James Drummond BURNS
James Burns was born on 18 June 1895 at Braeside, Austin Street, Newtown, Victoria. His parents were Reverend Hugh McLeod and Mary Edith (née Lyall) Burns. He attended Scotch from 1911 to 1914. In 1913 and 1914 J.D. Burns was editor of The Scotch Collegian. In 1913 he was a Prefect. In 1914 he was a member of the 1st VIII and School Vice-Captain. Burns left a lasting legacy to the school. He was one of the 1914 Prefects who proposed successfully that “Patriae” be added to Scotch’s existing motto Deo et Literis to become the modern Deo Patriae Litteris. He also wrote the Boating Song, which is still sung at Scotch College today.
James was a student when he enlisted on 2 February 1915 at Lilydale, Victoria. He served in the 21st Battalion with the rank of Corporal. His Regimental Number was 805.
James died on 18 September 1915 at Gallipoli, Turkey. He was 20 years of age.
‘J.D.’ or Jim Burns was one of the most famous Scotch Collegians who served in World War I. His poem, ‘For England’, published in The Scotch Collegian in May 1915 and later in newspapers, became famous throughout the empire (see text below). The poem was set to music by L.A. Adamson, the distinguished headmaster of Wesley College. Wesley boys sang this song during the war, as did Scotch boys. Adamson wrote that ‘For England’ ‘splendidly expresses the feelings of the Australian Public School boy as regards the Great War.’ J.D. would never see England. Burns was with his battalion on the British transport ship HMT Southland when a German submarine torpedoed it on 2 September 1915. He was praised for helping to maintain morale and order during and after the evacuation of the ship. He was in the front line on Gallipoli by 18 September, when Turkish troops suddenly opened fired on the battalion’s trenches. In the words of Lieutenant A.R. (Rowan) Macneil, a fellow old Scotch Collegian and member of the 21st Battalion, Burns’ ‘high sense of duty would not let him sit tight, and he told his section he thought it was his duty to reply to the hostile fire.’ On trying to fire back Burns received a fatal bullet wound to the head. He was reportedly the battalion’s first fatality – more than 870 would follow during the war.
In a letter that Macneil wrote to the editor of The Scotch Collegian the following day, he said J.D. ‘was as highly respected in his battalion by all ranks as he was at school’. He concluded that: ‘In closing, there is no need for me to say that J.D.’s death comes as a blow to us old Scotch Boys over here at present, but we know he could not have died for a better cause.’ Burns’ continuing attachment to Scotch was apparent in the fact that his personal effects at his death included ‘college badges’.
The 21st Battalion chaplain was a Scottish Presbyterian, Reverend McRae Stewart, who conducted Burns’ funeral. He recorded that ‘Only the day before he fell I went through to D Company’s trenches and had a talk with him while he was standing at his post on duty.’ He wrote to J.D.’s father telling him how he and James had often talked together in the desert of Egypt, at the Scots Church in Cairo or in the lines at Gallipoli.
‘I…used to look’, Stewart wrote, ‘for his serious face and great brown eyes at our communion services. I loved and trusted him and how much I leaned on him. It is not easy for a chaplain to get in touch with his lads. The men of whom he was appointed leader knew that when time of stress came he would be in front of them; the officers of his company knew it too. It is not only as a soldier that they speak of him with honour; they felt the quiet force of his character. Men not given to speaking of these things, have told me that he gave them a new conception of what a young Christian life could be.’ An eyewitness account of Burns’ funeral appeared in the 1916 Collegian: ‘At about 9 o'clock I was relieved from duty to attend his funeral, which was of the saddest and most impressive character. The cemetery is about two miles from here, almost right down to the beach, and when I arrived there, I found that the battalion pioneers had the grave almost dug. A few minutes later the Chaplain arrived and soon after that the Red Cross men, bearing the body on a stretcher. The moon was very bright, and the stars were shining bravely when all that remained of poor Jimmy was committed to the soil. The burial service was short and very simple- no "Last Post” or volley, or anything of that kind – (if there had been, I think the battalion pioneers would have been very busy next morning), and the Chaplain read the service with the aid of a pocket electric torch. He was buried as he had died - in his uniform - "with his martial cloak around him" with only a blanket between his face and mother earth. He lies snugly entrenched among his peers, with his head toward the sea, whose surf can be distinctly heard, his face to the stars, and his feet to the trenches, so that if he were to stand up straight, he would still be facing the enemy. This, I think, is as he'd long to be.’
A few days after news of Burns’ death arrived at Scotch, the boys sang ‘For England’ at the annual Foundation Day concert. It was very moving. The Principal of Scotch, W.S. Littlejohn, later said of Burns: We had visions for him of a brilliant future, a time when his pen would be an inspiration to a young country struggling into nationhood. But it was not to be, for he was called to the higher service. He gave his life for us…Burns indeed exemplified the loss of great talent that the war represented for Australia.
Reverend McRae Stewart survived Gallipoli, and just after the Australians had been evacuated in December 1915 he wrote: ‘…before leaving the Peninsula, I went down to the cemetery at the foot of Shrapnel Valley to look for the last time at the resting place of the lads who had fallen. This was one of the hardest things for us who came away, taking leave of the spots where our comrades slept on alien sod…As I stood at Jim’s grave and re-read, for at least the twentieth time, the simple inscription at the head of it, I felt like crying out aloud in protest against what seemed to be a wanton waste of a rich and beautiful young life. But that was only for a moment. I knew the sorrow of this thing was world-old, that the bitterness had been taken out of it by the Christ who said: ‘He that loseth his life shall find it’ and found His Own Holy Life again by way of Gethsemane and Calvary. Life is lived nobly and richly, not in months and years, but in moments, impulses, impressions. It is the quality of the influence which it exerts that fixes the value of a life and, when that is applied to Jim one finds that his resting place is marked not by a broken pillar but by a cross.’
Soon after his death, a booklet was published ‘in memoriam’ of James Burns. Published in 1916, it was entitled ‘In the Dawning of the Day’ and included tributes, poems and a photograph (reproduced below). In 1918 Old Collegians endowed an annual prize in his memory for original contributions to the Scotch Collegian.
James Burns is buried in the Shrapnel Valley Cemetery (Plot II, Row D, Grave No. 37), Anzac, Gallipoli.
Photographs and Documents:
'In the Dawning of the Day'
J.D. Burns’ headstone at Shrapnel Valley Cemetery. The Latin inscription means: ‘A man who died young far away but a soldier and for his country.’ (Donor: Mrs Sally McKenzie)
- Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour
- Legge, Kate, ‘Remembering our Soldier Boy’, The Australian newspaper, 14 April 2014
- Mishura Scotch database
- National Archives of Australia: NAA B2455, BURNS JD
- Scotch College Archives
- Scotch Collegian, 1915 and 1916