A month after his 26th birthday, Tambo station-hand William Burney joined the Australian war effort.
The unmarried indigenous man enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 9 August 1915 following a routine medical examination in Brisbane.
Records show the young man was 5ft 10.5 inches and 145lbs and listed his brother, J. Burney of Listowel Downs, Blackall, as next of kin.
His information has been unearthed from the National Archives of Australia following a request from his granddaughter, Mrs Valerie Gruenberg, of Russell Island. Her great uncle, George Combo, also served in World War I.
William served with the 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment, 12th Reinforcement and was involved in campaigns in the Middle East. His regiment was made up entirely of soldiers from Queensland.
William was one of an estimated 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who volunteered to serve in World War I, despite the Defence Act of 1903 prohibiting enlistment. They were forced to conceal their heritage until the Act was revised in 1917 following heavy losses on the Western Front.
During this period in Australian history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men endured low pay and poor living conditions, and were denied the vote. But once they enlisted, they received equal pay (6 shillings a day for an overseas posting).
William embarked on the S.S. Hawkes Bay in Sydney on 21 October 1915, and arrived in Egypt about 6 weeks later.
Private Burney attended the AIF’s School of Instruction in Zeitoun, north of Cairo, on 24 June 2016 and left three weeks later.
According to the Australian War Memorial: “The 5th Light Horse played a defensive role for most of the campaign but was involved in several minor attacks.”
William and his fellow soldiers took part in long-range patrols and raids around the Sinai Peninsula, Palestine and Jordan.
When Turkey surrendered in 1918 the 5th Light Horse Regiment helped to quell the Egyptian revolt in early 1919.
William’s records noted a short stay in hospital on 3 June 1919 but three weeks later he headed home with the rest of his regiment on board the HT Madras from Kantara.
He was discharged from the AIF in September 1919.
Dianne McKean – QANZAC100 Team