17 November 2015

Soldier Settlers in rural Australia after WW1

In the hope that WW1 would eventually end, the Federal Parliamentary War Committee devised a plan to settle demobilised servicemen on the land in late 1915. The Australia states and territories had already federated on 1/1/1901 so it was easy for delegates from the Commonwealth government and from all of the states to get together in Melbourne in Feb 1916 to consider the War Committee’s report. They decided as follows: 

1. Commonwealth and state governments should co-operate to develop a scheme for the settlement of willing and suitable returned soldiers on the land;
2. Land should be provided by the states;
3. The states would also be responsible for classifying applicants and providing them with training;
4. The Commonwealth would provide loans to the states to enable advances to soldiers to assist them with the costs of establishment. This money would be made available at reasonable rates of interest; and
5. The difference between the cost of the loans to the government and the repayments should be borne equally by the Commonwealth and the states.

Was it a charitable act on behalf of the Federal and State govern­ments, thanking young men for their untold sacrifices during WW1? Perhaps there also a hope of attracting both Australian and other ex-servicemen to underpopulated parts of Australia, away from the coast. Certainly each young soldier and his family had to remain in residence on any crown land they took up for at least 5 years, guaranteeing a population expansion and the building of new primary schools etc.

And a third consideration.  Australia still had a major role as a primary producer within the British Empire; the soldier settlement scheme was firmly based on the belief that primary production was the foundation of Victoria's future prosperity.

Whatever the motive, handbooks circulated in the 1920s provided cheerful and optimistic advice to immigrants and returned soldiers. A Land Fit for Heroes was the promise: prosperous farms, contented families and thriving regional development.

Cultivating a soldier settlement, Jan 1924. 
The sandy ground is being ploughed and fences have been erected.
Image courtesy of the Victorian Government.

Soldier settler house being built in 1928
near Mildura
Photo credit: Museum of Victoria

The Discharged Soldiers' Settlement Act of 1917 formally established the scheme. A total of 23,367 returned service-men were allocated blocks under the soldier settlement scheme, particularly in Victoria eg Gippsland and Goulburn Valley. Victoria might have been a tiny state in geographic terms, yet far more Victorian families (8,640) were settled than in any other state.

Inevitably many soldier settlers were very happy on the land; their children were brought up with fresh air, fresh food and a social life that they would never had enjoyed in a big city. Others settlers felt isolated, lonely and doing relentless, backbreaking work they did not enjoy. It was said that some 60% of the settlers, without the capital necessary to increase stock or improve their housing, eventually walked off the land back to the large towns and cities where their parents and siblings were.

The scheme was critically analysed by a Victorian Royal Commission in 1925. If soldier settlers did not succeed in the long run, it was more than likely due to
a] the selection of settlers who might have known nothing about managing a farm,
b] the lack of continuing capital,
c] the inadequate size of blocks allocated and
d] the poor prices the settlers received for their agricultural products.

I have no doubt that many of those ex-servicemen, already damaged by their war experiences, were entering farming life in a very difficult economic climate. Large sums of government money were indeed spent on farmland and agricultural equipment for the men during the 1920s, but by 1929, Australia had entered its worst-ever Depression.

The Australian people had been bitterly split by two conscription referendums during the War. In addition, they endured an increasingly authoritarian Commonwealth government during the war. It has been suggested that this division in the community might have reinforced an increasingly vocal opposition to the economic losses attributed to soldier settlement. Many people saw the soldier settlement as a political scheme, not one planned purely on economic lines.

New Settlers' Handbook
Image courtesy of the Victorian Government.

It is interesting that after WW2, the Soldier Settlement Scheme addressed many of the critical issues after WW1 - blocks were bigger, ex-servicemen were more carefully selected and farming infrastructure (roads, houses, fences) were supplied as part of the settlement package.

A new exhibition about the Victorian soldier settler experience has just opened at Old Treasury Building in Melbourne. Soldier On: WW1 Soldier Settler Stories features records from the state archives of the Public Record Office, revealing previously untold stories of the Victorian soldier settler experience. The exhibition, which will run until August 2016, is supported by the Australian Government's Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund.

