Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sing, William Edward (Billy) (1886–1943)

by Barry McGowan

This article was published online in 2020

William Edward (Billy) Sing (1886–1943), soldier and bushman, was born on 2 March 1886 at Clermont, Queensland, son of John Sing, drover and later market gardener, born at Shanghai, China, and his English-born wife Mary Ann, née Pugh, a nurse. Brought up on the family farm, Billy was educated at Bathampton Provisional School. In an atmosphere of considerable anti-Chinese feeling, he sought employment where he could, working as a shooter, horseman, station hand, and musterer. In 1910 he moved to Proserpine, where he found a job as a cane cutter. He was a talented cricketer and athlete, and a member of the Proserpine Rifle Club.

When World War I broke out, Sing enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at Bowen on 26 October 1914. Described as five feet five inches (165 cm) tall, weighing 141 pounds (70 kg), and of dark complexion, he joined the 5th Light Horse Regiment and embarked on the Persic for Egypt in December, proceeding to Gallipoli in May 1915.

Early in the campaign Turkish snipers took a heavy toll on the lives of the Australians and New Zealanders, but their own concealed marksmen soon responded with equal effect. Sing’s comrades gave him the nickname ‘murderer’ or ‘assassin’ for his skill as a sniper. By the time Ion Idriess, later an author of repute, arrived at Gallipoli in August 1915, Sing had already shot 105 Turkish soldiers. Acting for a time as Sing’s spotter, Idriess portrayed him as ‘a picturesque looking mankiller … [who] does nothing but sniping’ (1938, 43). Sing’s fame soon spread and his skill as a marksman was praised in the Australian, British, and American press. The Turkish army targeted him with their own snipers, one of whom became known as ‘Abdul the Terrible.’ But in September it was Sing who killed Abdul. By October 1915 his tally was 201 enemy kills. Lieutenant General Sir William (Baron) Birdwood praised his ‘vigilance, resource and good shooting’ (NAA B2455). His squadron commander Major Stephen Midgley believed that the number Sing killed was closer to 300. Sing was hospitalised at Malta for severe rheumatism in November, rejoining his unit in Egypt in January 1916. For his efforts at Gallipoli he had been mentioned in despatches (1915) and awarded (1916) the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry … no risk being too great for him to take’ (NAA B2455).

Sing was transferred to the 31st Battalion in July 1916, proceeding to France in December. He suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in March 1917, and was hospitalised in England. On 29 June that year he married Elizabeth Addeson Stewart, a waitress, in Edinburgh in a United Free Church of Scotland service. Rejoining his unit in August, he led a patrol the next month that eliminated German snipers at Polygon Wood, near Ypres, Belgium. Birdwood again commended him in his routine orders. His commanding officer recommended him for the Military Medal but, instead, he was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre (1918), for his ‘dash and success,’ and uncanny ‘skill in picking out and dealing with snipers’ (Hamilton 2008, 282).

Suffering from the effects of a gas attack and his previous wounds, Sing had been hospitalised in November 1917. Returning to the front the same month, he was again wounded and evacuated. Assigned to submarine guard duty, he sailed to Australia on leave in August 1918 aboard the troopship Boonah. He was welcomed as a hero. At Proserpine many speeches were made at the shire hall, and he responded, thanking everyone, and unfurled the War Loans flag. He was presented with a purse of sovereigns from well-wishers. In November he was discharged from the AIF.

Anticipating the arrival of his wife from England, in May 1919 Sing selected a block near Clermont under the soldier settlement scheme. The sheep-grazing venture soon failed and there is no record that Elizabeth ever joined him. He then worked, with some success, as a goldminer on the Miclere goldfield and helped form a miner’s association. A staunch member of the Australian Workers’ Union, he had assisted actively in the election campaigns of the State parliamentarians Frank Bulcock and Tom Foley.

In common with many returned soldiers, Sing was plagued by ill-health. He drank heavily, and his financial situation was precarious. In 1942 he moved to Brisbane. Alone and in poverty, he died of a ruptured aorta on 19 May 1943, in a boarding house at West End. He lay in an unmarked grave at Lutwyche cemetery until 1993, when a marker was placed on it. A plaque was erected the same year at the site of his death. On 19 May 2015 a memorial service was held for him at the cemetery, and a memorial in the form of a statue was commissioned by Sing’s old regiment. Major General Darryl Low Choy stated that the ceremony was to ‘acknowledge and pay tribute to the bloke from the Queensland bush who enlisted against the odds, to go off to war, to serve his country, to distinguish himself on the battlefield on numerous occasions’ (van Vonderen 2015).

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Clyne, Jo, Richard Smith, and Ian Hodges. Chinese Anzacs. Canberra: Department of Veterans’ Affairs, 2015
  • Courtney, Robert. ‘The Deadly Career of Billy Sing.’ Wartime, issue 16 (2001): 18–21
  • Hamilton, John. Gallipoli Sniper: The Life of Billy Sing. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2008
  • Idriess, Ion L. The Desert Column. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938
  • National Archives of Australia. B2455, Sing, William Edward
  • van Vonderen, Jessica. ‘“Gallipoli Sniper” Billy Sing Remembered with Unveiling of Brisbane Cemetery Monument.’ Last modified 19 May 2015. Accessed 2 September 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-19/qld-sniper-billy-sing-honoured-with-cemetery-memorial/6481240. Copy held on ADB file
  • Worker (Brisbane). ‘Last Call for Old A.W.U. Warrior.’ 24 May 1943, 9.

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Citation details

Barry McGowan, 'Sing, William Edward (Billy) (1886–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sing-william-edward-billy-16348/text36048, published online 2020, accessed online 31 May 2020.

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