Repatriation was one of the greatest challenges facing post-War government in Australia. More pointedly, it is fair to argue that the real challenge was managing the virtually unlimited expectations to do with repatriation that had been created over the period of the War. This post looks at the situation in the Shire of Alberton in the early 1920s.
Repatriation was an issue from the very beginning of the War. At the countless farewells organised for local men, or ‘boys’, who had ‘answered the call’ and volunteered, there were as many pledges from local elders and civic leaders to ‘look after’ the same ‘heroes’ when they returned. Every speech promised that their sacrifice and bravery would always be acknowledged and repaid in full. All such promises coalesced around the notion of ‘repatriation’. The broad idea of repatriation covered not just the material programs put in place to support the returning men – in terms of health care, employment, training, housing, soldier settlement schemes etc – but also the recognition and special status that was to be accorded to the returning men.
Importantly, over the course of the War the status of the men who enlisted in the AIF increased significantly. In part, this was because of the failure of the two conscription referenda. The failure meant that the AIF remained a volunteer force and this had the effect of raising the status of those who had volunteered. Also, from 1916, as recruiting became more and more difficult, there was ever more focus on emphasising the higher character of those who did volunteer. Opposed to the selfless and loyal volunteers there were the ‘slackers’ who refused to volunteer: cowards who stayed at home and hid behind the bravery of others.
And there were other ways in which the status of those who served in the AIF was elevated. As noted previously, there was a constant media narrative that portrayed the AIF as not just another highly valued, integral unit within the broader British Army but as a unique, elite fighting force that had played a critical – if not the most critical – role in the final battles of the War. Additionally, men in the AIF routinely regarded themselves as better than all the other Allied conscript soldiers. The unique character of the AIF, the mateship and larrikinism that defined it, its battlefield successes and its role in shaping the nation’s character and identity were themes that would be taken up in the post-War period by C E W Bean as the official War historian.
Some sense of the special status accorded to returned men can be picked up in routine newspaper reporting from the time. For example, the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – always featured a summary of cases held in the local court. From 1918, there were cases where returned men who appeared in the local court were given favourable treatment because of their war service. Often they were represented by B P Johnson, one of the most vocal and prominent Imperial Loyalists throughout the War, and he would invariably refer to the men’s war service. The local justices would then make it clear that their determination did reflect recognition of this service. Presumably, the police who had arrested the men and brought the charges would have been unimpressed. Often the charges involved public drunkenness and fighting. For example, a report in the paper on 9/5/19 noted that two former soldiers – Patrick Martin O’Loughlin and W Johnson – were discharged with just a caution following a punch up in the main street of Yarram. W Johnson cannot be traced but O’Loughlin was a local. He had been born in Ireland and had enlisted as a labourer from Yarram in January 1916. At the time he was 38 yo and single. He spent the last year of the War as a POW in Germany and was repatriated to the UK in December 1918. He had only returned to Australia in April 1919 so he could only have been back in the local area a couple of weeks when he was involved in the fight. In fact, he was not officially discharged as ‘medically unfit’ until the start of June 1919.
There was another case reported on 9/1/20. This one involved one soldier (Claud Garfield Brown) trying to break into the lock up at Yarram to ‘liberate’ two mates (Cann and Pope). Brown had been drunk at the time. The report noted that Brown, defended by Johnson, got off lightly because of his war service. Only one of the three soldiers involved – George Abraham Cann – was a local.
Two months later (5/3/20) there was another report of a brawl between two soldiers – Harry Roberts and Jas Burlis, neither of whom appeared to be local – and again the justices were lenient because of the men’s service history. The report noted that the police on this occasion were keen to make an example of the men because the brawl occurred on a Sunday morning in front of children going to Sunday School.
