Burns was the eldest son of the Rev. H. M. Burns, a Melbourne clergyman. He was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he was the editor of its magazine, The Scotch Collegian. He was a nineteen-year-old about to begin study at Melbourne University when he enlisted for active service in 1914. In 1915 he left Melbourne a Corporal in 'D' Company, 21 Infantry Battalion on the HMAT Ulysses and was on the torpedoed Southland in 1915. He was killed in action on Gallipoli three weeks later. He was twenty.