There seemed to many Australians much to fear after the First World War: the cruel Germans, the bloodthirsty communists who wrenched Russia out of the war, radical trade unions, foreign migrants, pacifists and traitorous Irish Catholics who supported Irish independence ahead of the British Empire. Historian Gerhard Fischer observed:
“How can one explain the Australian home front experience during the Great War: the extraordinary conversion by which an apparently peaceful, largely [British], “optimistic” society with strong traditions of British-style liberal democracy based on constitutional rule of law, turned into a violent, aggressive, conflict-ridden society, torn apart by invisible lines of sectarian [religious] division, ethnic conflict and …economic and political upheaval?”
In post war Australia the Commonwealth Government, Returned Soldier’s League and Empire Loyalty League and other patriotic organisations emphasised the importance of Australia’s British origins, connections to the British Empire and the importance of “white” people. Nationalism and pride were emphasised so that communists, Irish Catholics and trade unionists were viewed with suspicion. Aboriginal Australians continued to be marginalised in this climate of Britishness.
The boatloads of “diggers” who returned to Australia between December 1918 and December 1919 were greeted with cheers of appreciation at public rallies. They were viewed as heroes, but they were also seen by some as a threat to national progress. As a special group whose experiences set them apart from other Australians, some thought that they could bring new ideas and change to the nation. Because of this, they were encouraged to merge back into civilian life and not dwell on their war experiences. The reality was that they did bring changes– wives from Europe, a new cynical perspective, ideas of socialism, or pacifism, a deep sadness caused by loss and horror, comradeship and so much more.
Civilian life had changed over the four years of war as many women took paid work to fill jobs vacated by enlisted men, served in the Australian Army Nursing Service, joined charitable organisations such as the Red Cross or participated in the Women’s Peace Army , organised local fundraising committees and a multitude of other tasks. After 1918 they were expected to leave the workforce and return to caring for their home and children. There was public outrage at women taking men’s jobs at the end of the war. Not all women could give up their independence, or wanted to. Divorce was a social disgrace, but between 1918 and 1919 divorces in Western Australia increased from 23 to 121. Changed expectations and changed husbands or fiancés contributed to these statistics.
Trade unions were also a source of division in Australia. During the war, Australian trade unions supported the campaigns against conscription and experienced success following international socialist groups, such as the Industrial Workers of the World. During August and September 1917 over 100,000 transport and wharf workers across Australia went on strike to protest against changing workplace conditions. Price rises and the growth of unemployment from 1918 to 1922, when unemployment reached 9.3% of trade unionists, also encouraged further action. In Perth there was a tram strike from 1918 -1919, while the lumpers (waterside labourers) walked off the Fremantle wharves in May 1919 leading to several weeks of violence against the use of non-union workers. Guns, iron bars and stones were used, leading to the death of a worker.
The war had exaggerated differences between religious groups in Australia as many Irish-Australians were critical of the harsh treatment of nationalists in Ireland during the Easter Uprising in 1916. Many Roman Catholics in Australia were of Irish decent, so when the vocal Irish Arch Bishop, Daniel Mannix, led the anti-conscription campaigns during 1916 and 1917, a strong sectarian division occurred in Australian society. On one side there were Catholics, many of Irish working class background, and on the other Anglican (Protestant) English people. Propaganda, newspapers and public rallies labelled Mannix and his followers as traitors to the Empire. Sectarianism was a powerful dividing force in Australia throughout the 1920s to 1950s.
Sources of unity and support
The sheer number of wounded and disabled men who returned to Australia after the war necessitated the Commonwealth Government to take action. The Repatriation Department was created in 1917, from the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Act. Over half of Western Australia’s returned servicemen came home with injuries. After Gallipoli, War Councils were established to help injured servicemen repatriated to Australia. The Councils provided artificial limbs, vocational training, registration for employment and collection of charity funds. The Commonwealth Repatriation Department took over some of these roles in supplying healthcare and repatriation hospitals for returned soldiers. The department also allocated war pensions, which were around 50% of a male wage. Bobbie Oliver estimated that by 1921 there were 23,235 military pensioners and their families in Western Australia, which was 7% of the state’s population (p148). Aboriginal servicemen were not recognised as citizens, nor did they receive many of these benefits as they were expected to obey the harsh restrictions imposed on them under the 1905 Act in Western Australia.
