Profile: Gallipoli sniper remembered

By: Col Jackson

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A commemorative service for arguably one of Australia’s best Army snipers, William Edward (Billy) Sing, was held in Brisbane on May 19.

Profile: Gallipoli sniper remembered
A tribute to Trooper Billy Sing, the Gallipoli Sniper, has been erected at Lutwyche Cemetery.

Much has been written about snipers in current conflicts, the high-tech equipment they use and how they witness, first-hand, the consequences of their actions.

Yet it was a Queenslander from Clermont, of Chinese descent, who 100 years ago earned a reputation on Gallipoli for his sniping prowess. He was arguably one of the Australian Army’s first dedicated snipers

It has been a long road from the South African Veldt, where the Australian soldier first encountered the sniper, to the modern battlefield of Afghanistan where today’s Army sniper has shown himself to be among the best trained in the world.

The recently published, One Shot Kills, reveals the secretive, complex and often impenetrable world of the military sniper, where ‘one-shot kills’ is the key objective.

Members of the Australian Army and authors of the book, Glenn Wahlert and Russell Linwood, relate true stories from actual snipers who reached the peak of their profession in a deadly art, in an age of precision weapons and unmanned drones

It includes interviews with snipers from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for many soldiers, it was the first time their stories have been told.

As Wahlert states: "When we were interviewing veteran snipers from past wars, we found these men were so appreciative that someone was interested in their stories after so many years.

"Most had rarely spoken of their Army experiences, their skills in battle, the risks they had taken, all hidden away from friends and family."

William Edward (Billy) Sing was just another ordinary outback Australian — he worked as a stockman, was a competent horseman, an excellent shooter and kangaroo hunter, and a member of the Proserpine Rifle Club, which provided quasi-military training. His father was Chinese and his mother hailed from Scotland.

Not long after the outbreak of World War I, the 28-year-old rallied to the flag to serve his country, enlisting in the all-volunteer 1st AIF at Bowen on October 26, 1914.

Because he was of mixed descent, Billy Sing successfully negotiated the enlistment process (that explicitly stated enlistees had to be "substantially of European origin or descent") to not only serve his country, but to become a national and international hero.

With a credit of well over 200 kills, Sing was the crack shot of the ANZAC Peninsula, where he was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal and a much-envied MID (Mentioned in Dispatches) for his daredevil bravery.

He also received the Croix de Guerre, a medal that can only be awarded to foreign nationals for acts of heroism conducted on Belgium soil. It was awarded for conspicuous gallantry in the field at Polygon Wood.

It should be remembered that this was not modern day warfare; the weaponry was the stock-standard Lee Enfield .303, albeit a very early model, with open sights. A spotter using a telescope assisted him. It is said that General Birdwood once spotted for Sing.

Despite the basic rifle, Billy Sing earned his reputation with the 5th Australian Light Horse on Gallipoli and later with the 31st Battalion in England and France.

A trooper from the same unit once wrote: "I spotted for Billy. He is a little chap, very dark with jet black moustache and a goatee beard. He is the crack shot of the ANZACs".

Billy Sing was wounded at Gallipoli in November 1915, seriously ill and hospitalised in Egypt 1915, wounded again at Polygon Wood in March 1917, gassed at Passchendaele in October 1917, and wounded a third time at Messines in February 1918.

Billy Sing died in Brisbane on May 19, 1943, at the age of 57; he had four shillings and sixpence to his name. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Lutwyche Cemetery, and it was only through the combined efforts of four men — Brian Tate, Don Cameron, Alby Smith and Sing’s great nephew Don Smith — that his story came to light.

Tate was an early Billy Sing historian, whose article in The Courier-Mail on the eve of ANZAC Day 1993 brought the injustice to light; Don Cameron was a Federal Member of Parliament at the time; and Alby Smith was a senior technical officer with 4 Armaments Engineering Unit in Melbourne, which had developed a new sniper rifle for the Army and unsuccessfully proposed it to be named the ‘Billy Sing’.

It is only in recent times that Billy Sing’s battlefield contribution has been given the acknowledgement it deserves.

Renewed interest came about when the Brisbane branch of the 31st Infantry Battalion Association began delving into the history of deceased members of the Unit, and learnt about the grave in Lutwyche cemetery.

The Queensland branch of the Chinese-Australian Historical Association showed enormous interest when approached to participate in a commemorative ceremony, as did the Chermside and District Historical Society and Kedron-Wavell Sub-Branch of the RSL.

In 2012, a commemorative service was held on the 69th anniversary of Billy Sing’s death.

In 2014, the Brisbane branch of the 31st Infantry Battalion Association applied for, and received, a $50,000 grant as part of the Centenary of ANZAC celebrations to commission a fitting memorial to Billy Sing, which has now been erected over his grave in the Lutwyche Cemetery in Brisbane.

A commemorative service was held at 11am on Tuesday, May 19 where the Dedication of the Trooper Billy Sing Memorial will be carried out by Major-General Darryl Low Choy, AM, MBE, RFD (retired), PhD.

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