There were other cases reported where the ex-soldier’s law breaking was more colourful. For example, earlier (11/12/18) there had been a report of William Owen Sutton receiving a caution and a small fine for speeding on his motor bike through Yarram. Significantly, Sutton’s licence was not taken. The report noted that Sutton had been a despatch rider in France. Sutton had enlisted as a 19 yo in 1914. At the time of enlistment, he was working at Head’s Garage in Yarram. During the War he had had a serious motor bike accident – fractured skull – and had been hospitalised for 4 months.
Of course, these are only several cases drawn from a single location over a short period of time but they do at least suggest that there was an understanding in the community that some sort of special allowance had to be made to accommodate the anti-social behaviour of returning men. At the same time, there were bound to be limits to such accommodation. Some behaviour could be explained away, at least initially, as something like exuberant larrikinism but, inevitably, there was going to be increasing community tension over just how much, and how often, such behaviour could be tolerated.
Beaumont (Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War) makes the point that concerns about the behaviour of ex-soldiers went well beyond the style of larrikinism described here and that, from1915-16, the progressive return of thousands of men ‘unfit for military service’ raised fears of the former soldiers becoming ‘a disruptive and subversive force in Australian society’ (524). Essentially, unbridled wartime adulation of the Anzacs was always going to have be tempered by the realities of their return to civilian life and re-engagement with all the conventional challenges of family life, work and civic responsibility.
Just as there were always going to be limits to the celebrated status accorded to returned men, particularly when they went beyond acceptable community behaviour, there were inevitably going to be failures associated with the formal scheme of repatriation. The expectations set down during the War had been too great – in a real sense, the promises had been made without any practical sense of limits – and the actual level and range of repatriation services that would be required over an extended period had been greatly underestimated. There was also the issue of the costs involved. Naively, Hughes and his government had believed that German reparations would cover the cost. However, the Treaty of Versailles effectively denied Australia this source of funds; and it was clear that the costs of repatriation would have to be met by at least the next generation of Australian tax payers.
Consequently, with the idealisation of repatriation you also had this ongoing sense of frustration, anger and disillusionment. And it was there right from the very start, as soon as wounded men began to return home. As already noted, speeches at welcome-home functions in the Shire of Alberton would always refer to the government’s responsibility – and promise – to look after the returning men; and, from the time of the first such welcomes, there were references to the government not doing enough, not understanding the men’s needs and being too slow to organise support.
There were other relevant dimensions to this widespread community belief that the government was constantly failing with repatriation. No matter what services were provided, some returned men were always going to find it difficult to settle back into civilian life. Quite apart from physical injures, many men were mentally damaged. This was at a time when there was no real sense of ‘mental health’ or specific conditions such as PTSD. But it was not just a question of mental or emotional damage because, as we have seen in earlier posts, many men tried to hang on to the ‘mateship’ that had been forged in their time in the AIF. They wanted, as it were, for the shared experience of the AIF to continue after demobilisation. Post 211. Club rooms for the returned men or a memorial hall for the Shire? described how this was an issue with the creation of the Diggers’ Club’ in Yarram. The returned men wanted an exclusive meeting and social place for themselves; and many in the local community accused the returned men of wanting to keep to themselves and not committing to their community. Of course, the reality was that the men were no longer in the AIF, and they found themselves re-bound to their families and communities, and even competing against each other for employment and services. Overall, the potential for frustration, anger and the perceived loss of recognition amongst the returned men was very high. Inevitably a lot of this negativity was subsumed within the universal belief that repatriation was failing the men, even if, in the strictest sense, some of the particular challenges were not tied to the mechanics of repatriation. The reality was that a system of repatriation was never going to be enough to handle the multiplicity and complexity of issues that came with the War’s legacy.
