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Alexander BURNS

Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Fl Lieut 22y5m 16 Jul 1914 20 Apr 1917 - KA 2 & 7

Burns Family from Scotland    

Burns Brothers booklet

James and Alexander Burns were the fourth and fifth children and only sons of James Kerr and Helen Burns nèe Johnman. Their parents were born in Scotland and emigrated to Queensland with their infant first child in 1884 for health reasons. Having been employed by the Caledonian Railways, James Kerr Burns was quickly engaged by the Queensland Railways. He was rapidly promoted from Clerk to Stationmaster, serving at Albion and Rosewood, ultimately becoming Chief Traffic Inspector based at Roma Street Railway Headquarters. He was also Chairman of the Railway Institute. James Kerr Burns was highly respected and well liked by his staff who referred affectionately to him as ‘JK’.

James and Helen Burns had four daughters and two sons - Margaret, Jessie, Helen, James (Jamie), Alexander (Alec) and Annie (Queenie). From 1910, they lived at Indooroopilly in Lambert Road in a large Queenslander style home named Hazeldean. Education was valued so all the children were well educated and encouraged to develop their talents. Before her marriage, Helen Burns had attended the Royal School of Needlework in Edinburgh so she taught her skills to all her daughters. The family was very musical, forming their own quartet. The piano was in the drawing room which was referred to as ‘the music room’. Those who knew the Burns family well described them as ‘a brilliant family’. The Burns family made their contribution to the development of Queensland. The two sons enlisted in the Great War and their stories illustrate the impact of their wartime experiences on their own lives and those of their family at home in Brisbane, Queensland.

Flight-Lieutenant Alexander Burns (1893 - 1917)

Early life 

Alexander (Alec) Burns was born in February 1893 in Rosewood. He was educated at Rosewood State School and also received private tuition. While apprenticed to the Engineering Section at the Railway Workshops in Ipswich, he was a member of the crew which built the first rail motor in Queensland.  A photograph of this group is displayed at the Rosewood Railway Museum.

At an early age Alexander displayed great engineering talent. He took advantage of the concession provided by the Commissioner (Colonel C. Evans) by attending classes at the Technical College. Subsequently he took up a position as Draughtsman in the Engineering Department in the Brisbane Technical College. The Works Foreman at Ipswich and the Engineering Staff of the Technical College considered him a man with a bright future. Alexander Burns was very popular with all with whom he came in contact and was of an exceptionally bright disposition.


With his older brother on active service with the AIF at Gallipoli and the reports of the Australians at Anzac Cove, Alexander enlisted in Brisbane to serve abroad in July 1915. Successfully securing his commission, Alexander sailed from Sydney on HMAT Star of Victoria as 2nd Lieutenant, 16th Rifles, 15th Battalion on 31 March 1916 for Tel el-Kabir, Egypt (a training site for the AIF in WW1), arriving on 5 May.

After training exercises in Egypt, his unit embarked from Alexandria per British troopship Huntspill to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. As Adjutant, he was highly complimented by Brigadier-General Stirling who gave him a letter for the Brigadier-General of the Battalion to which he was attached. The letter stated that 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Burns was a very capable organiser, carrying out his routine orders with energy and tact and maintaining a good standard of discipline whilst acting in that role. He also stated that Lieutenant Burns would do well in any capacity.

Transfer to the Royal Flying Corps

Immediately on his arrival in France, Alexander took part with the newly formed 47th Battalion in the Somme Battles, being promoted to Lieutenant on 11 October 1916 in the field. He was in Belgium when he received news of his appointment to the Royal Flying Corps, England. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps on 22 October 1916 and joined No 2 Royal Flying Corps School of Instruction in Oxford on 23 October 1916.

Once in England, Alec was able to meet with his brother, Jamie, several times. On one occasion, they arranged to have their photograph taken together in uniform, Alexander on the left, James on the right. (The photograph is shown in the gallery). He was trained as a Pilot in England, passing in two months all flying tests and on completion of flying training, Alexander was a member of 47 Squadron, 12th Brigade, Royal Australian Flying Corps. He was then transferred to an advanced division where he was engaged in testing new aeroplanes.

Fatal crash

In April 1917, he was flying with 59 Squadron at Fort Grange Airfield, Gosport. Alexander died from injuries after his De Havilland IA No 1625 aeroplane crashed on 20 April 1917.

After a malfunction, the aircraft plummeted from a height of 4000 feet. He was badly injured and both his legs were broken. Alexander lived three hours after the accident, the last hour being unconscious. He was aged 24 years.

A few days prior to his death, Alec had been to London where he had spent time with his brother, Jamie. On his departure, Alec was in fine form and was farewelled by Jamie at Waterloo Station. In a letter to his parents, Jamie wrote, ‘Then he looked well, and was so confident that I believed that nothing would happen to him, and that when the war is over, the two of us together would return to the old home.’

His coffin bearing a large wreath from the RFC was taken by gun carriage to Ann’s Hill Cemetery, Gosport where he was interred with full RFC honours. His brother James was in attendance and had organised wreaths of flowers for his parents and each of his sisters and himself which were laid on his grave.

On the morning of the crash, Alec had written a letter to his youngest sister, Queenie. After his death, Jamie forwarded it to the family. Jamie wrote, ‘I cannot write how it grieved me that one like Alec so young, and with such a career before him could be cut off in this life so shortly.’


Lieutenant Alexander Burns was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. For his achievements and sacrifice he is honoured at Saint Andrew’s Uniting Church and his name is also on the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument to the Fallen at Indooroopilly War Memorial in Keating Park, Indooroopilly.

Select Bibliography and Acknowledgement
• Bean CEW, Anzac to Amiens, Penguin Group, Melbourne, 2014
• Queensland Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages
• National Archives of Australia, military records
• Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls
• Queensland War Memorial Register
• Australian War Memorial, Commemorative Roll
• Burns family papers and photographs
Queensland Country Life, 15 July 1954, page 5
The Queensland Railway Express, June 1917
The Courier-Mail, 7 July 1941

Information and photographs were provided by Janice Fay Anderson (née Boyling), M Ed St., BA, B Ed St, Dip Ed , AMusA., PPL. (Pilot Licence). Janice is the great-niece of James and Alexander Burns, her father being Keith Alexander Boyling, son of Charles and Margaret Boyling (nee Burns). Margaret was the first child of James and Helen Burns and eldest sister of Jamie and Alexander. Janice remembers well her Uncle Jamie with whom she shared her birth date. He inspired her to university studies and the memory of Alexander, the first pilot in the family, inspired her to gain her Pilot’s Licence.

Compiled by Noel Adsett, April 2015  © 



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