Australians on the Western Front: The legacy of conflict

HOME FIRES: Sapper Arthur Findon Dunbar is welcomed home by his family at 45 Chief Street, Brompton, South Australia in July 1919. Picture: AWM P05328.001
HOME FIRES: Sapper Arthur Findon Dunbar is welcomed home by his family at 45 Chief Street, Brompton, South Australia in July 1919. Picture: AWM P05328.001

Sapper Arthur Dunbar, a Gawler-born blacksmith, was like a lot of soldiers on the Western Front, just a bit older than most when his family welcomed him home in June 1919.

He’d enlisted at 30, served in France for three years, was wounded, gassed and hospitalised, had an anxious young woman seeking information about his condition, and received a bravery medal for an operation that left half his mine-detection party as casualties.

Arthur Dunbar disembarked from one of 176 voyages that carried home 170,000 First World War soldiers and nurses over 15 months, primarily on a first-to-go, first-to-return basis.

Moving to Perth, he married and raised three children with that young letter writer Mary Haseldine, sought War Service Home assistance and became a successful shearing contractor for the big sheep runs in northern WA.

Arthur arrived home to a different Australia riven by bitter conscription debates and industrial unrest over rising food prices.

Many soldiers returned to their families damaged mentally and incapacitated physically. Some had contracted the influenza that killed tens of millions worldwide and almost 12,000 Australians by the end of 1919.

Historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that the war’s main effect was to cut down a generation – 60 per cent of Australian men aged 20 to 30 on the eve of the war would be killed or permanently disabled. “The scythe of war cut mainly through the babies of the late 1880s and 1890s.”

The Government created the Repatriation Commission to provide benefits and treatment for injured or sick servicemen and assistance to their widows and children. By 1938, 77,000 incapacitated soldiers and 18,000 dependants were receiving pensions.

Job skills training schemes were introduced and preference policies for government jobs helped some soldiers find work.

One was Stawell-born Private Ray Membrey who had an arm amputated in a German prisoner of war camp after the battle of Mouquet Farm. He was employed as a wages clerk by Melbourne’s Tramway Board and stayed 42 years.

Ray played bowls with the Limbless Soldiers Club and became a Red Cross volunteer when he retired.  At 90 he wrote in a memoir: “I would never have survived the war without Red Cross (food and clothing) parcels.”

About 40,000 soldiers signed up to soldier settlement schemes that offered access to farmland and equipment in new settlements from Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands and Mullumbimby in NSW to SA’s Kangaroo Island and WA’s wheat belt. Many struggled with insufficient capital, little farming experience, floods and drought, and the schemes failed.

Hundreds of soldiers returned from the Western Front with wives and some with children.

Geelong-born Captain Garnet Adcock - Arthur Dunbar’s commander in the 2nd Tunnelling Company - married Belgian refugee Marguerite Van Coillie in France two weeks after the Armistice and settled in Gosford (NSW).

PRESENT AND FUTURE: Sir William Glasgow, Commander of Australia’s 1st Division in 1918 and later High Commissioner to Canada, next to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes with AIF soldiers in Belgium in February 1919. Picture: AWM E04366

PRESENT AND FUTURE: Sir William Glasgow, Commander of Australia’s 1st Division in 1918 and later High Commissioner to Canada, next to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes with AIF soldiers in Belgium in February 1919. Picture: AWM E04366

Adcock, who suffered shell shock in 1917, later wrote: “For we of the generation who went out as young men, to learn the trade of soldiering at our most impressionable age, and to lead a life which would ever after make any other existence drab and colourless, demobilisation meant the commencement of an era harder than the war.”

Although Adcock failed in a bid to enter Parliament, the war records and high profile of a significant number of soldiers saw them elected as MPs.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Library says at least 123 federal MPs served in the First World War. They included two Divisional Commanders, Queensland Senator Sir Thomas Glasgow and Tasmanian MHR Sir John Gellibrand, Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott, a two-term Victorian Senator, and Australia’s eighth Prime Minister Stanley Bruce.

Soldier-MPs at state level included Victoria Cross recipients Sergeant Jack Dwyer, who became Tasmania’s Deputy Premier, Lieutenant Bill Ruthven, MP for Collingwood (Vic) and Private William Currey who represented Kogarah (NSW).

Lieutenant Tom Playford suffered a lifetime of pain from shrapnel that opened his chest and shredded his abdomen at Flers in 1916. Despite 70 major and minor operations, 30 tiny pieces of steel remained in his body.

The Adelaide Hills cherry grower served as SA’s Minister for Repatriation and then continuously as Premier from 1938 until 1965.  

Another politician of unmatched longevity, Australia’s vociferous Prime Minister Billy Hughes (an MP from 1901 to 1952), attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, telling US President Woodrow Wilson that “I speak for 60,000 dead.”

Hughes unsuccessfully sought 354 million pounds in reparations from Germany ($27.5 billion today) but gained control of New Guinea and 42 per cent of Nauru.

However, the politician who had told able-bodied men before the 1916 conscription referendum “I bid you go and fight for white Australia in France” was successful at Versailles in opposing Japan’s bid for a racial equality clause in the covenant of the League of Nations.

  • This is the final in the 15-part Road to Remembrance series, a partnership between Fairfax Media and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.