It is also important to note that prior to the formal system of repatriation there was not a long history – at either the state or national level – of government involvement in, or responsibility for, what we would regard as ‘social welfare’. Prior to WW1, returned service men relied on the help of their families, local communities or charitable institutions. The scale of repatriation required post WW1 was such that this traditional approach would never work; and, early on, the Commonwealth Government recognised that a formal, Commonwealth public department would be required. Arguably, there were at least two critical consequences of this new approach. The first was that support for the returned men, and their families, shifted from the status of ‘benevolent’ or ‘charitable’ voluntary support to ‘social entitlement’. This sense of entitlement obviously shaped people’s dealings with the new department. The second consequence was that as a ‘public service’ the new Department of Repatriation had to establish a universal, codified system of entitlement. The system was to be administered objectively and impartially. There had to be rules, regulations and most significantly, ‘eligibility criteria’ and ‘cut-off points’ and ‘levels of benefits’. Inevitably, the bureaucratic regime and approach would mean that some men or families ‘missed out’ and this, in turn, gave rise to high levels of disputation, frustration disillusionment and anger. It is also worth noting another – somewhat counter-intuitive – consequence. As soon as the federal Department of Repatriation was established, responsibility, as well as all associated blame, for the welfare of returned men – and the widows and families of those men killed – was shifted from the known, immediate and local community to an impersonal, anonymous and bureaucratic government department. The ‘Repat’ became everyone’s target and everyone’s scapegoat. This reality tended to minimise the value of the extraordinary work achieved by the Department of Repatriation post WW1.
It is also important to acknowledge that even with an extensive government system of repatriation, a good deal of the support that was offered to the returned men – and the hardship and suffering involved in this support – was private, if not hidden. The great majority of men who enlisted, served and then returned were single and relatively young. It fell to their families, and particularly their parents, to care for them. Families had to manage the trauma, depression, alcoholism, violence and despair. Beyond the level of formal assistance offered by the Repat, there was an extraordinary, and ultimately unquantifiable, amount of unpaid and unacknowledged support offered by families.
The broad sense of repatriation in the local community
To give some sense of how the general issue of repatriation played out in the local community I want to look at two cases in the Shire of Alberton. Both had considerable coverage in the local paper at the time. One case (Mrs Murray) involved a widow and her three children facing serious financial hardship, and even homelessness, who made direct appeals to the local community for help. The second case (St Margaret’s Island) involved a call, widely supported by the local community, for some sort of special provision to enable a group of 4 returned men from Woodside to set themselves up on the land. The significance of their particular initiative was that it did not fit the conventional soldier settlement arrangement which was then being implemented in the district. Together, the two cases tease out both the complexities – and shortcomings – of the system of repatriation and, as well, local attitudes towards the same system.
The plight of Mrs Murray has been raised in an earlier post (Post 176). She was the wife of John Bridge Murray who had enlisted at Yarram in August 1915. Murray was definitely local and he was given a formal farewell from the Shire. He also received the Shire Medallion.
Murray was originally from Scotland. The couple had been living in the local area prior to his enlistment and both names appeared on the 1915 Electoral Roll. He (John Murray) appears as a ‘labourer’ of Yarram and she (Esther Murray, nee Coghill) as ‘home duties’, also of Yarram. There were three young children, all born in Yarram: William Coghill Murray (1910), Helen Gina Murray (1913) and Johannna Bridge Murray (1915).
Murray was killed on 11/8/18. His body was never recovered. His name is recorded on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial and the Shire’s Roll of Honor.
As a widow with children, Esther Murray would have received a war pension, as per The War Pensions Act 1914-1916. The base rate of the pension – for a soldier on 6/- per day – was £ 2 per fortnight. There was an additional 20/- per fortnight for the first child, 15/- per fortnight for the second child and 10/- per fortnight for each additional child. This would have given her a total pension of £ 4/5/0 per fortnight. There would also have been an amount of deferred pay – at the rate of 1/- per day of service – which would have come to approximately £ 50. Many soldiers also held insurance policies on their death, with various friendly societies; but in this instance there does not appear to have been any policy.
