The Last Battle: Soldier Settlement in Australia 1916-1939 (Cambridge University Press) by Professors Bruce Scates and Melanie Oppenheimer reveals the largely untraced history of soldier settlers who struggled to transition from the frontline to the farm, as part of Australia’s first soldier settlement scheme.
The new book was launched in Canberra on Remembrance Day on Friday.
With a need for jobs for Australian soldiers returning from World War One, the government’s solution was to assign land where they could make a fresh start.
However, a lack of recognition of the traumas experienced, inadequate support services, and little strategic consideration of the land being allocated and appropriate training meant many soldier settlers were doomed to fail. Fewer than half succeeded in staying on their properties.
“A century on and we’re still learning about the impacts of war and its ripple effect upon veterans and the wider society,” says Professor Oppenheimer, Chair of History and Dean of the School of History and International Relations at Flinders University.
Professor Bruce Scates holds the Chair of History and Australian Studies at Monash University and is the Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies.
“This book isn’t just a historical account; many of the challenges faced 100 years ago, such as access to services for those with physical and psychological injuries, have enormous relevance today.
“How does society deal with the legacy of war? There’s a focus on the 50,000 who died, but what about the subsequent sacrifices of those who came home? They survived the war, but how did they survive the peace?
“It’s as powerful a question today as it was in 1916.”
Professor Oppenheimer says The Last Battle draws on recently uncovered archives to reveal very personal stories from the little studied inter-war period.
“It’s often said Australia was blooded in war; really society was transformed upon the veterans’ return and that’s a story we don’t know enough about.
“It’s summed up by the poignant words of one veteran who said he thought the Western Front was bad, but it was nothing compared to what he had to deal with coming home.”
“The government saw work as the solution, and little realised it was setting many up to fail. The problem was compounded because land was the province of the states, but the initiative was federal,” Professor Oppenheimer says.
There’s a widespread misconception that the men were “given” the land, when in fact they were “loaned” monies to purchase the blocks, stock and equipment – and many ended up going bankrupt, she says.
“From dealing with marginal land, droughts, floods and rabbit plagues, to the struggle of living remotely where access to services like hospitals could mean days or weeks off the farm – it’s clear that it wasn’t for lack of determination or courage that so many struggled and failed.”
“The book does, however, challenge the notion that the scheme was entirely a failure, and reflects on those who experienced success. For all those who left the land, there were those who stayed, some prevailing through nous, or the misfortune of others, or sheer luck. Many of those settlers’ lands can still be found in family ownership today, three or four generations on.”
“Some of the most important contributions were those of the women and children on the land – their physical and emotional support often making all the difference to their men; their hard toil often making the difference between success and failure on a holding” Professor Oppenheimer says.
The Last Battle: Soldier Settlement in Australia 1916-1939 was launched at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on November 11. It is available online and through all good book retailers.
Professor Oppenheimer will deliver a public lecture Digging In: New Perspectives on the successes and failures of the World War I Soldier Settlement in Adelaide on Wednesday (5.30pm-6.45pm on November 16) as part of Flinders University’s Investigators Lecture series.
RSVP here. All welcome at Flinders University, 182 Victoria Square, Adelaide.Jump to next article