Equal in Death

The disposition of the 5th Australian Division and 61st Division units involved in the attack at Fromelles of 19 July 1916 had the 5th Australian Division’s 8th Brigade on the left flank, the 14th Brigade (NSW) in the centre and 15th Brigade (Vic) on the Australian right and adjoining the 61st Division’s 184th Brigade opposite the Sugar Loaf, the 183rd Brigade in the centre and 182nd Brigade on the right flank.  Each Brigade had two Battalions assigned as the assaulting units and two in reserve.  Each Brigade also had its Brigade units, including Field Companies, Machine Gun Companies and Trench Mortar Batteries and was supported by Divisional artillery.


Map showing the Division, Brigade and Battalion dispositions at the commencement of the Battle of Fromelles. Source: Fromelles, Patrick Lindsay.

The 5th Australian Division Battalions involved in the attack were (from north to south):
8th Brigade:
Assaulting battalions 32nd (WA) and 31st (Qld, Vic);
Reserve battalions: 29th (Vic) and 30th (NSW)
14th Brigade (NSW):
Assaulting battalions 53rd and 54th
Reserve battalions: 56th and 55th
15th Brigade (Vic):
Assaulting battalions 59th and 60th
Reserve battalions: 57th and 58th

Photo: The body of an Australian soldier killed in the German 2nd line [AWM1566]

This photo has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian War Memorial

Photo: Pheasant Wood prior to archaeological dig. April 2008

Introducing: Lieutenant Robert David Burns

The Burns Family had a strong connection with the New South Wales Lancers, which later became the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade, and was commanded by Colonel (the Honourable Sir) James Burns from July 1903 to January 1907. Sir James had three sons who enlisted in the AIF.

Robert David Burns was born at Potts Point Sydney New South Wales in 1888.  Robert was the youngest of three sons of Sir James and Lady Mary Burns of Gowan Brae, Parramatta.  

Lieutenant Robert Burn enlisted at Holsworthy NSW in May 1915. His first commission was with the 4th Light Horse Brigade. Once in Egypt, Lieutenant Burns transferred to the 6th Light Horse Regiment with whom he served for a short time on Gallipoli in the closing stages of the campaign.

 Photo: Lieutenant Robert Burns standing to the right with fellow officers of the 6th Australian Light Horse outside a dugout at Gallipoli. [AWM P01309.013]

This photo have been reproduced with the permission of the Australian War Memorial

On returning to Egypt he was transferred to the 4th Battalion AIF.  He was a member of this battalion for less than a month before being transferred to the newly formed 56th Battalion on 16th February 1916. During February, after undergoing training Lieutenant Burns transferred to the 14th Australian Machine Gun Company attached to the 5th Division. On the 19th June, Lieutenant Burns embarked at Alexandria bound for France and disembarked at Marseilles. The soldiers of the 14th Australian Machine Gun Company then entrained for the northern battlefields and deployment at the Battle of Fromelles.

The next entry in Burn’s Service Record, available on line at the National Archives of Australia, was made on 20th July 1916 when he was reported missing ‘in the field’. Although only reported as missing, Lieutenant Burns’ personal effects were returned to his father who was staying at The Hermitage, Residential Hotel, Maidenhead Bridge, Taplow, England in November 1916. Robert’s father Sir James Burns, head of Burns Philp and Company, personally, and through his company agents in London, made many inquiries through the Red Cross to try to reveal his son’s fate. The family was officially notified of Lieutenant Robert Burns’ fate – Killed In Action – in March 1917, along with the return of his identity disc. Due to the prominence of the Burns Family in Australia, the Australian Governor General was also notified.

Evidence of Lieutenant Robert Burns’ fate can be seen in the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files  available on line at the Australian War Memorial. This includes the ‘German Death Voucher’ stating he was buried by the German Army at Pheasant Wood. With the knowledge that their son had been buried by the German Army, the Burns Family was motivated to locate the grave. Correspondence in The Red Cross file shows that the family appointed a representative from the Burns Philp & Co. London Office to pursue the investigation after the Armistice.

 10,Jan. 1919

The Australian Red Cross Society
36, Grosvenor Place. S.W.

