From Gallipoli to Australian farms: The story of settler soldiers following the war

This article and the incredible research behind it featured is attributed to the ABC Rural team and featured on their site for Anzac Day 2015. The original article can be found here. Recording and sharing these stories is crucial to ensuring that we can appreciate the hard work and sacrifice of the early farmers and that no tale is lost to the passage of time.

Cover photo: Tom White and his family on the Carnamah Western Australia soldier settlement property. Mr White had been working on farms in the south of the state for just two years before war broke out. 

It is a little known fact that some of Australia’s iconic farming districts share a link with the bloody battlefields of World War I.

Following the war, a soldier settlement scheme was introduced in each Australian state to help repatriate servicemen who had fought overseas. The program saw the creation of around 23,000 farms nation-wide across 9 million hectares.

Districts along the River Murray in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were obvious choices to establish fruit industries. Queensland created cane and horticulture areas, while Tasmanian solider settlers specialised in dairy.

Soldiers were given small parcels of land potentially suited to farming, although many men learned the hard way that they were not cut out to be farmers and the land they received would not sustain them and their families.

“They virtually taught themselves and learnt by trial and error, and there were a lot of errors made,” remembers Robert “Buck” Stevens from Birdwoodton in north-western Victoria, the son of an original solider settler.

Buck’s father, James Stevens, fought at Lone Pine and White’s Gully in Gallipoli with the 24th Australian Infantry Battalion before contracting typhoid fever. He returned to Melbourne and shortly after was granted one of the state’s first ever solider settler blocks, west of Mildura.

“He was the first to draw a block in the solider settlement and the last to leave it,” said Mr Stevens. “He lived and worked here right up until the day he died. The blocks were never big enough and lots of the soldiers walked off their land and handed their blocks to other soldiers, to help them become viable and make a living. The blocks were only small, from about nine or 10 acres up to 15, which was considered a big one.”

Mr Stevens is one of only a handful of solider settler descendants still living on an original farming block. The land where his father once grew grapes has since become residential housing for the expanding population of nearby Mildura. The tales of soldier settler hardship are not isolated to Victoria.

Margaret Wood was born to the generation of solider settlers who pioneered the south-east Queensland farming town of Beerburrum, north of Brisbane. More than 24,000 hectares of land was subdivided into around 500 blocks for pineapple growing. However, Ms Wood said the blocks were too small and the region was not suited to growing pineapples.

“You’d get a good season and then a fire would burn you out, or you wouldn’t get enough rain and there was no such thing as irrigation,” she said.”Pineapples either grew, or they didn’t grow. The soil was not suitable to grow pineapples and that was that.”

It meant a life of severe poverty for the soldiers and their families who settled in the district. Ms Wood recalled her family survived on what they were able to grow.

“Many times our dinner at night was stewed pineapple and custard, which I still enjoy to this day incidentally,” she said. “We always ate, but it was never anything fancy. Quite a lot of times we got by on pineapples. Clothes were a wash-and-wear and a spare; I never wore a new dress until I was 13, and everything came from the Country Women’s Association. Without them, we’d have gone naked.”

War injuries, mental scars and the Great Depression slow farm progress

Poverty, low agricultural prices and a lack of farming skills were not the only hurdles which first-time farmers were confronted. Many had lost limbs or suffered other major injuries during the war that made farming near impossible.

Len Sullivan, 85, from King Island near Tasmania is still running the farm his father, Clifford Sullivan, took on after his service in Gallipoli and Palestine. The island was the home of 50 original soldier settlers, but Mr Sullivan remembered many of the farmers struggled to work the land due to their impairments.

“The first lot that failed was the chap next door who lost an eye in the war and he had a disability, and a chap down the road who had a war injury,” Mr Sullivan said. “It was their failure in health mainly, and they didn’t have enough cows.”

Within the first decade 61 per cent of Tasmania’s original 1,976 settlers had already left the land, one of the highest failure rates in the country. It was a similar story in Victoria, where of the 11,639 returned servicemen who settled across the state, only 39 per cent were still on blocks by 1934. Although the settlers endeavoured to support each other, it was the onset of the Depression in 1929 that was the nail in the coffin for many.

In the South Australian Riverland region Howard Hendrick, a World War II solider settler and the descendent of a WWI settler, remembers the sense of camaraderie between the veterans that helped many see through the tough times.

“Often a settler would get ill, but they couldn’t afford to employ anyone, so the solider settlers would band together and all go to that property and prune the whole block in a day,” he said. “You would get 50 or 60 men to turn up to pick the grapes or to help with important jobs because they’d never see anyone stuck. They’d club together and help anyone out who was in trouble.”

A report by the Royal Commission on Soldier Settlement, as early as 1925, acknowledged major faults in the program, but struggled to find a solution that would benefit all soldiers due to the diversity of the scheme.