There were indications that Mrs Murray was struggling well before her husband was killed. While Murray was alive, the family would have been receiving an ‘allotment’ of 4/- of his 6/- per day pay as a soldier. In the archives of the Shire of Alberton there is correspondence from May 1917 (1) involving a request from Mrs Murray for financial support to pay rent (£12). It appears that the request had been made directly to the (Victorian) State War Council and this body then referred it the local recruiting committee at Yarram in the belief that the recruiting committee was acting as the local branch of the War Service Committee. In his response, the Shire Secretary pointed out that there was no local committee of the War Service Council and, in any case, he believed that Mrs Murray had applied to the wrong body, given that her husband was still overseas on service. The background was that the State War Council, acting through local committees, was able to provide limited financial assistance where the the returned soldier and his family were facing financial difficulties. The process involved having the local police make enquiries as to the individual circumstances and the local committee had to vet the application. There is no indication of the outcome of Mrs Murray’s request but it seems clear that even before the death of her husband she was in financial difficulties and that she was reaching out for help.
The archives also feature further relevant correspondence from the end of December 1918 (2). The gist of the correspondence was that Mrs Murray was to lodge an application with the Closer Settlement Office in Melbourne to ‘take up land’. The correspondence makes it clear that Mrs Murray was a ‘soldier’s widow in this district’ and that she wanted to know the steps required to become eligible for the scheme. She was advised to complete the application and that, once completed, she would be informed when she would be required to appear before the relevant committee. There was a handwritten note on the correspondence stating that the ‘application form and particulars’ were handed to Mrs Murray on 20/1/19. It is unclear if the application was ever lodged and I have not found any indication that Mrs Murray received any land grant. If her application was lodged, it would be the only instance I have come across in the district where a soldier’s widow applied under the scheme (Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement Act 1917). The detail does suggest that, once again, Mrs Murray was reaching out for any form of support being made available.
The next item in relation to Mrs Murray came in an editorial in the local paper on 9/7/19. There was a report that Mrs Murray’s house at North Devon had been destroyed by fire. She was described as a widow whose husband had been killed in the War. She was said to be looking for help from the local branch of the RSSILA. The editorial set the report of her hardship against the general claims of failure to look after the interests of the ‘returned boys’.
Just over year later (6/8/20), the following letter appeared in the paper:
Will you through the medium of your paper let the public know how the Alberton Shire Repatriation Committee treat a soldier’s widow and children. I am, I believe, about the only widow in the district. It will be remembered that in June, 1919, I was milking a few cows on a small place in North Devon, endeavouring to get a living for myself and three little children, when I had the misfortune to be burnt out. The night after the fire the Repatriation Committee held a meeting, and they took up my case. M. Newland came round to where I was staying and told me not to worry, that they had held a meeting last night, and that they were going to get me a home. A year and two months have passed since then, and they have not fulfilled that promise yet. Of course I believed them when they made that promise, or I would have tried to get a bit of land through the Repatriation, or got a home through the housing commission. Instead, I have waited for them to make good their promise to look after me and get me a home, and in the meantime I have had to use the money I got for my cows when I sold them, to keep my children decently clothed and fed. A certain section of the people did not go far wrong when they said to the soldiers that if they went out to fight that they would not get looked after when they came back. The grateful country gives the widow 10/- for the first child, 7/6 for the next, 3/- for the third [per week]. I have three children, and that sum of money works out at about 10 1/2d a day each to feed and clothe them, I am now faced with being turned out in the street with my three little children, as the house that I occupy is to be sold. My present landlord told me some time ago that he would raise the rent on me from 15/- to £ 1 a week, but under the Moratorium Act this was prevented. I again appealed to Mr. Newland, after the rent trouble, and asked him if he had done anything for me. He said yes: that he had consulted with Mr. Benson and Mr. Johnson, and they said that as I was not in this house when my husband had enlisted that perhaps they could not do anything for me. I then went to Melbourne, and went to the Returned Soldiers’ League, and stated my case to them. They gave me a letter of introduction to the State War Council and told me to state my case to them. I went to the War Council. Mr. Lillywhite, the secretary, wrote a letter in my presence to Mr. Newland, asking him that if they in the Yarram branch would raise a fund to get a home for this widow, Mrs. Murray, they in the State War Council would meet them half way out of the Soldiers’ and Widows’ Fund. It was on the 15th of June the letter was written and sent to Mr. Newland, and he has taken no notice of it yet. Before I went to Melbourne I told Mr. Newland that I would go to Melbourne and try to get a home there. He said alright, that he would fill in a form and send it down to the Repatriation, and that would get me a soldiers widow’s home. He filled in the form and I signed it, and seven weeks later, when I went to Melbourne, I called at the Repatriation office in Melbourne. They informed me that they never had any enquiries about me, and that they never had received any form from Mr. Newland for a home for me. The secretary of the State War Council was astonished to find that in such a wealthy district one war woman should be looking for a home in vain. There are all the loyalists and flag wavers’ promises to the soldiers and their dependents. Deeds, not words, count.
