Immigrants enlist for war duty

BRAVE MEN: Hugh Kerr Burns (back row, fourth from left) enlisted in October 1916, the day after he turned 18.
BRAVE MEN: Hugh Kerr Burns (back row, fourth from left) enlisted in October 1916, the day after he turned 18.

MANY of the young men who volunteered for service in the First World War were newly arrived immigrants from Britain.

One of these was Hugh Kerr Burns, known to his friends as Scotty, who enlisted on October 18, 1916 while working as a farmer at Binna Burra.

He was 18 years of age and had followed his two older brothers, John and James, to Australia.

They were from Lanarkshire, Scotland and their parents were George Waddell and Janet Burns (nee Kerr).

At the time of his enlistment Hugh was working as a farmer at Binna Burra, near Bangalow.

With little or no training in Australia, the new recruits were sent to England 


It is possible that he worked for Robert Allison Phillips, whose son (Scotty's friend) Percy Wenham Phillips had enlisted in 1915.

At least one of Hugh's brothers is also thought to have enlisted.

Family legend states that Hugh enlisted with Percy Phillips and it seems likely he tried to enlist in 1915 but was rejected, as he would have only been 17.

He enlisted one day after his 18th birthday!

Hugh Burns initially joined the 4 Pioneer Battalion as part of the 8th Reinforcements, which sailed from Sydney on November 25, 1916.

This battalion was formed in Egypt in March 1916 and was under the direct command of divisional headquarters.

The 8th Reinforcements consisted mainly of Queenslanders, so it is probable that Hugh enlisted in Brisbane.

With little or no training in Australia, the new recruits were sent to England.

The accompanying photograph shows Hugh with some members of the 4 Pioneers. It was taken by Fred Wright, a photographer from the historic town of Andover, just north of Southampton.

Possibly it was here their training was completed, prior to being sent to France. At that time, the Ministry of Defence was the largest employer in Andover and a large R.A.F. Airfield and staff college were later built there.

Hugh became a gunner with the 2nd Divisional Trench Mortar (Artillery) Battery and partcipated in many major battles.

He returned to Australia on July 1, 1919. On his return, he went to Greta to work in a coal mine.

This may seem a little different to his previous occupation of farming but his father was a coal miner in Scotland and possibly other members of his family were coal miners, too.

When he returned to the Northern Rivers, Hugh worked as a winch-man at Broadwater Sugar Mill. He also worked at various sugar cane properties on the Richmond and Clarence Rivers. It was on one of these properties he met his wife, Elsie Jane Lattimer.

Hugh and Elsie were married in 1935 and soon afterwards he joined the tick staff.

This was a more secure job and by that time he was nearly 40 and no doubt wanted more security.

His daughter Heather Newby tells us over the years, Hugh and his growing family moved to various centres on the North Coast, including Coutts Crossing and Evans Head.

For some years, he manned the tick gate at Whiporie and then at Woodburn. This was a responsible job as the Northern Rivers was a quarantine area and the red-water tick menace was real.

An outbreak could decimate valuable dairy herds and ruin a major industry.

Hugh and his wife retired to Evans Head and it was there he died on October 26, 1970, aged 72. His wife Elsie died in 1987. Both are buried at Evans Head.

Topics:  anzac-centenary world war 1 ww1

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