Repatriation and Soldiers Settlement

Naturally, many of the Diggers returned to their existing farms, orchards or old jobs. Quite a few had sweethearts waiting for them and married within a year or two of returning home. A range of schemes were established to help the Diggers “get back on their feet”, including employment bureaux, preferential recruitment for the public service and public works projects funded through shire councils - in the Berwick Shire, returned soldiers were employed on road maintenance and repairs, while others were found jobs working on the TVO (PG 27/6/1919 p. 2). Sustenance was paid to returned soldiers and their families to help them get by in the meantime. The State Government also established a soldier settlement scheme. Under this, the Closer Settlement Board (CSB) allocated blocks of land across Victoria to over 11,500 returned soldiers. The CSB purchased 1,800 acres of the famous I.Y.U. Estate in Pakenham from Mr Staughton for £12.5s.0d an acre for division into ten dairy farms for soldier settlers (Herald 11/9/1918, p. 5). The subsequent blocks ranged in size from 100 to 226 acres (WT 11/6/1921 p. 9). Other local properties bought for soldier-settlement included Hagelthorn’s Estate between Pakenham and Dalmore and MacGregor’s Estate at what is now Rythdale. Smaller parcels of land were also acquired throughout the district, which was regarded as ideal for dairying and mixed farming.         

Under the scheme, returned soldiers were able to obtain properties on conditional purchase leases. No repayments would be due for up to three years, after which the balance was to be paid in half yearly instalments (with interest) over the next 36 years. Once paid off, the property became the soldier-settler’s freehold. Advances could also be obtained to build a homestead, and to purchase livestock, seed, equipment and other farm necessities. Local repatriation committees were established by shires to assist in the administration of the scheme. Pakenham came under the committee which covered the Berwick Shire from Officer to Bunyip. This committee was chaired by Captain A. H. A’Beckett, with Cr Bill Stephenson as Secretary (PG 11/10.1918, p. 2). There was strong local support for soldiers‘ settlement. When Jack Ellett took up land at Pakenham South, the South Bourke and Mornington Journal reported enthusiastically: "Mr Jack Ellett, who is a returned Anzac, has settled in this district under the Repatriation Scheme. After having been absent on active service for just on four years and proved himself a soldier and a man, he now proves his faith in this district by settling not more than a mile away from the home of his parents which he left four years ago to do battle for Australia ... We congratulate him on having just brought to his new home as his bonnie bride 'the girl he left behind him' who had been true to her soldier boy through those years of trial” (SBMJ 22/5/1919, p.2). 

A number of other Pakenham Diggers eventually took up land around the district under the Scheme, including Jack’s brother Alf Ellett, Ben Turner, Arch Blackwood, Syd Thewlis, Dick Doherty, Walter Gribble, Methuselah Covey, John MacDonald and Thomas Kempster. A number of new settlers were also attracted to the district, such as Bill Smith, Jim Leadoux and Bill Lasich, who all settled in Pakenham South. Some Pakenham locals also chose (or had) to take up land elsewhere, such as the Mallee district in north-western Victoria. Some, such as Ben Turner who acquired land on Ballarto Road in Pakenham South, were able to make a go of their blocks. However, despite initial optimism on all sides, it was often a slog for the soldier settlers. As the South Bourke and Mornington Journal’s Pakenham correspondent noted in 1919: “The IYU estate, which has been purchased for a returned so settlement, is now gradually assuming the form of a settlement, but the process is much too slow from the point of view of the soldiers concerned. The ordinary individual would have expected some sort of provision would have been made for the settlers and their families before they arrived in order that they might have some of the comforts of civilisation. But not so ... The soldier comes first, and very gradually provision is made for him ... “   (SBMJ 12/6/1919, p. 2). Many of the soldier settler blocks, especially on the IYU and Hagelthorn’s Estate suffered badly from flooding during winter and needed significant (and expensive) drainage (PG 31/8/1923 p. 3 & Argus 24/6/1925, p. 24). Native “kangaroo grass” was poor pasture for dairy cows, which meant significant plowing and other improvements were required before fields could be productive. There were also complaints that the land was sold for prices that were too high and that the soldier-settlers had been overcharged for things like stock. Prices for rural produce also fluctuated significantly. All this meant that even those with previous farming experience often struggled. Commenting on a Mr McLeod who left his block on the IYU after “several very hard years”, the South Bourke and Mornington Journal stated: “One thing is quite certain, if men who have spent the best part of their lives in this district, and know all the conditions, can’t make a success, there is not much chance for the man who knows nothing of the land or the conditions. Unfortunately a good deal of the land on the IYU estate ... is very poor ... It is regrettable that men who have done so much for their country should be placed in the position of still fighting for an existence (the very barest) for their wives and families” (SBMJ 16/9/1926, p. 4). Often the soldier--settlers’ long-term health proved to be the stumbling block: over time, many of them found their capacity for the hard, physical labour involved in farming was limited by the lingering side effects of their war wounds and gassings, which increasingly manifested as they got older. Many died prematurely young from medical conditions linked to their war service. 

