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LNY 2021 SPOTLIGHT: Billy Sing

Billy Sing

The ANZAC legend is shrouded in mystique: brave young men who set out to fight campaigns imagined by commanders thousands of miles from Australia, and often far from the battlefields as well. Australians have made the heroics and bravery of these men one of their central stories. But it is often forgotten that this was not just Europeans’ war. Many of the parties involved in World War One were multi-ethnic forces, and this reality has sometimes been hidden by the way we tell our history.

One of the ANZAC contingent’s most impressive and valiant fighters was the decorated sniper Billy Sing. During the Gallipoli campaign he is thought to have tallied between 150 and 200 kills, and upwards of 300 during the course of the war. He was injured several times on the Western Front, and was multiply decorated, receiving a Mention in the Despatches and a medal for Distinguished Conduct, citing his “conspicuous gallantry… courage and skill.” General William Birdwood, leader of the ANZAC forces, is said to have once followed him into action, and been deeply impressed by his ability.

Billy Sing was born to a Chinese father and an English mother in Clermont, Queensland. As a teenager he became known in the district as a crack shot with a rifle, winning shooting competitions and becoming a member of the Proserpine Rifle Club. His sharp aim made him a famed kangaroo shooter, too. When World War One broke out in 1914 and Australia was drawn in by its imperial commitments, he enlisted in the Australian Fifth Light Horse. Historians’ accounts suggest that Sing was only admitted on the basis that his Chinese heritage was overlooked by the recruitment officer. At the time, only those of European stock were regarded as suitable for combat in the Australian contingent.

In spite of his lethality on the battlefield, Sing was a fair and honourable solider as well, and is remembered for refusing to fire upon medics attending to those injured in battle. Although he is said to have sometimes cut short the lives of wounded men caught in No Man’s Land with a single bullet, such were the terrible choices imposed by a brutal war, made all the worse by new technologies and tactics like the trench and the machine gun, and the sometimes callous decisions of commanding officers who had little direct contact with the fighting front.

After proving his mettle repeatedly in the Gallipoli campaign, Sing was transferred to the European, Western Front in 1916 and was injured several times in the line of service. He received several more commendations on the Western Front, but was ultimately worn down by several shrapnel injuries and the effects of gas poisoning on his lungs; one of the horrible new ways to die introduced in World War One. While he recuperated in Scotland, he met his wife Elizabeth, whom he married before being discharged on medical grounds and returning to Australia. It seems that unfortunately she did not return to Australia with him.

After his discharge from the army, Sing tried his hand at farming and gold mining, but was plagued by his wartime injuries and damaged lungs. Tragically he died in near total obscurity and penniless in 1943, and was buried in Brisbane’s Lutwyche War Cemetery. In recent years Billy’s contribution to the ANZAC effort has once again come into focus and been further uncovered by historians. Although the glorification of war should not be the only way a nation remembers its past, figures like Billy remind us that although World War One was not much more than Europe’s great tribal war, Australians of many cultural backgrounds were ready to take up arms and lay down their lives for the country that had given them and their families a new home.

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