The Limits of Hope: Soldier settlement in Victoria 1915–1938
Oxford University Press, 310 pp, $35 hb
‘The settlement of returned soldiers on cultivable land,’ wrote Ernest Scott in Volume XI of the Official History of Australia in the War 1914–1918 (1936), ‘is one of the most ancient policies of governments after wars.’ Soldier settlement in Australia after World War I is a major instance of a practice dating back as far as Assyria in the thirteenth-century BC. In early twentieth-century Australia, the need to raise an army entirely from volunteers, and the insatiable demands of modern war, made soldier settlement as much an inducement of recruitment as a means of calming things down afterwards, its traditional function. Half the male population between ages eighteen and forty-five – some 330,000 men – enlisted. Of these 270,000 returned. By 1929, 35,700 had been settled on farms in the six States (and more by the 1930s). This may seem a small proportion, but the incapacitated were many, and it represented over 100,000 men, women, and children. In keeping with the most liberal repatriation scheme in the world, public expenditure was considerable, amounting in Victoria alone to forty-six million pounds by 1938, though the financial cost was minor compared with expenditure by the Commonwealth Repatriation Commission set up in 1920 as the soldiers’ welfare state. However, by 1938 about half the settlers had left their blocks, many with nothing to show for years of unremitting labour. All that has ever been written about ‘homes fit for heroes’ promised to British soldiers after World War I applies to the Australian experience of soldier settlement, and more. It is a subject fit for Thucydides.