Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Scurry, William Charles (1895–1963)

by Merrilyn Lincoln

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Charles Scurry (1895-1963), by unknown photographer, c1919

William Charles Scurry (1895-1963), by unknown photographer, c1919

Australian War Memorial, P03143.001

William Charles Scurry (1895-1963), soldier and architectural modeller, was born on 30 October 1895 at Carlton, Melbourne, fourth surviving child of Victorian-born William Charles Scurry, architectural modeller, and his English wife Bessie, née Preston. Educated at Ascot Vale State School, he joined his father's firm, Wardrop, Scurry & Co. After two years in the Senior Cadets and a year as a colour-sergeant in the militia he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 58th Infantry (Essendon Rifles) in May 1914.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force as a private on 19 July 1915, Scurry embarked in August with the 8th Reinforcements for the 7th Battalion and joined his unit at Gallipoli on 11 November. He was promoted lance corporal on 4 December. Once he was satisfied that rumours of an evacuation from Gallipoli were sound, he began to wonder what would happen to the troops in the boats and on the piers once the Turks realized what was happening. He wrote later 'It occurred to me that if we could leave our rifles firing we might get away more surely', and added, 'At that time I don't think anybody dreamed that we would all get away'.

Scurry began experimenting with a self-firing rifle device based on the principle of sand trickling through an hour glass. If sand could be made to flow from above into a container attached to a rifle trigger the increased weight would finally release the trigger. His experiments with sand failed and he successfully substituted water, rigging up a device consisting of two ration tins (the top one full of water, with a small hole in it), plus pieces of string or wire and packing-case wood. After demonstrating his invention to Headquarters staff he was told that the rifles would be used—twelve on each battalion front, over eight battalion fronts in the final stage of the evacuation.

For three weeks before 19 December troops were quietly shipped out of Anzac until only about 10,000 men remained. The self-firing rifles were fixed in the trench lines on the night of 19-20 December and rear parties were detailed to fill the water tins at the last moment. Scurry remained with the 7th Battalion's rear party and he noted that 'all the way down to the beach it sounded like any other night', with sporadic rifle-fire breaking the silence. His 'pop-off' rifle had foiled the Turks and the evacuation had been successfully effected.

In recognition of his invention Scurry was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and was mentioned in dispatches. In Egypt, in January 1916, he was promoted sergeant and on 20 February was commissioned second lieutenant. Transferred to the 58th Battalion in March, he was promoted lieutenant in June and went to France that month. On the request of his brigade commander, Brigadier General H. E. Elliott, he formed the 15th Light Trench Mortar Battery as temporary captain from 5 July. Just a fortnight later he used his eight guns with considerable effect during the battle of Fromelles. He commanded the battery until he was wounded at Petillon on 3 September while examining a new type of fuse on an unexploded German bomb. The device blew up, injuring him in the chest and face and shattering his right index finger which was later amputated. Fragments of metal blinded his right eye and he was evacuated to England. Elliott wrote at the time 'He was the best and most enthusiastic officer in my brigade, without exception'. For his work with the battery Scurry was awarded the Military Cross and confirmed as captain in December. In June 1917 he was sent to the 1st Anzac Corps School at Aveluy, France, as an instructor and from May 1918 was its chief instructor. Between courses he chose to return to the front line. In late 1918 at Loos Wood, near Bray, when he found a platoon whose officers had been lost he led it through the fighting.

Arriving back in Melbourne in May 1919, Scurry rejoined his father's firm and on 29 January 1920, at St John's Catholic Church, Clifton Hill, married Doris Agatha Barry, an Australian Army nurse who had served in France. In September the vision in Scurry's left eye failed and in 1923 his poor sight forced him to give up his work as an architectural modeller. He then became an orchardist at Silvan but eventually had to give up all exertion to preserve the 15 per cent vision he had left. In World War II he served as a captain, then a major, in the 17th Garrison Battalion and was a commandant at Tatura Internment Camp. After the war he lived quietly at Croydon where, survived by his wife (d.1967) and four daughters, he died of coronary occlusion on 28 December 1963; he was buried in Lilydale cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £104,476.

Slightly built, with brown curly hair and an open face, Bill Scurry was an upright, gentle, sincere man with an unfailing sense of humour and a gift for spinning yarns. Despite chronic pain from the shrapnel fragments which were never removed from his right eye, he remained buoyant and optimistic throughout his life.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1924)
  • A. Dean and E. W. Gutteridge, The Seventh Battalion, A.I.F. (Melb, 1933)
  • London Gazette, 20 June, 11 July, 29 Dec 1916
  • Reveille (Sydney), Dec 1932, Oct 1934, Feb 1943
  • Mufti, 1 Feb 1964
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1932
  • Sun (Melbourne), 4 Dec 1945, 30 Dec 1963
  • Australasian Post, 6 June 1963
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Dec 1963
  • private information.

Citation details

Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Scurry, William Charles (1895–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scurry-william-charles-8376/text14701, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William Charles Scurry (1895-1963), by unknown photographer, c1919

William Charles Scurry (1895-1963), by unknown photographer, c1919

Australian War Memorial, P03143.001