New Web site honours soldier settlers in NSW

Published 07 December 2009

settlementA new Web site to be officially launched in Sydney today (Tuesday 8 December) honours the memory of the thousands of Australian servicemen and women returning from World War I who took up land in NSW under a Soldier Settlement scheme.

The Web site represents the community outreach dimension of a research project, funded by the Australian Government, aimed at recovering this largely-forgotten part of the nation’s history.

“More than 300,000 soldiers returned to Australia from the Great War,” said Associate Professor Melanie Oppenheimer from the University of New England, “and some 40,000 of those returned servicemen and women took up an offer of farming land, made possible by Soldier Settlement schemes in all States of the Commonwealth. Fifteen years later, fewer than half remained on the land.

“NSW boasted the largest scheme, and a rich archive of files recording the bitter trials and achievements of the first soldier settlers has recently been released by State Records NSW.”

Professor Rae Frances, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, will launch the new Web site – A Land Fit for Heroes? – during a function at the Sydney Records Centre (2 Globe Street, The Rocks) from 5.30 to 7.30 pm today. The Web site is at: http://soldiersettlement.records.nsw.gov.au/.

Dr Oppenheimer is one of the chief investigators on the project, which has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the University of New England and Monash University under an ARC Linkage scheme.  The Linkage partners are State Records NSW and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

“For the first time, historians will tell the story of this generation who, returning from the Great War, traded a battle in the trenches for an equally relentless battle with the land,” Dr Oppenheimer said. “It’s a tremendously exciting project: vast tracts of NSW were settled by returned soldiers in the aftermath of the Great War but we know little of the experiences of soldier settlers and their families as they battled to ‘make a go of it’ on the land.”

Her colleague Professor Bruce Scates, Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University, described the project as one of “truly national significance”. “It’s a story about NSW, but it speaks for all of regional Australia – then and now,” he said. “Our research will fill a gap in the story of Australians at war.”

Christine Yeats, Public Access Manager at State Records NSW, believes that this history will speak to a wide and diverse audience. “Like many in regional NSW today, soldier settlers struggled against isolation, financial hardship, and environmental degradation,” she said. “We want to recover that history.”

State Records NSW, which has hosted the project (including the Web site), sees it as a way of making its invaluable collection accessible to the wider community.