ART00104 Bell, George, Brigadier General William Burgess (1918), oil on canvas, 61.6 x 51 cm, AWM copyright
William Livingstone Hatchwell Sinclair was born in Kirkmanshulme, near Manchester, Lancashire, England on 18 February 1880, the son of a shipping merchant. His parents later divorced and his mother married George Burgess, a Congregational minister, and William took the surname Burgess. The family emigrated from England and settled in New Zealand in the early 1890s.
William worked as a carpenter and engineer and joined the New Zealand Volunteer Force, serving with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles in Timaru. He transferred to the New Zealand Regiment of Field Artillery Volunteers in Auckland in 1902 and became a captain in 1909. In 1911 he accepted a regular commission as a lieutenant in the New Zealand Staff Corps. He became adjutant of the 16th (Waikato) Regiment and commanded No. 4 Area Group in Hamilton. On 11 June 1913, he was promoted to captain.
On 4 November 1913, Burgess was seconded to the AMF for 12 months duty as an exchange officer. This year would eventually become six. Burgess became Brigade Major on the staff of the 6th Military District in Hobart, Tasmania, where he was serving when the war broke out. Burgess' initial tasks were handling the partial mobilisation prior to the outbreak of war, and preparing for the raising and embarking of a Tasmanian contingent of the AIF.
On 17 August 1914, Burgess was appointed to the AIF as a captain, and given command of the 9th Field Artillery Battery, a unit was formed from a cadre provided by the Hobart Battery of the AMF who volunteered to a man at a night parade the day after the war was declared. Burgess was promoted to major on 17 September 1914, and the battery embarked from Hobart on 20 October 1914.
After training in Egypt, the 9th Battery came ashore at Anzac on 5 May 1915 and began moving into positions on Bolton's Ridge. On that same day, a shell fired from a Turkish battery in the area south of Gaba Tepe that came to be known as the Olive Grove burst in Lieutenant Colonel C. Rosenthal's headquarters dugout, wounding both Rosenthal and Burgess, who was evacuated. Burgess returned to Anzac on 16 May 1915. The Olive Grove guns were to be the nemesis of the 9th Battery for the rest of the campaign. Burgess remained in command of his battery until 1 October 1915 when he was evacuated sick with paratyphoid. For his performance at Gallipoli, Burgess was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) .
Burgess arrived on Lemnos to rejoin his battery, only to find that it had already sailed for Egypt. He eventually rejoined it there, where on 24 February 1915, he become commander of the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade, replacing Rosenthal, who had been appointed as Commander, Royal Artillery (CRA) of the newly formed 4th Division. Burgess was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 12 March 1916, just two weeks before embarking for France on 23 March 1916. His brigade began firing again on 29 April 1916.
Burgess commanded the brigade through the fighting at Pozieres, and briefly commanded the 1st Division artillery for a few days in December 1916. On 20 January 1917, the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade became an Army Brigade, no longer part of the 1st Division, but available for service anywhere. His brigade participated in the advance to the Hindenburg Line and the fighting around Bullecourt. Burgess commanded a group -- an ad hoc grouping of brigades -- at Messines.
On 25 August 1917, Burgess once again succeeded Rosenthal, this time as CRA of the 4th Division, and on 25 September 1917 he was promoted to full colonel and temporary brigadier general. Burgess commanded his brigade through difficult times at Third Ypres, when it took casualties in men and guns so heavy that it had to be pulled out of the line without relief and the batteries temporarily reduced from six guns to four.
For the Battle of Hamel, Burgess had command of sixteen brigades of artillery. The artillery demonstrated a tactical and administrative capability of an order undreamt of before the war. This was put to use on a gigantic scale at Amiens.
Burgess was made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1918 and a Companion of the Bath (CB) in the 1919 New Year's List. In all he was mentioned in dispatches six times. From 15 December 1918 to 11 January 1919, he was acting commander of the 4th Division.
Burgess returned to New Zealand after the war, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1921 he became chief of staff at Army Headquarters. In January 1924 he became Director of Military Intelligence and Training and then in April Chief of the General Staff with the rank of full colonel.
In 1926, Burgess officially changed his surname to Sinclair-Burgess, a form that he had employed on his marriage certificate five years earlier.
Sinclair-Burgess was appointed General Officer Commanding the New Zealand forces in 1931, a post he held concurrently with the Chief of the General staff until 1937. He was promoted to Major General in 1931, and created a knight bachelor in 1934, and a Knight of the British Empire in 1934. When compulsory training was abolished during the Depression he reorganised the army on a volunteer basis. From 1933 onwards, he urged preparations for another world war.
He was known in the New Zealand Army as "Sinky-Boo" after a character in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, on account of his holding down multiple jobs and for a certain flamboyance that involved frequently wearing his full dress uniform. Sinclair-Burgess offered his services during the Second World War but was apparently turned down, although it is said that he worked for the security services.
He built his own house at Mahina Bay near Wellington with his own hands, employing his pre-war carpentry skills. When it burned down in 1959 with the loss of all his papers and belongings, fellow army officers subscribed to replace his medals and insignia.
Sinclair-Burgess died in Lower Hutt on 3 April 1964. He was remembered as his country's longest serving and most decorated Chief of the General Staff, the one who held it together through the Great Depression. In Australia, he was remembered as one of the New Zealanders without whom Anzac would lose half its meaning.
Sources: New Zealand Dictionary of Biography, pp. 476-477; AWM 183/10; Horner, David, The Gunners: A History of Australian Artillery, p. 80; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume II: The Story of Anzac, pp. 76-77
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Last update 18 August 2002