Mrs J. B. Murray Yarram, 3/8/20.
It is not possible to test the claims made in the letter. The ‘M Newland’ referred to in the letter would have been William Andrew Newland. Newland had returned to Australia at the end of 1915 after having been wounded at Gallipoli. He had served as one of the recruiting sergeants in the district during the War. After the War, he was involved in the establishment of the local branch of the RSSILA and had served on the original committee. He had also been very involved in establishment of Diggers’ Club in Yarram. Both Benson and Johnson – both referred to many times previously – were also every involved with the welfare of the returned men. It is easy to understand how Newland and the local branch of the RSSILA would have been affected by Mrs Murray’s plight after her house was destroyed by fire. Almost certainly they would have given some undertaking to try to help. But it is difficult to follow the specifics of promises made and, possibly, not kept. Also, the lines between the various organisations mentioned are unclear. Possibly, Mrs Murrray was confusing repatriation agencies at the state level with returned soldiers’ organisations at the local level. At the same time, the episode highlights the acute vulnerability faced by widows like Mrs Murray and their desperate attempts to secure support. It also revealed the difficulties in negotiating the relevant bureaucracy. In terms of her claim, it is important to note that there were other war widows in the district.
The letter also reveals a moral dilemma being played out at the local level. Mrs Murray was highly critical of the lack of the support that she considered was her due. Her appeal for help touched on all the past promises. She questioned whether the soldiers had been lied to, as some had warned even during the War. She accused people of hypocrisy. She could not accept that the local community would not help her.
One week after the letter, there was an in memoriam for Murray in the local paper (11/8/20). It was the second anniversary of his death. Presumably, the timing of the letter to the paper – one week before the in memoriam appeared – was deliberate.
In sad and loving memory of my dear husband and our dear daddy, Lance-Corp. John Murray, who was killed in action south of Lihons, France, on 11th August, 1918.
This day recalls sad memories
of a loved one gone to rest.
There is a grave in far off France
Where our dear daddy lies at rest.
God called him home to be with Him.
How hard it seemed, but he knows best.
A memory prized more than gold,
A daddy’s worth can never be told.
Inserted by his loving wife and children, Yarram.
Ordinarily, with letters such as Mrs Murray’s there would have been an immediate response, particularly given the serious charges she had made and the references to specific people. And, clearly, she was calling for some response. She wanted to know why she was not being supported and why her pleas were being ignored. But there was no response. Consequently, two weeks later (25/8/20) she wrote again.
