Chinese–Australian Billy Sing, known as the ‘Gallipoli Sniper’, became, after a few short months at Gallipoli, the Allies’ greatest sniper and possibly the most efficient sniper in history. He has the dubious honour of reputedly claiming more targets than any other foot soldier in history. During the Gallipoli campaign, writer Ion Idriess, acting as Billy’s ‘spotter’, described him as ‘a little chap, very dark, with a jet black moustache and goatee beard. A picturesque looking mankiller. He is the crack shot of the Anzacs.’
Private Frank Reed, a fellow soldier, states that Sing operated so close to the Turkish lines that enemy artillery rarely troubled him. His comrades left three particular enemy positions to his attention: a trench at 350 yards from his post, a communication sap at 500 yards and a track in a gully at 1,000 yards. According to Reed: ‘Every time Billy Sing felt sorry for the poor Turks, he remembered how their snipers picked off the Australian officers in the early days of the landing, and he hardened his heart. But he never fired at a stretcher-bearer or any of the soldiers who were trying to rescue wounded Turks.’
Billy Sing died from the effects of mustard gas poisoning in later life. Many soldiers returned to the front line after ‘recovering’ from the effects of gas, and those that survived the war paid a terrible price later in life. Almost all soldiers who were gassed during World War One died in their thirties, forties and early fifties. Few lived to enjoy the privilege and luxury of an old age. Death certificates reveal they frequently endured painful deaths, having suffered irreparable damage to their throats and respiratory systems.
Billy Sing’s reputation as a crack sniper was once known worldwide. But by the time he died in 1943, alone and almost penniless, he was largely forgotten. Billy was born in 1886 in Clermont, Queensland, to a Chinese father from Shanghai and an English mother. This son of a Chinese immigrant rose above the racist attitudes and laws of the day. He was a likeable young man admired for his sporting prowess.
From an early age it became clear that Billy was particularly skilled with the rifle. While still a boy, so the story went, he could shoot the tail off a piglet at twenty-five paces with a .22 rifle. At the age of fifteen Billy worked as a station hand, ringer and horse drover, adding to the acquired bush skills of his childhood, which also included stalking and hunting. He further honed his marksman’s skills at the Clermont Rifle Club, and later at the rifle club in Proserpine, and regularly claimed prizes at both clubs. He was also an excellent cricketer.
Billy Sing was in his prime when he journeyed to Brisbane in 1914 to join the 5th Light Horse Regiment. By April 1915, his regiment was training in Egypt when the first ANZACs waded ashore at Anzac Cove on 25 April, but Billy was only a few weeks behind. Leaving their horses behind, Billy’s regiment landed at Anzac Cove in May 1915 as Infantry troops.
Trooper 355 Billy Sing became ‘probably the most dangerous sniper in any army throughout the war’, according to writer Ion Idriess. The famous Australian author sailed to war on the same ship as Billy. Ion Idriess was also an experienced bushman in his own right. He frequently served as Billy’s ‘spotter’ at Gallipoli.
Eventually, a decorated Turkish sniper was brought to Gallipoli to try and stop Billy. Named by the Allies ‘Abdul the Terrible’, he studied methodically the Australian’s sniping techniques, which by now were accounting for to up to nine victims a day. Having finally located Sing’s specially constructed ‘possie’ or hide, Abdul prepared to take down his prey.
The Turks were able to distinguish Sing’s sniping from that of other ANZAC soldiers, and only reports of incidents believed to be Sing’s work were passed on to Abdul. Through analysis of the victims’ actions and wounds, Abdul concluded that Sing’s position was at Chatham’s Post.
After several days, Sing’s spotter pointed out a potential target. Billy took aim, only to find the target—Abdul—also aiming in his direction. But Billy fired first, and Abdul was shot between the eyes. Abdul was one of Sing’s 150 confirmed Gallipoli victims, though he is believed to have taken many more. Sing’s exploits not only saved many Allied lives, but his work also served as valuable propaganda.
In February 1916, Billy Sing was Mentioned in Despatches by General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander of the Allied Forces, and later was awarded the DCM —Distinguished Conduct Medal, a decoration for gallantry only second to the Victoria Cross. By now Billy had come to the attention of newspapers around the world—from Sydney to San Francisco.
Major Stephen Midgely estimated Sing’s tally at close to 300. Midgely brought him to the attention of General Birdwood, commander of the ANZACs, who in turn told Lord Kitchener that ‘if his troops could match the capacity of the Queensland sniper, the allied forces would soon be in Constantinople.’ Birdwood even joined Sing as his ‘spotter’ on one occasion, and so had the opportunity to witness at first hand his remarkable marksmanship .
