5. Shrapnel Valley Cemetery – Valley of Death
Leave Hell Spit by walking back through Beach Cemetery and to the unpaved road. Turn right and keep going until you meet the main paved road. Turn left back towards Anzac Cove and walk along for a few metres. You will see a sign for Shrapnel Valley Cemetery. Turn right down the track until you arrive at the cemetery and then walk through it and look up the valley.
Shrapnel Valley was the main route up from the beach area to the Anzac frontline on the ridge you can see in the distance. Up there were the famous posts – Quinn’s, Courtney’s and Steele’s Posts which you will reach later in the walk. Further along the valley splits in two. Off to the right, behind the posts, runs Monash Valley called after Brigadier General John Monash, commander of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade.
A gloomy, narrow valley all tortuous and fissured
Shrapnel Valley (sometimes called Shrapnel Gully) got its name in the early days after the landing. As the Turks realised that this had become the highway to the front their guns rained shrapnel shells down upon this area. These shells made a particular whistle before they burst showering those below with lethal pellets. It was said that as the shells could be heard coming soldiers passing through the valley had the chance to take cover. Confronted with such danger, Bean wrote that men became ‘fatalists’ and thought that a particular shell had a man’s name and number on it! – ‘Until that shell arrived, it was best to let others see them going proudly rather than flinching’.
On the night of 18–19 May 1915, the men of the recently arrived 5th Light Horse Regiment from Queensland made their way into Shrapnel Valley. The Light Horsemen filed along a trench leading from the beach through the hills and came out in what Trooper Ion Idriess described as ‘a gloomy, narrow valley all tortuous and fissured as it wound through a sort of basin at the bottom of the big, somber hills’. Here they spent an uneasy night making their way forward with shrapnel shells exploding above them and Turkish bullets zipping past – ‘we were hurrying somewhere to kill men and be killed’. As they moved forward, the regimental doctor, a Boer War veteran, taught them how to survive. Every so often he would inexplicably duck down and Idriess and others were soon copying him as he seemed to have a sense of when the shells were on their way:
We all crouched by the roadside, among the bushes, by something solid or in a sheltering hole. A man near me sighed as he found a shallow dugout. For an hour we lived there, clinging to cold mother earth … my body was alertly passive, but the mind was curiously thinking, ‘So this is War!’
[Ion Idriess, The Desert Column, Sydney, 1982, p 8]
Many an Anzac was introduced to war as he moved up these valleys to the ridge. For virtually the whole of the campaign, but especially in the early weeks, further up Shrapnel Valley where it turned to the right and became Monash Valley, Turkish snipers killed or wounded hundreds of men. The Turks held the high ground at places like Dead Man’s Ridge and the Bloody Angle and were never driven from it. Stretcher-bearers, and soldiers bringing up supplies, rations and water, were in constant danger as they made their way along the valley bottom. This sniping was at its worst during the early hours of daylight when the sun was behind the Turkish marksmen. It was while doing his duty in Monash and Shrapnel valleys on 19 May 1915 that the best known Anzac of all – ‘The Man with the Donkey – met his death.
Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, 3rd Field Ambulance, was an Englishman with a thick accent from his home town of South Shields, County Durham. He worked the slopes here bringing wounded men down to the beach on a donkey (he apparently used two beasts known as ‘Murphy’ and ‘Duffy’). He was a hard worker, the war diary of the 3rd Field Ambulance describing how from the day after the landing Simpson had operated ‘from early morning till night every day since’. Bean claimed that Simpson became especially fatalistic and paid little attention to the shelling and sniping along his route from the ridge to the beach. On the morning of 19 May, he passed up beyond a water guard post where he generally had his breakfast but, as it was not ready, he pressed on saying, ‘Never mind. Get me a good dinner when I get back’. He never came back:
Poor old Scotty Simpson was killed by machine gun bullets in Shrapnel Gully this morning … Scotty Simpson will be much missed with his mates in Shrapnel Gully … his donkeys Murphy and Duffy were taken charge of by some of our 4th Field [Ambulance] stretcher bearers who happened to be near him when he fell. Buried in cemetery to right of Anzac Beach.