“There are several classes of cases where the proper remedy for one group would be quite ineffective in others. The process of bringing soldier settlement into a solvent and satisfactory position will be a long one.
There is no easy road by which that end can be attained. In a sense, soldier settlement is not solely a business proposition and cannot be dealt with as such.
At the same time, it would be disastrous for our country if it were admitted contracts should be treated as scraps of paper whenever they become difficult to carry out.
We are thus confronted with a contradiction, and the way to reconciliation lies somewhere in between.
Hence, the unavoidable vagueness of some of our recommendations.
The course lies across an imperfectly charted sea, through many reefs and shoals, and shifting sands called ‘prices’.
The ship was hastily equipped but it is well manned and we believe will, ultimately, be brought safely into port.”

Source: Royal Commission on Soldier Settlement, 1925

Farm expansion brought settler success

Although the scheme was ultimately deemed a failure, and widely criticised for bringing further hardship to veterans, there are individual stories of triumph.

Tom White holds a child, posing with his prize winning crop
Tom White with his prize winning crop (Supplied: Bruce White

Often, the soldier farmers who managed to hang on to their land benefited from those who walked away. The rusty gates to Rosedale, a grain property in the Carnamah district in Western Australia, have been swinging for almost a century due to the farm’s ongoing expansion. It is still owned and operated by the same solider settlement family, and currently managed by Bruce White.

Bruce’s grandfather, Tom White, is one of the 5,000 original West Australian soldier settlers who had been working on farms in the south of the state for just two years before war broke out. On his return from the war, he took up a soldier settlement block and almost a century later his family is still there.

“Tom came to Carnamah in 1921. He signed over the leasehold documents and the government helped them set up with seed and the bare necessities,” Mr White said. “He had to grow feed for their horses, and there was about two-thirds wheat and one-third fallow, but without the government assistance it would have been impossible. In 1929 my grandfather’s brother took up the block next door, but had to walk off during the Depression, so things were pretty tough.”

“It really had a big impact on my grandfather later in life. He was very cautious and didn’t like debt.”

“My grandfather got injured with artillery fire… shrapnel stayed in his foot for 20 years and is now part of a display on the soldier settlers (in the National Museum).”

Bruce White, direct descendant of settler in the Carnamah district, Western Australia

It was a similar story for 1,500 of the state’s 5,000 soldier settlers who, crippled by falling agricultural prices and the looming Great Depression, surrendered their blocks. But through this adversity came an opportunity for the Whites to expand and diversify.

“The horses were the mainstay of the farm, but after the Second World War we got into tractors and my father was progressive and ambitious, so he took the opportunity to buy land when it came,” Mr White said.

He said a piece of his family’s war history is on show at the National Museum in Canberra. “My grandfather got injured with artillery fire and one of the wounds was in his foot,” he said. “That piece of shrapnel stayed in his foot for 20 years and is now part of a display on the soldier settlers”.

Despite being an Englishman, Tom White was eligible for the settlement program because he fought for the Australian Army. However, Margaret Wood from Queensland said even soldiers who fought for foreign armies were eligible for repatriation in Australia provided they were part of the allied forces.

“I believe Canadian and New Zealanders could also apply for a block,” she said. “I’ve researched more than 200 soldiers now and have struck a few Canadians, so provided they fought for the allies they were entitled to a block.”

Tom White ploughing the fields with a horse-pulled plough, on his Western Australian soldier settlement block.
Tom White ploughing the fields on his West Australian soldier settlement block (Supplied: Bruce White)

Sugar legacy: El Arish soldier settler blocks still farmed 100 years on

In many cases, the community connection to soldier settlement histories has been eroded by time. People have moved away, records have been lost, and stories forgotten. But in the far north Queensland sugar town of El Arish it is not only the cane farms that have continued to flourish, but also the history of the settlement.

“I think it was just a sheer determination that even though it was a hard slog on the farm, it was way better than that trench.”

Marie Carman, El Arish ‘history station’ co-ordinator

El Arish takes its name from a strategic army base in Egypt and was the location of a major battle for the Australian Light Horse regiment.

The town’s streets were named in honour of the generals under whom many of the men would have served before taking up land in the settlement. Today, a converted railway station in the main street is a gateway to the rich history of the town, its soldier settlers and the many others who subsequently took to or worked on the land.

A journal of the settlement supervisor Francis Paxton Martin records every nail, sheet of tin, tool and even the billets of cane given to new farmers in order to get established. The walls of the converted railway station are adorned with photographs of the standard houses built for the settlers, which were equipped with stoves and rain tanks for the married men only, and other memorabilia collected by members of the community such as Marie Carman.

“They created a wonderful relationship that we still have with El Arish in the Middle East,” Mrs Carman explained. “They had been there… and they all had something in common. They’d all defended this country and I really think that was very, very binding and important to them and we feel it today. We feel the relationship with World War I today here in El Arish still and that’s what we do at the history station to try to keep that feeling alive.”

Mrs Carman never knew Willie Hugh Williams.

Her grandfather died in the 1940s, eventually succumbing to the effects of mustard gas and a young life spent underground in the Wolfrem mining camp inland from Cairns. Willie’s legacy is one of about six El Arish farms which are still going concerns nearly 100 years later.

His name was one of 72 original settlers plucked from a hat in a land ballot at the Innisfail Courthouse in 1922. However, receiving a soldier settlement block number was no winning lottery ticket.

