Thursday 19 December 2013 by robvan. No comments
First World War Centenary, Anzac Connections, Collection, Exhibitions, Anzac Voices


I would not have joined this contingent if I had known that they were not going to England.

                                           Private John Simpson, 3rd Field Ambulance, Christmas Day 1914


When the Australians of the First Contingent were sent to Egypt for training in 1914 many were interested to see the exotic and ancient sights. During this period of training the men had some free time where they could visit Cairo, climb a pyramid, bet on horse races or buy beer, cards and souvenirs. However, the dust and heat soon wore away the shine of travel. By Christmas 1914 Australia’s Official Correspondent Charles Bean was noting in his diary that Australians were becoming restless.

Englishman John Kirkpatrick had little enthusiasm for Egypt and what it had to offer. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) early, hoping to work his passage back home. He used his mother’s maiden name, “Simpson”, to enlist and expected to be heading for “the old country”. Instead, he found himself in Egypt. Arriving about two weeks before Christmas, he wrote home to his mother on 20 December describing the place: “we camped about 10 miles out of Cairo at the entrance of the desert you can see nothing but sand, sand, sand, we have got two pyramids about 3 hundred yards from our tents it is a terrible long climb to the top of one of the pyramids. There is 100 thousand troops in this camp that is with English troops and Indians. They are expecting the Turks to advance on Cairo they are building a light railway across the desert to reach Cairo.” …“The grub in this camp is very bad. We have to buy nearly as much as they [give] you…would think that they were feeding a lot of sparrows as instead of hungry men… It will soon be Xmas and a pretty miserable Xmas here by the looks of things.”

Simpson had a very close relationship with his mother, Sarah Simpson, and sister, Annie. His original correspondence with his family is held at the Australian War Memorial and is one of the Memorial’s significant historic treasures. The collection is not only interesting because Simpson became a legend of the war. Simpson, who was travelling and working through many ports in Australia before he enlisted in 1914, wrote interesting observations about Australia and its people as well as some accounts of the mood of the nation as war broke out. Soldiers were generally unable to keep and store letters from home so this collection is also unusual because Simpson’s letters from his mother and sister also survive.

In his letter on Christmas day Simpson wrote. “It is Christmas day today. I was looking forward to spending today in Shields but I was doomed to be disappointed. I would not have joined this contingent if I had known that they were not going to England. I would have taken the trip home and had a holiday at home then joined the army at home and went to the front” Simpson went on to ask his family about their Christmas “What sort of a Xmas did you have at Shields I suppose that everything is pretty quiet on the account of the war” In early January he also mentions receiving some Christmas cards from his mother Sarah and sister Annie.

Private John Simpson letter written Christmas Day 1914

Simpson landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 as a stretcher-bearer with the 3rd Field Ambulance and would be killed only a few weeks later.

You can read the full collection of letters written by John Simpson Kirkpatrick to his family on the website

The Anzac Voices exhibition is on display from Friday 29 November 2013 and will remain on display until the redeveloped First World War galleries open in late November 2014.