Returned and Services League badge.
Returned and Services League badge.

From feeding vets to fighting for them

WHEN the guns fell silent in Europe on November 11, 1918, Australia was a far different country than it had been four years earlier.

Perhaps the most significant change was in the economy.

Pre-war, Australia's economy was founded on agriculture and natural resources, but war changed all we had known.

Food prices rose considerably during the war as agricultural products were purchased by the government of both Australia and Britain as rations for troops overseas.

At the same time, Britain bought every bale of Australian wool between 1916 and 1920 to make uniforms, and paid a pittance for it.

Demands of war had driven an increase in manufacturing and women moved into the workforce in huge numbers as the men enlisted.

Unfortunately they were paid a much lower wage than the men who'd left.

By the end of the war, Australia was virtually broke, which is part of the reason there was very little, and in some cases no, help for soldiers returning with war injuries.

Those who survived with wounds which left them unable to work were left to the mercy of such organisations as local churches, the Red Cross and specific groups set up in towns across the country with the aim of supporting those veterans.

Two of those organisations still exist today: Legacy and the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, now known as the RSL.

The RSL in particular banded together across the continent to form a national body and forcefully lobbied the government to establish the Repatriation Department, now known as the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Families were much larger at the start of the 20th century and many wives were left destitute when their husbands were killed overseas or died shortly after arriving home - and this is where Legacy started and is still operating today, taking care of the families of veterans.

In 1938, when the war had been over for 20 years, there were 77,000 incapacitated veterans and 180,000 dependants who remained on pensions.

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