[Sergeant James McPhee, 4th Field Ambulance, quoted in Peter Cochrane, Simpson and the Donkey:The Making of Legend, Melbourne, 1992, p 43]
Simpson’s grave is in Beach Cemetery in Plot 1, Row F, Grave 1. At the time his exploits were not much known beyond the confines of Shrapnel and Monash valleys. Indeed, there were any number of stretcher bearers all over the Anzac position who daily saved men’s lives while constantly endangering their own. Nevertheless, it is the story of Simpson and his work with donkeys in Shrapnel Valley which over the years has grown to be almost the story which Australians know about Anzac.
Shot through the heart
The death of Simpson
When we first arrived at Anzac, there were landed a number of donkeys, which it was thought would be useful in carrying water and food to the firing line. Donkeys will live on a diet of little more than sticks. It was found from the first, however, that the animal for this work out and away the best is the mule. He drinks much less than a horse, and the amount of work he gets through on these steep hills is an eye-opener. The donkeys are the favourites with the men on account of their temper, but there are not many of them now remaining.
It was some time during the first night of our landing that Private Simpson annexed one of these donkeys. He knew the loads they carried in Egypt, and it struck him that they would be especially useful for carrying down men wounded in the line. He put a red cross brassard around the donkey’s head, and started business at once. He went off and camped with his donkey amongst the Indians who drive the mules, and fed with them; and all the day and half the night he made continual trips to and from the firing line; every one used to meet him time and again coming down the gully with wounded men sitting on the little animal beside him. You cannot hurry a donkey very much, however close the shells may burst, and he absolutely came to disregard bullets and shrapnel. The man with the donkey became fatalistic – if they were going to hit him they would whatever his precautions.
For nearly four weeks he came up and down that valley – through the hottest shrapnel, through the aimed bullets of the snipers and the unaimed bullets which came over the ridges. When the shells were so hot that many others thought it wiser to duck for cover as they passed, the man with the donkey calmly went his way as if nothing more serious than a summer shower were happening. Presently he got another donkey, and started to work with two of them. He was coming down the gully on the morning of 19th May after the attack, clearing some of our 300 or 400 wounded – the Turks lost twice that many thousand – when he passed the waterguard, where he generally took his breakfast. It happened this morning the breakfast was not ready. “Never mind,” he said to the engineers there, “get me a good dinner when I come back.” But he never came back. He and his two patients were nearing the end of their journey when he was shot through the heart, and both of his wounded men were wounded again.
[Charles Bean, dispatch, Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 23 July 1915, p.1394]
May 22nd – A party of us volunteered for a sapping job last night. We left camp at eleven and followed the road, which is the gully bottom, meandering up to the firing line. Across the gully are built sandbag barricades which shield a man just a little from the death-traps along the road. We would bend our backs and run to a big barricade, lean against the bags until we panted back our breath, then dive around the corner and rush for the next barricade. The bullets that flew in between each barricade did not lend wings to our feet for nothing could have made us run faster. A few hundred yards ahead of us and high up is the firing line, perched precariously on a circle of frowning cliffs. The Turks have a special trench up there which commands our “road”. This trench is filled with expert snipers, unerring shots who have killed God only knows how many of our men when coming along the road.
None of our party were hit. Eventually we reached the farthest bunch of sandbags, stacking higgledy-piggledy on a shallow mound directly beneath the big cliffs by Quinn’s Post. It was pitch dark up by the cliffs. On the cliff and hill peaks the rifles fired like spitting needles of flame. The firing was not heavy, but numerous bullets came threateningly close.
Our object was to cut a trench from a sap, though the little rise back towards the gully, and thus save the necessity of walking along that particular danger-spot of the tragic road.
[Ion Idriess, The Desert Column, Sydney, 1982, p.10]