In Western Australia several charitable groups supported returned servicemen including the War Patriotic Fund and the Ugly Men’s Voluntary Worker’s Association, both established in 1917. The War Patriotic Fund helped to pay medical expenses for disabled soldiers and organised a wide range of fund raising events for that purpose. Uniquely Western Australian, the Ugly Men’s Association had a significant influence on Western Australia during the years between 1917 and the mid 1930s. The aim of the Association was to raise funds to support poor families and returned servicemen or their families. Membership of the Association included businessmen who helped raise funds, and working class men who applied practical skills to build and repair homes for war widows or disabled soldiers. By the 1920s there were 21 Ugly Men’s Association branches across Perth. There were annual Uglieland carnivals in both Perth and Fremantle to raise money for their causes. The popular amusement Park in Perth, White City, was called “Uglieland”, as it was administered by the Ugly Men’s Association on several occasions during the 1920s.There was also an Uglieland fairground in Fremantle. Funds from these activities were also used to finance the Ugly Men’s employment bureau and a farm training school for ex servicemen.
See an image of White City at the following website:
Other groups which supported returned soldiers and their family included Legacy, established in 1923, Red Cross and Edith Cavell Trust Fund.
The Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) was established in May 1916 with three key aims: to protect and assist injured returned servicemen, to build loyalty to the British Empire and to preserve war records. Western Australia entered the League in 1918 and a national organisation was incorporated in 1919. There have been a range of titles for this national organisation over the past 100 years including the Returned Services League of Australia and the Returned & Services League of Australia Limited. With these various titles the RSL has maintained it aims and continued to be an important pressure group on the Federal Government. . Laws attributed to the RSL campaigns included payments for War Service Leave, War pensions, Vocational training programmes in the forces, the provision of War Service Homes and the promotion of Anzac Day as a national day of commemoration. That the RSL was an agent of unity is contestable. The RSL focussed on loyalty to the British Empire and added to the anti-Irish and anti-German attitudes which influenced much of the discussions during the 1920s.
Returned and Services League Badge on an RSL building in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria (M.Southee)
In recognition of the sacrifice of Australian servicemen, a land settlement scheme was developed during the war in South Australia. After the war 23,000 farm lots were allocated across Australia in the joint Commonwealth-State Government scheme. There were two requirements to participate in the Soldier Settlement schemes – the soldier had to have served overseas, and have been discharged honourably from the services. In some states the soldiers had to be interviewed by a Qualification Board for fitness and farming skills.
An eligible soldier received a low interest loan from the State Government, as well as support in buying farming essentials such as seed, stock, farm equipment and building materials. Some farmers borrowed 100% of the value of the property. They could pay back their loan when they became established and earned sufficient money. In Victoria over 11,000 men took advantage of the scheme, whereas in Western Australia there were around 5,000 original soldier settlers.
Western Australian Walter Thomas White (Tom), who had served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, became an early soldier settler. In 1921 White selected a property of just under 1000acres (404 hectares) in Carnamah, north of Perth.The properties in this region were developed from large estates, with names such as Winchester, Carnamah and Yarra Yarra, bought by the State Government and divided into farming lots. White grew feed for horses and went on to develop a successful wheat and sheep farm. By 2018, the farm covered 37,000 acres (just under 15,000 hectacres) and was still owned by the White family. Many other soldier settlers were less successful. Of the 5,000 soldier settlers in Western Australia by 1929 about 70% remained on their farms. In Tasmania the failure rate was 61%, while in Victoria only 17% of the soldier settlers had left their farms by 1929. Falling crop prices, poor seasons, inexperience and poor quality of land contributed to these problems. However, across Australia today families continue to prosper on farms that came into existence as part of the Soldier Settlement scheme.
More information about the Soldier Settlement scheme and Tom White’s experience can be found at:
Scroll down to Farm Expansion Brought Settler Success and the interview with Bruce White.
Many turning points occurred in Western Australian society, and the wider world, during 1918. The German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires fell, while the new communist regime in Russia was struggling to survive a vicious civil war. The boost to technology – radio, flight, motor and medical technologies amongst many others, were all spurred on by necessity of war. Countless grieving families across the world were forced to come to terms with loss. About 60,000 young Australians were dead, leaving a generation of widows, unmarried women and unimaginable heartache for so many loved ones. Memorials were built on the main streets of towns across Australia, and farms and villages in Europe and the Middle East. They contained the names of faceless young men and have become a focus of commemoration services on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. New organisations such as the RSL and community groups emerged to focus energy to support those damaged by the war. In Western Australia, as in the other states and many nations, the war and events during its final year became a turning point in the lives of the survivors and their families.