It would be interesting to know why a reply to my letter is not forthcoming, and why the challenge to offer certain explanations is still unheard. It is (sic) because those holding responsible positions are afraid of exposure that they can pass over such a letter with apparent contempt? It is scandalous to reflect that in such a wealthy district as this that the rights of a soldier’s widow are utterly ignored. Australia owes a debt of gratitude to those who paid the sacrifice for her freedom. Such a debt is difficult to find expression in mere words and is much more difficult to repay. Is no one willing to come forward to support the rights of one who has sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty? All are glad to enjoy the freedom which is their birthright, but how many remember the debt of gratitude they owe to those who are purchasers of that freedom? Why should anyone in an official capacity neglect to fulfil the duties of that position? It is quite time the country should realise how sacred are its promises to fulfil, and no one should be obliged to fight for what is their right. There should be no difficulty in arranging and settling such matters in the shortest space of time.
Mrs J. B. Murray 19/8/20.
However, once again, there was no reply. Obviously, we do not know the full details associated with this particular case: the specific promises made; whether, in fact, various kinds of support had already been given to Mrs Murray; whether she had attracted a lot of negative attention to herself because she was seen as too ‘pushy’ and too public in her calls for support and the criticism levelled at well-known local figures etc. At the same time, it is possible to make the following points. First, the fate of war widows like Mrs Murray – and their families – was always going to be hard. Even with pensions and access to other services via the system of repatriation, their financial position was marginal and there was always the fear of poverty, homelessness and even destitution. Second, this harsh reality was at odds with the universal promises that had been made through the War to ‘look after’ the men – those who returned wounded or disabled and those who made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ – and their families. Third, there were very real limits to the level and nature of repatriation benefits and services that could be provided by the government and, equally, there were equivalent limits to the amount of empathy, and the length of time such empathy could be sustained, in the general community. War weariness was a reality and people did not appreciate constant reminders of what was expected of them and how responsible they were for the suffering of those around them. Last, the state system of repatriation, based on a codified system of ‘entitlement’ and administered via a professional bureaucracy had the effect of removing – or, at least, reducing – the local community’s sense of responsibility. In effect, the local community could represent Mrs Murray’s fight as one not with the local community but with the Reparation Department.
St Margaret’s Island
St Margaret’s Island was located just off the coast near Tarraville. It was crown land used for stock grazing, mainly sheep. One of the people who had held the lease for the land in the period before WW1 was J J O’Connor who in 1919 was the Shire President. In the same year (1919) four returned service men from Woodside applied to the government to take over the lease which was then expiring. What was significant about their claim was the fact that they wanted special provision on account of their war service. This particular initiative of the four men was outside the ‘soldier settlement’ scheme then in play throughout the district. The episode again highlighted the idea of ‘entitlement’ and it also showed how sentiment – the sense of duty owed to returned men – played out against the economic realities of the time.
The matter was first raised publicly in a letter to the local paper 0n 12/9/19. The letter called for public support for the men’s initiative, making it clear that without some form of special provision, the men had no chance of securing the lease; and that if the men were not successful the lease would go … to wealthy land owners, or speculators or [land] grabbers or even … hungry land sharks.
We are, all four of us, returned soldiers, having had from three to four years service respectively. One of us enlisted at the age of nineteen, and has been right through the whole war campaign. We are not saying this in any spirit of boasting or bravado, but we are merely stating a fact which has an essential bearing on our case. The lease held from the Government by those who at present have the use of St. Margaret’s island will shortly expire. After a personal interview with the State Minister for Lands we, at his suggestion, made joint written application for a lease of the 4000 acres which comprise the island. We have been informed that our application has been refused, and that the future lease will be let by tender. This means, in effect, that we have no possible chance of success. We cannot expect to compete against wealthy land owners, or speculators or grabbers. Owing to drought conditions in other parts of Gippsland, land is being eagerly sought after by hungry land sharks and speculators with an eye to profiteering. We now appeal to the patriotic public to interest themselves on our behalf. We are not asking much, merely permission to rent Government land to help make a living. Our stock is guaranteed, and our credentials are also guaranteed.