Healing the wounds inside

In addition to these practical challenges in returning to their civilian lives, some of the Diggers also lived with haunting memories and deep wounds on the inside. These could manifest themselves in ways which today would be diagnosed as symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including nightmares and other sleeping difficulties; jittery “nerves” (which those who had been “shell shocked”were prone to), “restlessness” or heavy drinking. One of the Diggers, Ernest Cameron, struggled to deal with his interior anguish and eventually committed suicide in 1920, leaving behind a young wife and family. Tom McEvoy became something of a “lost soul” whose life ended tragically in an incident which was probably triggered by the nervous condition he developed as a result of his war service. However, considering what the soldiers had seen, experienced and survived during four years of brutal warfare, it is amazing that so many of Pakenham’s Diggers were able (at least outwardly) to “make a go” of their lives after the War, building up their farms and businesses; holding down steady jobs; marrying and raising families; and actively contributing to the life of the community in so many ways. It is telling though, that their children and grandchildren often say “Pop never spoke much about the War”.

The Pakenham RSL is formed

Amongst the soldiers, a strong sense of mateship, camaraderie and common concern formed on the battlefield. This inspired the formation of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) [now the Returned & Services League - RSL] in 1916. The League’s primary objective was to promote the interests and the welfare of returned service personnel, their dependents and the dependents of those who had been killed (Gippsland Farmers’ Journal 26/11/1918 p.3). At the time, there was a strong feeling amongst veterans that the Government (and especially the Repatriation Commission) was not doing enough to provide them with the assistance they needed to settle back into civilian life. Harry Worship was one of those who felt very frustrated by his dealings with the bureaucracy regarding assistance: ‘We in the country who are making an effort to repatriate ourselves are not in the know as to how to go about getting our share” (NAA B73 R15344). The RSL was to become a vehicle whereby such concerns could be “ventilated” and taken up, with the wider League’s support if required. In April 1919, around 20 returned soldiers met at the Pakenham Mechanics‘ Institute to form a local sub-branch of the RSSILA. The inaugural committee was a mixture of existing residents and new soldier-settlers: Lionel Malcolm (President), Harry Worship and Ern Gabbett (Vice Presidents), Fred Hower (Secretary and Treasurer), with Artie Paternoster, Bert Ellett, Tom Kempster, Methuselah Covey and Ernest Knight as committee members (SBMJ 24/4/1919, p. 2). One of the first issues the local RSL raised was the building of an “Anzac Memorial Hall” in Pakenham.


Serving again in World War Two 

Despite having gone through the horrors of WWI, quite a few of the Pakenham Diggers were eager to serve their country again during the Second World War (1939-1945). Some enlisted at the same time as their sons and daughters. Some served in non-combat roles with the Army, but most were in the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC), a civil defence organisation initially established by the RSL but later subsumed into the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). VDC members were trained in tasks which would be required in the event of an enemy invasion, including the use of explosives to demolish strategic facilities and infrastructure such as bridges. The local unit was the11th Battalion VDC. Its officers included Syd Thewlis, Jack Ellett and Jim Leadoux. The VDC’s other activities included helping to save properties during the January 1944 bushfires which threatened to destroy Pakenham (DJ 26/1/1944 p. 1) and guarding two American fighter planes which were forced to land in poor weather on the Pakenham Racecourse (Argus 10/5/1944 p. 3). Interestingly, Ern Gabbett, who for many years was the local tailor and a popular musicIan, had the distinction of becoming a veteran of three wars, having served in the Boer War, WWI and WWII! After WWII, Robert Ramage, Jim Leadoux, Wally Black and other WWI Diggers helped the WWII veteran to settle back into civilian life through both the RSL and local Repatriation Committee. Another of those who helped with the task was former Councillor Bill Stephenson, who had played a leading role with repatriation initiatives after WWI. 

The last of the Pakenham Diggers 

As previously noted, many of the WWI Diggers developed medical conditions associated with their war service and often died prematurely young. By the 1980s, very few were still alive. Andy Blackwood was probably the last of those listed on Pakenham’s WWI memorials still living in the district. He died in June 1987, more than 70 years after he had enlisted as a fresh faced 18 year old farmer from Pakenham South. The last of Pakenham’s Diggers to pass away was James Devereaux, who died at Warragul in May 1989 aged 95.