It didn’t go all Billy Sing’s way, however. He was wounded in August 1915 when a Turkish sniper drew a bead on the telescope being used by his spotter. In the engagement Billy’s spotter was badly wounded and the same bullet finally came to rest in Billy’s shoulder. This was reportedly the only time that Sing was injured at Gallipoli. He was evacuated to Malta just weeks before the Allies withdrew from the Gallipoli peninsula.
He would not fare so well later on in the war. As the weather deteriorated, Billy succumbed to the effects of cold, wet weather and the appalling conditions in the trenches. Bouts of illness kept Billy in England for some time. Eventually, in January 1917, Billy was sent to the Western Front with the 31st Australian Infantry Battalion. Soon after arriving, he was wounded and sent back to England to recuperate. Billy wrote home, ‘We had an awful time in France this winter; it was the coldest they’ve had for years. It would break your heart to see the dead bodies lying around unburied.’
Following his discharge from hospital he was granted leave. Billy headed to Edinburgh where he had a whirlwind romance with a waitress named Elizabeth Stewart. They were married on 29 June 1917, but within a month Billy was back in the trenches again.
Private Sing led a patrol and succeeded in killing several German snipers at Polygon Wood in September 1917, for which he was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre early the following year. Billy was also recommended for the Military Medal, but for some reason never received it. Over time he contracted influenza, rheumatism, mumps, had been gassed, shot on two occasions and sustained shrapnel wounds to both legs and his back. Billy now spent much of his time in and out of hospitals.
The effects of mustard gas caused Billy to suffer from respiratory disease (which would plague him for the rest of his life) and signalled the end of his military career. In July 1918 he was shipped home. Despite having been wounded, gassed and fallen seriously ill several times, inexplicably he was declared fit and able to work when discharged in Brisbane.
For a short time Billy was buoyed by an enthusiastic welcome in both Proserpine and later at Clermont, Queensland. But all the clamouring attention soon faded. Billy set out to become a sheep farmer, joining other soldiers on blocks donated to returned servicemen by the Federal Government.
But Billy’s land was of poor quality, like so many of the blocks given to soldiers in this benevolent but flawed Government scheme. Almost a third of the soldiers-turned-farmers ended up walking off their land, and Billy was one of them.
There is no evidence that Billy’s wife was ever part of this new life in Australia. Letters show that Billy applied for Elizabeth to have free passage from Britain to Australia, but for some reason this never seems to have eventuated. Other unconfirmed stories suggest that Elizabeth may have made the journey, but struggled with the transition from the green of Edinburgh to the dry Australian bush, and eventually returned to Scotland.
Though hampered by illness and his wounds, Billy Sing, failed sheep farmer, still had to make a living. He turned to gold prospecting and did well enough to go out on weekend drinking sprees with his mining mates. Along the way he got a reputation for heavy drinking and having a bad attitude. But his strong work ethic never deserted him.
When the gold ran out, Billy turned to labouring in Brisbane where he continued to work hard. However, he began complaining of heart, chest and back pains. On 19 May 1943, Billy was found dead in the bedroom of his Brisbane boarding house. He was aged 57. His only possessions amounted to a remote bush hut (worth around £20) situated on a mining claim.The sum of five shillings was also found in his room, but there was no sign of his war medals. His employers owed him about £6 in wages.
As his humble grave marker in the Lutwyche War Cemetery weathered away, Billy Sing was all but forgotten. Fifty years after his death a newspaper article revived interest in ‘this ace Australian sniper’. A plaque was erected on the site where he died, and in 1995 a statue of Billy Sing was unveiled with full military honours in his hometown of Clermont.
In Iraq in 2004, Australian Army snipers named their Baghdad post the ‘Billy Sing Bar & Grill’. Last year, on the 66th anniversary of his death, wreaths were laid at Billy Sing’s grave during a ceremony attended by various dignitaries, including the Chinese Consul-General.
You can read more about Billy Sing here: https://www.awm.gov.au/education/schools/resources/billy-sing/
(photos courtesy Australian War Memorial, Canberra; also our thanks to Len Thompson for bringing Billy Sing’s story to our attention; to Wikipedia; Outdoor magazine, archives of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra and the Secretary, Vietnam Veterans’ MC, Queensland, Australia — ed.)