Billy Sing and the Gallipoli Snipers: Australians in World War I

Running time
5 min 53 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

Hear the story of successful marksmen trained as snipers at Gallipoli to protect the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force during World War I.


From the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign, Turkish snipers posed a deadly threat to Allied troops. There were numerous skilled marksmen among the Turkish troops. Many had grown up in rural areas, including in the Gallipoli area. For all who served, it quickly became clear that danger lurked not only at the front line but also in the rear areas. Snipers could take a shot at men on the beach, in the gullies and in many places when they had to move across open ground on Gallipoli. They were shot by an unseen enemy while going about their daily activities. Writer Ion Idriess recalled seeing a young man walking down a path carrying water, whistling as he walked. Suddenly, the man's water bottles flew into the air, and he crumpled to the ground; a victim of a sniper's bullet. Rank offered no protection. In fact, anyone identifiable as an officer would prove an attractive target. A number of senior officers were shot by snipers. Colonel Henry MacLaurin was a young officer commanding the 1st Infantry Brigade. A barrister in civilian life, he was educated at Sydney Grammar School and Sydney University. MacLaurin was killed by a sniper on the 27 April on the hill which would later bear his name. General Bridges, commander of the 1st Australian Division, made daily inspections of the frontline at Gallipoli and became a familiar figure among the men. On 15 May, while making his way through Monash Valley, he was warned of a particularly dangerous corner, which had claimed the lives of 5 men that day alone. Bridges dashed from one sheltered part of the track to another, but the sniper found his mark. The general was seriously wounded. He was treated and evacuated from the peninsula but died aboard the hospital ship Gascon, succumbing to blood loss and gangrene. New Zealand officer Major William Malone brought the sniper situation under control in Monash Valley. Malone sought out men who were shooting champions before the war. He selected M?ori Lieutenant Thomas ‘Hami’ Grace to lead a team of snipers. Their success immediately proved the value of the endeavour. Pairs of men worked together – an observer and a sniper. The work required excellent eyesight and intense concentration. The snipers did all they could to keep exposed tracks and the men moving between them safe, during the day at least. The rhythm of life on the peninsula was different for snipers. While other soldiers not in the frontline trenches might be put to work on fatigue duty, lugging water or other supplies from the beach up the ridge lines, or allocated to sentry duty, snipers and their observers sat still for hours at a time in their chosen position, watching and waiting for a target. Gallipoli was a noisy place. The sounds of artillery rifle and machine-gun fire, the occasional reconnaissance aircraft overhead and 1000s of men moving about echoed through the gullies and ridge lines. Amidst this din, the snipers had to maintain their focus on finding targets in the Turkish trenches. Private Billy Sing was the best-known Australian sniper. Born in Claremont in Queensland, Sing was one of an estimated 200 Australians of Chinese heritage who served with the Australian Imperial Force. Joining the AIF was not an easy task for those of non-European descent. The 1909 Defence Act exempted people not substantially of European origin or descent from service. The rule was not always enforced on enlistment, so some men like Billy Sing were able to enlist. Among the troops, Billy Sing became known by the nickname ‘Assassin’, and his shooting prowess earned him acclaim from senior commanders and the press alike. Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, the senior officer commanding the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, praised his vigilance, resource and good shooting, noting that he hoped Trooper Sing's example will be followed by other snipers. Estimates for the number of men he killed vary from 2 to 300. Billy Sing survived the Gallipoli Campaign, having earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal, and went on to serve on the Western Front with the 31st Battalion. At Polygon Wood in 1917, he earned distinction by leading a patrol through an intense bombardment to identify and eliminate enemy snipers. He was recommended for the Military Medal, the citation noting his ability was uncanny. Ultimately, he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre (war cross) again. In August 1918, Billy returned to Australia aboard HMT Boonah, and even on his way home, his keen eye and concentration skills were put to good use as he was given the duty of watching for enemy submarines. Having served through the war and being wounded in action 3 times, suffering shrapnel wounds to his legs and back, Billy was discharged at war's end in November 1918.

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