Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Gallipoli Sniper: The Remarkable Life of Billy Sing

By John Hamilton
Pen & Sword Military, 2022
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Private William Edward Sing, DCM

There is a champion sniper in the 5th Regiment called Sing. He is a half-bred Chinaman and has shot 119 Turks since we have been here. He spends all day and every day in a sniping position with a telescope and rifle and if they show their heads at all, he has them. He says- “the silly fellows will put their heads up.” 
Commanding Officer, 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade. (vi)

From 1901 Australia maintained a "White Australians Only" policy aimed at limiting or keeping out Asian immigrants. This policy only ended in the 1970s. Billy Sing, the son of an English mother and Chinese father, experienced some limited discrimination while growing up but was able to fully participle in national pastimes such as cricket and shooting contests. The first part of this book touches on Billy’s youth but is particularly interesting in describing in detail both Australian society at the time and how the nation organized and efficiently built up its military for war. Author John Hamilton’s research in these matters is impressive.

Over 8,100 Australians died on Gallipoli and it would appear almost all of them were eager to join the fray. Australia was a proud part of the British Empire, and any war Britain was involved in immediately concerned Australia. Hostilities were declared on the night of 4 August in London—9 a.m. on 5 August in eastern Australia—and a “mood of euphoria swept Australia as the news quickly spread through extra editions of the newspapers, which were published at lunchtime that day” (p. 44). The Brisbane Courier did not let the nation down. On that first day the paper’s headlines trumpeted THE WAR CLOUDS BURST; GREAT BRITAIN AND THE DOMINIONS TO ARMS. In the cities within a week “patriotic meetings were held and would-be soldiers stepped forward immediately” (p. 45).

Soon the news reached even the most distant parts of the country and volunteers streamed into their nearest recruiting centers. Remote bush farmers, drovers, shearers, jackaroos, miners, cane cutters, and others soon answered the call. A part-time militia known as the Light Horse Brigade had already been formed in New South Wales and Queensland in the early 1900s, and with the outbreak of war in 1914, the brigade became part of the newly formed Australian Imperial Force. Thus, Australia became ready for the war, and Billy Sing’s destiny drew closer.

Australian Sniping Team, Lone Pine, Gallipoli

Billy was already a crack marksman when the army sent him to Gallipoli. This, together with the training he received in concealment and observation, combined to make him in the author’s words “a lethal killing machine” (p. 126). In addition to the dreadful conditions the men had to put up with on Gallipoli (I highly recommend the Facebook page “Gallipoli 1915” on this), Billy had to accommodate himself to what amounted to a “loophole war.” I had never realized this before, but much of a sniper’s shooting was done through a loophole in his own trench or camouflaged spot—and frequently into the loophole of the enemy’s trench. The saga between Billy and the Turk master sniper Abdul the Terrible is described over several pages as a merciless hunting adventure.

When Billy was evacuated from Gallipoli due to illness he purportedly had over 200 "kills" to his credit. He was to go on to further action on the Western Front, where he received a medal for his service. After the war he was not so successful, and he was to die a lonely and impoverished death in a Brisbane boarding house in 1943 (p. 225). Only in 1993 was a plaque erected on the site, commemorating his life and service. The latter half of this book goes into considerable details regarding Billy’s later life. We should be grateful to author John Hamilton for unearthing so much detailed information and relevant photos about Australia and one of its noted (but then forgotten) soldiers.

David F. Beer

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