The men involved included two of the O’Neil brothers from Woodside. Simon John O’Neill and Joseph Jeffrey O’Neill had enlisted in June 1915. The third, middle, brother – Maurice Edward O’Neill – who had enlisted with them, had been killed in France in June 1916. The O’Neill brothers are significant because in 1915 they had come under a lot of pressure to enlist, via a series of anonymous letters in the local paper that accused them of a lack of patriotism. The details are covered in Post 41. Pressed to enlist in the first half of 1915.
Of the other two men, John Francis Lawton had been born in Ireland and, like the O’Neill brothers, was Roman Catholic. Elias Warburton Squires was the fourth man and he had been born in the UK and gave his religion as Church of England. Both Lawton and Squires had been discharged on medical grounds. Lawton had suffered a gun shot wound to the head and Squires a gun shot wound to the thigh. In fact, Squires had been wounded in a live firing drill with a lewis gun. The person who shot him, accidentally, was another local from the Shire of Alberton in the same unit: Edgar John Appleyard, who himself died of wounds in August 1917. To round out the picture of the 4 men’s war experiences, Simon John O’Neill had suffered shell shock and his brother, Joseph Jeffrey O’Neill had been gassed. Clearly, the four men were well known locals, and their war service deserved recognition.
Not surprisingly, the letter prompted expressions of support for the men. There was a letter, dated 15/9/19, which appeared the next week (19/9/19). It was signed ‘Justice’. Justice believed the men’s plan would succeed, saw no reason why it should not be supported and contrasted the proposal with what he saw as the excessive costs associated with the far more problematic soldier settlement scheme:
I know this island well, and a better proportion for three or four men who know anything about sheep farming it would be hard to find. It belongs to the state, and therefore costs the Government nothing, while they are spending millions buying high priced estates for soldier settlement, where they have not half the chance as they have in this case of making good.
Another letter, singed ‘Father of Soldiers’ appeared on 24/9/19. The correspondent was keen to remind readers of the pressure put on young men to enlist during the War. In fact, the detail is close to the experiences of the O’Neill brothers in Woodside:
Now, during the progress of the war, recruits were applied for, and even rounded up by the recruiting officer. Promises were made to them that they would be provided for in the event of their return, and should they not return, their dependents would have provision made for them. Eligible young men were called shirkers, Huns, and every conceivable name, and that they were unpatriotic if they refused to enlist.
The writer then turned to what he referred to as the ’sequel’. It was a case of men returning with the loss of limbs and eyesight; and even those … who have come back to us whole have their nerves shattered. He then made the claim that the civic leaders who had made all the promises during the War were now neither seen nor heard. In his view they were doing nothing to help the returned men.
He also claimed that the men would never win in the conventional market place because land values had increased so much from before the War. He claimed they had doubled. Presumably, he was convinced that leases had also correspondingly risen.The high price of land in the district was an ongoing concern and many blamed the soldier settlement scheme for this situation. The claim was that once government money was made available for land purchases in relation to the scheme, the value of landholdings throughout the district increased. This was in the interests of existing local land owners who were keen to sell land to the government for the soldier settlement scheme.
The writer wanted the local Returned Soldiers’ League to take up the men’s claim. But he was not hopeful:
Although I have suggested the local League make a move on behalf of these men, I do not think it would be possible to move them, unless it was with a bomb, as the composition of the managing staff has very little sympathy with the general run of diggers, but rather inclined towards the money bags.
He even claimed that the recent purchase of the property for the Diggers’ Club had significantly financially benefited a relative of one of the management committee of the club. The clear suggestion was that not only were locals not sufficiently helping the returned men, they were also keen to exploit the various appeals, services and programs that were put in place.
Still more correspondence ensued. On 1/10/19 there was a letter, signed ‘Labor omnia vincet’, that again supported the returned men. It was critical of the local Progress Association and called on the body to support the men.
In fact, the same edition of the paper featured a public notice from the Progress Association advising of a public meeting to be held at Woodside (4/10/19) on the very matter:
A Public Meeting will be held at Woodside, in the Mechanics’ Hall, on Saturday, 4th Oct., at 3 p.m., to discuss the advisability, or otherwise, of having St. Margaret’s Island made available for soldier settlement.’ D. Lancaster. Convenor.
