"Promises and Pineapples": Post-First World War Soldier Settlement at Beerburrum, Queensland, 1916-1929

Article excerpt

As early as 1915, the Commonwealth government initiated measures designed to aid servicemen invalided back to Australia from the carnage of Gallipoli. For those unable to re-adjust to the civilian life they once knew--and many could not--the idea revolved around rewarding the Anzac warriors with land and financial assistance whereby they could begin life anew as rural yeomen. (1) The concept of turning swords into ploughshares to create a self-sufficient farming community has its roots in the mists of antiquity. Veteran legionaries of the Roman Republic, for instance, were settled on agricultural lands in conquered territories, where they provided a cost-efficient and easily mobilised force for defensive purposes. (2) The idea was continued sporadically throughout western history, and it was embraced in Australia at the very dawn of white settlement. The tough and disciplined non-commissioned officers and other ranks of the Marine Corps, who accompanied the First Fleet, were seen to be ideal colonising material if they could be induced to stay. The means to achieve that lay in the provision of generous land grants. (3) Yet while the practice was later extended to ex-Indian Army officers and volunteer members of the various Australian colonial defence forces, land grants were not made available to veterans of overseas campaigns until the First World War. It was the sheer weight of numbers returning from that global holocaust which forced Australian Governments, Federal and State, to deflect those traumatised and potentially dangerous veterans away from urban areas where unemployment was high. (4) In this context, they could also be used to determine the agricultural possibilities in the sparsely settled regions of the continent--and this was certainly the case in Queensland.

While national defence and, by extension repatriation, was a Commonwealth responsibility, the Australian States refused to be surpassed in the patriotic euphoria generated by the Commonwealth overlord, and responded by implementing a diverse array of soldier settlement schemes. (5) Parochialism represented a serious flaw in that while soldier settlement would rely on Commonwealth funds for basic infrastructure, the States jealously guarded their individual schemes against Commonwealth administrative intervention. (6) This problem was serious enough, but soldier settlement was further undermined by Australia's small domestic market for rural produce and the incompetence of many state advisers; coupled with adverse environmental conditions it was a recipe for disaster.

Yet, as time has distanced us from the events there has been a trend towards underestimating the full consequences of soldier settlement. Stephen Garton, for example, has contended that when compared with earlier colonial settlement schemes, "soldier settlement was not the 'great failure' that its critics have sought to portray it as." (7) Until very recently there was little evidence to contradict such assertions, particularly in Queensland, where scholarly research extended to a university honours thesis by Elizabeth Milton and a single article on North Queensland soldier settlement by Ian Dempster. (8) Milton followed in the footsteps of Justice G. Herbert Pike, who was commissioned by the Commonwealth government in 1928 to assess the cost of soldier settlement. Pike, however, went beyond his mandate to investigate the reasons for those financial losses, but even then he believed that in mid-1929 at least 60 per cent of Queensland's soldier settlers were still occupying their holdings. (9)

It was not until 2002 that Murray Johnson completed his PhD thesis in which he argued that Pike's definition of "soldier settler" was too broadly-based. By analysing those who were undeniably "soldier settlers", Johnson offered the counter-argument that only 40 per cent of the northern state's soldier settlers remained on their land in 1929, and because of the Queensland government's sleight of hand when dealing with unsavoury statistics, it was likely to have been considerably worse, (10) The deterioration of the settlers' circumstances, and the contributory factors, are amply demonstrated in the case of Beerburrum, just to the north of Brisbane, and one of the State's largest group settlements. …