There was no extraordinary hero medal for Private Edward Leonard Burley, nor was there a welcome home banner. He was wounded at Amiens on 8 August 1918 and died two days later, and while we do not have his post war thoughts and feelings, we know that he was a compassionate young man who joined the war for definite reasons. He believed it was his duty to protect the Empire. He enlisted early in the war and his patriotism never wavered. He remained committed to the cause throughout his war service. This biography is based on the letters he sent to his sister, Fanny Isabelle Keft, and on his war record.
When England declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Australia was also at war. ‘Cultural and emotional’ ties to the motherland were strong. History was being made and ‘the land was full of visions of glory’. Patriotic fervour was widespread and Australia was ready to defend King and country.
Anti-German sentiment surfaced quickly and motivated men to enlist, as did casualties, public opinion, and that the army paid well, but most of the early volunteers were enticed by a ‘sense of adventure’. Then there were the men who enlisted ‘to do their duty’. Edward Leonard Burley was one of those men. He was ‘sorry to leave’ his family ‘yet glad’ that there was a ‘chance of striking a blow against German tyranny’.
Len, as he was known, enlisted on 29 December 1915 at Kempsey, New South Wales, aged 25 years. He was a cheerful and optimistic fellow. A railway storeman, who had a good writing hand and loved the theatre, he had no burning ambition other than to do what he thought was right. Amongst his final possessions were two bibles. Growing up in the strict doctrine of the Methodist religion was very much part of his sense of duty. The youngest of seven children, Len was single, but a man of family. His mother had long since died, and while close to all his siblings, he was closest to his sister Fanny Isabelle, known as Iss. To her he wrote, ‘It was twice as hard to leave you Iss as any of the others because we were mates from childhood.’
Len’s early training was spent at Casula, New South Wales and then at Broadmeadows, Victoria amidst patriotic community support before the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917 divided the nation so violently with ‘high levels’ of public hostility. ‘We had a great march through the town with bands playing, crowds cheering, flags waving and so forth.’ But Len was eager. In his first letter to Iss he indicated his desire to get on with it, ‘they told us we could get away in 6 weeks by joining the infantry so I threw up the artillery, but I can transfer again if I want to.’ He didn’t, and chose the front line of defence instead.
While waiting for his overseas transfer, Len indulged in a favourite pleasure, the theatre. There he saw a display honouring the death of Nurse Cavell with the inscription: ‘This will be avenged’. Public opinion was strong, as was Len’s and he intended to ‘stick it out’. On 4 May 1916, he was finally on his way on the HMAT Port Lincoln A17 from Melbourne as part of the 60th Infantry Battalion, 2nd Reinforcement. With a patriotic heart, before he left, he wrote to Iss with a message for her husband, ‘Tell Charley not to think of enlisting while so many able bodied single men fill up the city streets, hotels and billiard rooms. You see them here playing billiards with wounded returned soldiers. They must have no hearts at all.’
By December 1915, the unsuccessful Gallipoli Campaign was over. In July 1916 the Allies launched a large-scale offensive ‘astride’ the Somme River at the Western Front. After two ‘miserable’ months of training in Egypt, and then to England and France where Len had a few days leave, he marched out to the Somme on 30 September 1916 with the 57th Battalion of the 5th Division. The unit war diaries give a detailed account of life at The Front – foot inspections, the mud, the cold, digging trenches, strengthening wire, bombardment, artillery barrage, gassing, dangerous night patrols in No Man’s Land, aircraft activity, the death and the wounded. Len wrote that he was ‘getting quite used to it’ and felt that he had ‘found a settled place at last with C Company of the 57th Battalion’.
The following month he was admitted to the 1st Australian General Hospital with a leg wound – ‘a small affair’ he wrote light-heartedly. Soon after, he was back in hospital with the mumps. During that time, and the following month, he wrote a war diary. It reads almost the same as the official unit war diaries – a record of his daily routine carrying grenades, laying cables, digging trenches, and foot baths. He says that the ‘mud-slinging’ is hard and his ‘hands have suffered’, and that ‘three shells fell quite close killing 29 and wounding 4’, after which he says, ‘ditto, ditto’ for every day of the last week. In comparison, his letters home talk about the weather, the family, his dream of owning land, and his appreciation of the parcels and mail he received. These he ‘valued most highly’, not only from his family but from the ‘patriotic workers knitting socks and raising money’. It kept his spirits high. Always positive, he told Iss that they ‘are very fortunate though as far as casualties are concerned. The 57th is always termed the lucky Battalion of the Brigade.’
The 57th Battalion went on to defend the second Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917. In September, Len had his last leave – ten ‘glorious days’ in England. He enjoyed the historic castles, the lovely parks and the ‘grand’ weather. He even had time to see a ‘few decent plays’. ‘Wouldn’t be me if I didn’t’, he wrote. And then it was back to defend the Ypres sector in Belgium, attacking the German stronghold at Polygon Wood.
With the collapse of Russia in October 1917 the expected German offensive came in late March 1918. The 57th Battalion was part of the counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux in April. On the 1st May Len wrote, ‘We have been having rather exciting times lately but everything in the garden is lovely with me’. Then came the Allied offensive at Amiens on 8 August 1918.The Battle of Amiens cost Australia 6,000 casualties. Len was one of them. Of the 417,000 Australian men who enlisted 330,000 served overseas with casualties of 60,000. As Jobson states, ‘what is clear, is the significant per capita commitment in human resources…made by Australia when compared to the other allies’.
Private Hopgood’s witness statement dated 10 August 1918 gives an account of when Len was wounded in action.
‘Burley was my mate, a S/B. in XI pl. His No. began with 19 and he came from Sydney. Near Villers-Bretonneux on August 8th we went over the top and Burley was wounded whilst bandaging up the wounds of some men who had fallen. He was shot through the groin by m.g. fire and fell. I heard him say, ‘I’ve got one’. He then got up and managed to walk back as far as the trench. I was not more than a yard from him when he was hit. Later I heard he died of his wounds at the CCS. My mate was a grand fellow and was much missed by all who knew him.’
From October 1916 to August 1918 Len spent 22 months overseas, 12½ months in the field, 7½ months out of the field training and resting, and 2 months sick with 18 days’ leave. He entered the war a private and died a private and was wounded while on stretcher-bearer duty helping another soldier. He remained committed and patriotic throughout. The last letter Len wrote to his sister, Iss, was never opened. It arrived after he died.
Edward Leonard Burley believed in the cause and died for it. He received the three standard WW1 campaign medals, affectionately known as, ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’ – the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, respectively. He is buried at the Vignacourt British Cemetery.
‘Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files’, Australian Red Cross Society, 1914-1918,
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Australian War Memorial, P08668.001, Edward Leonard Burley, Photograph Collection.
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Obern, Gwennyth, Memorial Plaque, 2015. Personal Collection.
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