Book layout for Lilydale RSL.
A week before he was due to go overseas with the 21st Battalion in 1915, nineteen year old Private James Drummond Burns of Lilydale sat down and wrote a poem entitled ‘For England’ for his old school magazine ‘The Scotch Collegian’. It was a poem that summed up the reasons why he enlisted and would let everyone know, in an emotive way, what he saw as the important rationale for why Australia needed to be in the war.
For many the poem would accurately express just how they felt about the conflict and about imperial identity. Notable Australian author Hal Porter claimed it ‘declared with intensity, the attitude held by hundreds of other selfless young men not articulate enough to declare, except by action, their fervent beliefs’.
The poem’s author had come from a family of Presbyterian ministers who had forged a strong reputation for selfless community service. James himself was a talented and impressive young man who had achieved much as a student at Scotch College and had endeared himself to all who knew him.
But when this young man with so much talent and potential was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the trenches at Gallipoli, it gave his poem an added weight of importance and meaning and forced upon it a strong message of duty and sacrifice. It would go on to be published and re-published hundreds of times across Australia and the Empire and be used as a recruiting tool in two world wars.
His death would cast a dark shadow over his family and friends but to others he became the symbol of a ‘school boy martyr’ for a noble cause and Australia’s answer to Rupert Brooke. In the end what J D Burns gave us was the most well received and widely read piece of Australian war verse to ever be written.