The men took on about 50 acres and a 625-pound loan and then, set about forging their farms and futures out of virgin rainforest and the dense, unforgiving scrub.

“That wasn’t a gift, they had to pay it back to the government,” Mrs Carman said. “I know my grandfather’s plot was on a wallaby patch, so the family story is he used to throw the dog in his bed before he went to bed and the dog would take the fleas with him when he left.

“So, it was pretty rugged… but luckily here, they were nearly always near a creek.”

It was that perennial supply of water, along with strong global demand for sugar, that proved the defining difference in the fortunes of El Arish compared with other soldier settlements.

“They all had something in common. They’d all defended this country and that was very, very binding and important to them and we feel…the relationship with World War I today.”

Marie Carman from El Arish

“If ever there was a place to grow cane, well, it was certainly here. It just grew madly. And they had their badilla (variety) and they had a big crop and the way the price of sugar was then, they did reasonably well so they could pay their farms off so they were happy here.”

The cost of planting was about 30 pounds an acre. Then there was the challenge of cutting and loading the cane by hand and, with the establishment of the Tully Sugar mill still several years away, getting it crushed several hundred kilometres away in the Burdekin.

Of course, not every returned serviceman was able to make a go of farming and many surrendered or traded their blocks. But Mrs Carman still believes the ballot was an opportunity many, including her grandfather, jumped at.

“I think it was just a sheer determination that even though it was a hard slog on the farm, it was way better than that trench,” she said.

“They had so much feeling for humanity, they’d lost so many mates and things like that, the value of the family was there and I suppose it’s a case of ‘if it suits you, it suits you’. And it suited him, to stay here.”

Len Sullivan shows the remnants of the house built by his father, Clifford Sullivan, on the family property.
Len Sullivan shows the remnants of the house built by his father, Clifford Sullivan on the family property (Source: Alex Blucher)

It suited Len Sullivan to stay on his father’s King Island property too, and he remembers a reintroduction of the scheme following World War II, helped to revolutionise the island.

Mr Sullivan said the reputation of the island, and the agricultural success is has since achieved, is due to the solider settlers.

“The scheme helped to clear land, where before it wasn’t cleared,” he said. “After World War II it was very exciting because huge areas of King Island were bulldozed and turned over to help set up 200 to 300 farmers here. It was unreal and it was huge for King Island and it has progressed on today, even though farms have been bought out by big monopolies.”

Mr Sullivan said he never questioned whether taking on his fathers farm was a good idea.

“We were milking cows and as I did that in the morning and night and looked after the farm during the day, I didn’t have much time to think about anything, other than milking cows.”

“I did ok, quite well actually.”

Father and son: two world wars and two soldier settlements

Along the banks of the Murray River a tale of two generations of service and sun dried fruits has played out over nearly a century.      

Thomas Hendrick and his son Howard have lived eerily parallel lives, both serving in a World War, both receiving medals for gallantry, both marrying English women they met as part of their service, and both returning to Australia to farm citrus and grapes in the South Australian Riverland.

Carving a living out of a soldier settler block is no easy task and the hard labour of building and maintaining irrigation channels, hand drying sultanas and rushing out in the dead of night cover sun drying fruit from the rain dominate Howard Hendrick’s memories.

“My father didn’t know a vine from a tree when he first went to Renmark,” he said. “His first job was to clear the land, the hardest part was when they planted the vines they had to obtain their own posts to train the vines up.

“He cut all his own posts by hand and carted them back on a spring dray. It was a very hard life, I remember very well as children we used to help out on the block.”

“When the fruit was on the ground drying we would get rain sometimes and the fruit wasn’t supposed to get wet, so my father would light the hurricane lamp and he would draw up the whole family and we would go out and cover the fruit with hessian, it might be two o’clock in the morning.”

Born in England, Howard Hendrick’s father Thomas came out to Australia before the First World War and worked as a timber cutter clearing scrub around Albany in Western Australia. Joining up with mates in WA, Tom Hendrick fought at Gallipoli from June until the December evacuation. After the campaign he was caught in an Egyptian sandstorm and temporarily blinded.

The time in hospital meant his Westralian friends departed for the Western Front without him and instead he was sent to the 32nd Battalion, made up mainly of South Australians. The 32nd would go on to claim battle honours at many infamous clashes including Fromelles, where it lost 75 per cent of its battalion strength, He also fought at Passchendale, where men and horses vanished in to a quagmire of mud and corpses, Polygon Wood and Bellicourt along the Mont St Quentin Canal; where Thomas Hendrick was awarded the Military Medal.

That twist of fate in an Egyptian sandstorm led to Tom Hendrick choosing to stick with his new mates and take up a soldier settler block in Renmark, in the South Australian Riverland. Today the former World War II Lancaster Bomber pilot Howard Hendrick has retired from his own soldier settler farm block and lives overlooking the Murray River.

Once a month, 91-year-old Mr Hendrick still flies a plane, “to keep his mind sharp” in his words.

This Anzac Day he said he will remember his father, his RAAF mates and the 73rd anniversary of his enlistment during the Second World War.

This article and the incredible research behind it is attributed to ABC Rural who featured on ABC Rural for Anzac Day 2015. The original article can be found here

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