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Introduction to the stories

Bruce Scates introduces four stories on the struggles of soldier settlers to build new lives after the war.
BRUCE SCATES: Welcome back to the 100 Stories. We’re standing outside the parliamentary buildings in Melbourne, Victoria, a fine, neoclassical building commenced at the very height of the 1850s gold rush. In the early 20th century, the Victorian parliament was chosen as the seat of the first Federal Parliament. We were a new nation and it would be many, many years before our new federal capital could be built in Canberra. Back then, it was just a dusty sheep run. It was here that Australia made the decision to join the Great War and send contingent after contingent of men and women to fight for the British Empire. A loyal dominion of Great Britain, there was very little debate about that.
What to do these men when they came home proved much more problematic. This week’s module in the 100 Stories looks at repatriation. What kind of country would the men and women who fought the Great War return to? Was this to be, in the parlance of the time, a land fit for heroes?
Returned servicemen actually posed a problem long before the war had ended. As early as 1915, the first boatloads of wounded men was shipped back home to Australia. And it was very clear from the very outset that they’d require massive support from both the government and the wider community.
It wasn’t just the network of hospitals and asylums needed to care for the crippled or the pension schemes required to support them and their dependents. Here in Australia, and all across the world for that matter, governments struggled to remake soldiers as civilians, to return them to their own jobs, or create new jobs for them, to transform men who’d often been deeply damaged by war into responsible breadwinners and providers. The parliament that sat here debated many, many ideas, cooperative factories, trade apprenticeships, further education. But the single most important scheme defining repatriation in Australia was soldier settlement. The men who’d fought in Flanders and on the Somme would be sent to the bush and told to make a living there.
Many were settled on marginal land. Very few had adequate experience or finance or faced the vagaries of the markets and the seasons.
Repatriation, then, had promised a land fit for heroes. But the reality, as these stories will show, was often very, very different. Indeed, some would say that soldier settlement was both an environmental and social disaster. It laid to waste a landscape and it exacted a very heavy toll, both on veterans and their families. Let’s turn, then, to the first of our stories, Charlie Byrne, an extraordinary man.

Watch Bruce Scates introduce the stories from Victoria’s Parliament House.

Having explored aspects of divisions in Australian society during the Great War, you can now explore stories of how soldier settlers struggled to carve out new lives for themselves after the war.

After watching the stories, we’ll be asking you to reflect and share your thoughts on the challenges faced by returned soldiers.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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