Returned Servicemen
Australia Between The Wars

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Light Horsemen & foot soldiers are welcomed home at a parade in Bega, NSW

At the end of the war there were 260 000 Australians overseas. The government was faced with the enormous task of repatriating them and helping them to return to civilian life. There was general agreement in Australia that the nation should repay its heroes for their sacrifices. Since 1916 and 1917, Commonwealth and state governments had been preparing plans for the repatriation and resettlement of the AIF.


Due to lack of shipping, repatriation took eighteen months, with the last soldiers returning home in June 1920. A greater problem was that with the troops came the worldwide ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic, which caused almost 12 000 deaths in Australia. Many soldiers had to be quarantined before they could be reunited with their families. Many of these men had already been placed for months in British factories to keep them occupied.

The soldiers had been told they would return to ‘a land fit for heroes’ but Australia’s economy could not quickly adjust to the addition of so many workers.The government felt it had a special responsibility for the soldiers who had served in the war. Many thousands of the soldiers had no profession, trade or particular skill, and it fell to the government to provide for these men and help them back into society and the workforce. Governments gave employment preference to ex-servicemen but this did not always solve the problem and was often resented by others who were deprived of job opportunities. Many ex-soldiers were resentful of what they saw as ingratitude in Australia.

Many of the soldiers returning after the war found it very difficult to settle back into civilian life. Those who returned to their jobs often found that the men who had not gone to the war had advanced and had better wages. The trade unions opposed attempts by the government to give preference to ex-soldiers because they feared it would damage the strength of the union movement. Returning soldiers found that the values they had lived by in war—mateship, loyalty and honesty—did not apply in the world they returned to in the peace.

A Department of Repatriation (now called the Department of Veterans Affairs) was set up to provide payment of pensions to men who had served in the war and to provide medical and hospital support for returned soldiers in special repatriation hospitals. The sm garden village.PNGgovernment also built thousands of war-service homes that were provided to former soldiers at reasonable rates. These homes were in new suburban estates out from the citycentre, and streets in these new communities were often named after places associated with Australia’s role in World War I. One such community was in the Sydney suburb of Matraville where land was made available for ninety-three homes for returned soldiers, built in a planned settlement called the Soldiers’ Garden Village.

The Soldier Settlement Scheme

The sense of responsibility to the returned soldiers, as well as the belief that opening up the land and the development of rural industry were important for Australia’s growth, led to the Soldier Settlement Scheme of the 1920s. Under this plan the state governments made available blocks of farmland to ex-soldiers and the federal government provided cheap loans for the purchase of stock and equipment. Soldier settlements began in the sugar areas of north Queensland, in the Riverina and Murrumbidgee areas of New South Wales, and in the Gippsland and Mallee areas of Victoria. In all some £50 million was
allocated to the scheme.

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Soldier Settlement Mullimbimby NSW

Despite the worthy motives of both the government and the soldier settlers, the scheme was a failure.
  • In many areas the land was poor or the farms were too small to support a family.
  • Too many of the ex-soldiers were totally inexperienced in rural matters.
  • The prices received for the agricultural products was too low.

By 1927, 30 per cent of soldier settlers had left their land, many just walking away in despair.

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A cartoon from the Bulletin, 29 September 1921.

The point being made in this cartoon of 1921 is:

A. that many soldiers were injured in the war
B. that people felt sorry for returned soldiers
C. that all soldiers had to beg for a living
D. that the government had not done enough to assist returned soldiers

Conflicting loyalties

For working-class ex-servicemen there was a conflict of loyalties. Most had been trade unionists before enlisting but often they had lost their pre-war class ties during the years in the trenches. For many on their return to civilian life, it was unclear whether their first loyalty was to their class or to their fellow ex-servicemen.

Middle class ex-servicemen also had problems of readjustment. For them there was no trade union to replace the sense of comradeship, belonging and purpose that military life had provided. Their background usually made them anti-socialist, opposed to militant trade unions and, in the post-war atmosphere, fervently anticommunist.


The feeling that they were different from and misunderstood by civilians led many ex-servicemen to join the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA). It was formed to protect the interests of ex-servicemen and their dependents and to provide help with pensions, homes, medical needs and employment. The league stood for strong links with the British Empire and it became intensely anti-socialist and anti-communist. It also encouraged the belief that ex-servicemen were an elite group in Australian society. In such views it was close to the conservative Nationalist Party and most newspapers of the time.
Today this group is known as the Returned Servicemen's League or the RSL.