Then in the edition of 3/10/19, Lancaster had a letter reminding people of the public meeting. He hoped … to see a large gathering of local residents with a knowledge of the island, also some members of out local repatriation committee, to go thoroughly into the matter.
Lancaster finished with support for the men’s claim:
I am sorry to hear that the soldiers’ appeal has not been inquired into, but I hope that people who have our soldiers’ welfare at heart will take a more lively interest in this and other matters concerning their welfare.
There was a report of the meeting in the edition of 3/10/19. Lancaster was in the chair. Several locals with extensive experience of the island – including the Shire President, J J O’Connor who had held the lease before the War – spoke in favour of running sheep there. In the end, the meeting supported the soldier’s proposal. The following resolution was sent to the relevant state (T Livingston) and federal (G H Wise) representatives.
That this meeting supports the application of the three returned soldiers for an extended lease of St. Margaret’s Island. We furthermore agree the the granting of St. Margaret’s Island to these soldiers should not prejudice their claims for a local repatriation block.
In the same edition of the paper, immediately under the report of the meeting, there was a short account of the monthly meeting of the Woodside Progress Association. This meeting was held immediately after the public meeting. At this meeting it appears that one of the soldiers presented the letter they had received from the PM’s office about their unsuccessful bid for the land. The PM’s letter indicated that some 20 other ‘prospective settlers’ had subsequently applied for the lease. The Progress Association then agreed to support the bid of the returned men from Woodside and work to the resolution of the meeting held earlier that day.
However, there was another interesting detail to emerge at the meeting of the Progress Association. The secretary of the group was a Mr Hardwick. In all likelihood, this was Henry Hardwick of Woodside who had enlisted at the same time as the O’Neill brothers. Hardwick, who had risen to the rank of sergeant-major, had been discharged on medical grounds – gun shot wound, left arm – in August 1918. Hardwick had been born in the UK but he had been working in the district as a labourer, like the O’Neill brothers, before the War; and he obviously returned to the district after his medical discharge. There was a strong suggestion at the meeting that Hardwick, and possibly other local returned men had also applied for the lease and that his application was one of the 20 additional applications to which the PM’s letter referred. At the meeting Hardwick reportedly … disclaimed any connection with such application [for the lease] on behalf of himself and all present settlers. The whole episode demonstrated two critical issues. The first was that of whether the government should interfere with the function of the existing market place. The second was the challenge of determining the relative worth of conflicting bids from the returned men. In the case of the lease for St Margaret’s island – an initiative which fell outside the soldier settlement scheme of the time – the simplest and most neutral solution for the government was not to interfere in the market; and this appears to have been what happened.
Interestingly, it appears that most of the returned men involved in this episode did end up with soldier settler selections: S J O’Neill (Woodside), J G O’Neill (Woodside and Balloong), E Warburton (Woodside) and H Hardwick (Balloong). There is no indication that J F Lawton became a soldier settler.
These are only two cases drawn from one regional community in Gippsland. However, they do illustrate the tension between the idea of ‘repatriation’ as some form of sacred bond made during the War with the men who enlisted – the promise always to honour their service and sacrifice, ensure that their celebrated status was forever recognised and, essentially, always ‘look after’ them, and their families – and ‘repatriation’ as a government service that had to operate in the real world of market-driven economics, finite resources set against increasing levels of need, complex regulations and necessarily constrained objectives. The mismatch between the two realities created significant levels of hardship, anger, frustration and disillusionment right across Australian society. As we will see later, the mismatch was particularly acute for many of the soldier settlers in the district.
Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.
Archives, Shire of Alberton
(1) Box 379
File: Correspondence etc of Recruiting Committee Formed, April 26th 1917
(2) Box 432
Volume 2, Documents 36, 57
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative