around England, and then Australia, before enlisting in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps in 1966, for a five year short service commission. In 1969 I commanded the Australian field medical supply unit, in Vietnam.

For some inexplicable reason, however, it wasn’t until after I had returned from Vietnam, and had been posted to a Field Ambulance at Townsville, in 1970, that I first became aware, fully, of Simpson (Simpson was a member of 3 Field Ambulance) and what he’d done.

Like almost everyone else in Australia I had always been vaguely aware of their national military hero - one can scarcely avoid this, with the number of statues honouring ‘The Man with the Donkey’, throughout the land - not to mention the yearly re-enactment of his famous donkey-rides, in the streets of the capital cities, on ANZAC Day.

It was when I discovered that Simpson was a Geordie, that ‘the penny dropped.’ I realised then - as any other Geordie instantly would have - not only what Simpson had been doing - but why. At the same time, I used to ask some of my fellow officers and soldiers at Townsville - Why, do you imagine, of all those soldiers at ANZAC, should Simpson alone have thought of using a donkey, to carry wounded soldiers down to the hospital on the beach? The answer was invariably, a shake of the head. And in truth I didn’t expect any other. Yet to any Geordie - especially to a Geordie kid, the answer would have been obvious. But then how could one expect anyone outside of this particular culture to understand just what a ‘ride on the donkeys’ - at South Shields, or Whitley Bay, meant to a Geordie kid - this special, magical experience, to be long savoured as part of a treasured day at the seaside, throughout those long, dark, bleak North East winters.

And to complete the picture - if any lingering doubt existed - I discovered that Simpson had not only grown up at South Shields, but that as a young lad, he had been - a donkey-boy.

I began searching out all the information that was available on Simpson. And it was here that I made the most amazing discovery. Because there was virtually nothing known, or written about what the man had actually done - or who he was. The Australian war historian, Dr C.E.W. Bean, devoted a total of 27 lines to Simpson, in his mammoth account of ANZAC; and the medical historian, Colonel A.G. Butler DSO, gave Simpson 21 lines in the medical history of ANZAC. It should be noted however, that these official sources give only the flimsiest, and most vague accounts of Simpson’s activities. Additionally, the Reverend Sir Irving Benson wrote a very brief account of Simpson’s life and deeds at ANZAC in his book, The Man with the Donkey, published in 1965. Half of this slim volume is devoted to correspondence between Simpson and his mother and sister. But here again there is very little factual description of what Simpson had actually done.

Yet notwithstanding the fact that so little is known about him, this hasn’t stopped Australia from honouring this man as a national hero, in statue and painting, right throughout the land.

The principal reason for this seems to have been because the ANZACs themselves made Simpson their own personal hero at ANZAC. Even while he was still alive, he had already become a living legend. Every ANZAC who spoke of him, invariably added, that he had won the Victoria Cross a dozen times over. As Simpson’s closest friend, and fellow member of 3 Field Ambulance, L/Cpl. Andy Davidson, Distinguished Conduct Medal, and Military Medal winner, said of him - ‘he was the most respected, and admired of all heroes at ANZAC’. (Australian War Memorial File PR 83/69, 10 of ANZAC 7.) Also, from this same AWM file:

After his death the memory of his deeds remained vividly with the men at the front. Lt-Col. S.C. (later Lieut-General, Sir Stanley) Savige, was reported in the Argus, of 2.11.33 as saying - in support of the appeal to erect a monument to Simpson’s memory - that when his battalion, the 24th, went ashore at Gallipoli in September, 1915, one of the first stories newcomers heard, was that of The Man with the Donkey. Simple as the story was, it remained with the troops as an epic of devotion.

Being a Geordie myself, and thoroughly conversant with Geordie culture until the age of 24, whence I departed England’s shores, I knew that nothing of this story was known on Tyneside. Indeed, I doubted whether anyone, outside of possibly a handful of people in South Shields, had ever heard of the name, Simpson, or knew of his existence. And the reason for this is not to be wondered at. Simpson served in the Australian Army - and as a private soldier. And one would have to search very hard indeed to find a statue in England honouring the deeds of any particular private soldier.

But most importantly, having been made aware of this remarkable story, 1 knew that someone had to take it back to Tyneside, for his own people, to tell them what he’d done. And as no one else seemed to be forthcoming - over a span of 75 years - it looked as though the task had fallen, by default, to me.

I make no complaints. This has been a labour of love.

Three years of preparation were needed (at Queensland University), to hone the skills that would be required, in the separate disciplines of English Literature, and Historical Research.

I then went in search of Simpson.”

In 1998, at the request of the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland and for no personal gain, Tom wrotea condensed version of his book( for students) and gave it the title Not Only a Hero, An Illustrated Life of Simpson, the Man with the Donkey .

This 52 page book with more than 70 photographs, maps and illustrations should be read by every young Australian so they may better understand and appreciate the heroism and self sacrifice, not only of Simpson, but also of all Australians who have served their nation in all wars and conflicts.