Dear Sirs,
Colonel Sir James Burns, Sydney, has written to us about his son Lieut. Robert Burns, killed in the neighbourhood of Pozieres, France about two years ago. He has received through the Red Cross his disc punched:-

Burns R.D.
14 M.G.Co

We are very anxious to find out for Sir James Burns whether his grave and actual burial place is known. If so we shall be glad to receive full information. We shall be glad to know whether he was buried singly or in a common grave with others.

Thanking you in anticipation for any information you give us in connection with same.

Yours faithfully
Manager at London

Second letter written in response to acknowledgement by the Red Cross:

The Australian Red Cross Society
36, Grosvenor Place. S.W.


Dear Sir,
With further reference to your letter of 14th January in connection with the above, it occurs to us that possibly you may now be able to communicate direct with the German Authorities who might be able to give you a fuller report than is now available as to what actually happened to the above, and whether the Germans can give any information as to the spot where he was buried.

Sir James Burns at Sydney has written to the writer again especially with regard to same. Please note that no expense is to be considered in making every possible enquiry so that definite information can be obtained as to where Lieut. Burns is buried. We shall therefore be glad to hear from you whether you can now communicate with the German officials who have reports of these matters.

Yours faithfully
Manager at London

An official Australian War Graves inquiry in 1920 revealed that Mr Smith of Burns Philp & Co. was present when a grave in Fournes Cemetery was exhumed. Major G.L. Philips, Officer Commanding Australian Graves Services swore in an affidavit:
The records in Australia House [in London] show that a letter dated the 12th day of May 1919, was received from the Officer in Charge of Records, Administrative Headquarters, AIF, London, addressed to the Corps Burial Officer of the Australian War Graves Registration Section, France and relative to Lieutenant R.D. Burns, 14th Machine Gun Corps, killed in action on 20/7/1916. This letter referred to an inquiry which had been received asking for the place of burial of this officer, further records show that Lieutenant Burns was killed during the action at Fromelles on 20/7/1916. It was also stated that a communication was received from Germany giving information that there were large collective British Graves before Pheasant Wood and also a German Military Cemetery at Fournes. It was asked that a search be made and Australian Headquarters, London, be advised of the result. A digest of these facts was forwarded to Major Allen, then inspector of the AIF Graves Section in France, and instructions were given that a search be made.

Another affidavit from Major Allen was presented to the inquiry:
Before any question of the exhumation of Lieutenant Burns’ body arose, I made an exhaustive search all around Fromelles, Pheasant Wood and a portion of Fournes. I traced where a cross had been removed, the inscription giving the exact date of death, and I was informed a British Officer had been ‘lifted’ by the Germans and removed but no one knew where, and after a further search I located this cross in Fournes Cemetery, the only cross of its kind with the date and the word ‘Fromelles’ on the cross.

Records from the inquiry go on to reveal that when this grave was exhumed five or six bodies were found but they were all identified as soldiers of the British army from their clothing and no trace of Australian remains.

Rank and family connections did not stop Lieutenant Robert Burns joining the list of the missing soldiers after the disastrous Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916.

In May 2008 another excavation of a mass grave took place in Pheasant Wood Fromelles and this project has revealed evidence of the presence of a large number of Commonwealth soldiers. The final chapter may soon be written on the final resting place of an original Anzac of the Great War.

Lieutenant Robert Burns is only one of 173 Australian soldiers from the 5th Division AIF listed amongst the missing at Fromelles awaiting a dignified burial and peaceful final resting place.

Fallen comrades from the 5th Division AIF were interred in individual graves by the Imperial War Graves Commission. These soldiers deserve no less from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and from the Australian Government whose call to duty – to defend The Empire – they answered over 90 years ago, when they volunteered for service to their country.


Photo: Sailly-sur-la-Lys Cemetery [Australian War Graves Photographic Archive]

FFFAIF Policy Statement

The Families and Friends of the First AIF believes that the Australian Government through the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs should commit the to re-burial of the “missing of Fromelles” with individual graves and headstones in a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Pheasant Wood after DNA testing.



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