At the same time, a website called A Land Fit for Heroes? has been dedicated to the memory of Soldier Settlement in NSW. Vast tracts of that state were settled by returned servicemen and women in the aftermath of the Great War: the rural communities they established lie at the heartland of regional Australia. But the story of soldier settlement has yet to be told. We know little of the experience of soldier settlers and their families as they battled to make a go of it on the land.


Joseph said...

The Returned Soldiers Settlement Act showed a great deal of foresight as early as 1916, only two years into the war. Perhaps lots of young men were already so wounded, they had to be discharged from active duty. But I note that only crown land was available for the settlers.

Hels said...


I imagine crown land was more easily transferable to the ex-servicemen and probably cheaper as well. And since the 1916 meeting agreed that it was the Commonwealth Government's role to select and acquire land, that made perfect sense. But what happened if there was not enough crown land available, or if the crown land was too remote.. or not fertile enough?

Pat said...

My grandfather moved to Merbein (near Mildura) after WW1. He said he loved it. My grandmother missed her family dreadfully, worse when the babies started arriving. They all left the land.

Andrew said...

I understood the WWI scheme to be quite disastrous, especially in the Wimmera and Mallee, though I do think the motives for the scheme were honourable.

mem said...

My grandfather took up one of these blocks at Lake Cargellico in NSW . It broke his heart as a very severe drought made production impossible . It was pretty catastrophic for his young wife and 5 children . In the end he sold up to his neighbours who were able to buy up a lot of surrounding farms and are still farming in the area although properties are now huge compared to what they were . This story is really well told in a great book which came out in the 1990s called" The Road to Corrain". I never really understood how hard that time was until I read that book and the straight into the 2nd world war !!!

Hels said...


it must have been so difficult for the women. They were lonely so far away from home, their husbands were in the fields working from sun-up to sun-set, and there wasn't always the income to raise the children properly.

The ex-servicemen was fortunate if there were other soldier settlers in the same area. I hope your grandfather re-established good relationships with his mates from the war years. That way they could help each other out with the farm work.

Hels said...


I agree that the motives for the scheme were totally honourable. The nation certainly had to thank those teenage boys and young adult men for their endless sacrifice during the war years.

Now I wonder if the soldiers' physical and mental injuries from the war years, largely untreated back in Australia, contributed to the 60% failure rate of the soldier settler schemes.

Hels said...


I don't know the book "The Road to Corrain" but I believe that my TAFE library should have a copy for the students. Many thanks.

My question, as always when dealing with WW1, was how come we didn't know about our grandparents' lives until the 1990s? Was there such an intense shame in walking off the land that no-one wanted to discuss the lives of our ex-servicemen?

Uouo Uo said...


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Hels said...

Uouo Uo

glad you enjoyed this bit of history. Are you particularly interested in WW1 and its aftermath?

Jim said...

Hello Hels,

Your article on government lands for soldiers drove home how similar the histories of the U.S. and Australia often are, with large vacant lands which at one time seemed unlimited. In the U.S. soldiers often received free land (usually with similar residency requirements). One aspect of this hits home for me. Just west of Cleveland is an area called the Firelands, which was given to citizens in southern Connecticut after their cities were burned in the Revolutionary War. It was not really such a good deal--the original sufferers received little in a timely manner, and of course the free land was far away and totally wild and unimproved. Many of the cities in the Ohio Firelands, such as New Haven, New London, and Norwalk, took their names from those places in Connecticut, and of course all the names originally came from England.


Hels said...


Interesting that you mention the Revolutionary War. "As the Revolutionary War ended, American soldiers turned their attention toward land bounties and other rewards promised in their enlistment contracts." Perhaps the land didn't always materialise, but it is amazing that promises were made, even before the young men went off to the battle fields. After this war, Union veterans were assigned a special priority in the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided Western land at $1.25 an acre.

I couldn't find much. "In America between the Civil War (1861–1865) and World War I (1914–1918), the homestead policy was an enormously popular federal program. Some 1.4 million settlers began homestead claims on more than almost 250 million acres of western lands, especially concentrated on the northern Great Plains in Nebraska, the Dakotas and Montana. Despite droughts, pests and sometimes low farm commodity prices, the majority stuck out their five years and earned farm ownership by their own hard work."