Tucked away in a quiet corner of Queensland, Australia there is a region that could be mistaken for the Somme.
The French quarter near Stanthorpe, south-east of Brisbane, begins with the town of Amiens and along the old railway line there is Messines, Bapaume and Passchendaele. Then there’s Pozieres, Bullecourt and Fleurbaix.
These parts of the Granite Belt, which are now rich with orchards and vegetable farms, began as Soldier Settlements after the First World War.
The scheme was one of the first joint Commonwealth/State initiatives in Australia after Federation.
Soldiers and nurses returning home were offered a parcel of Crown Land to cultivate – and prosper.
Many of the ex-servicemen and women had no real farm management experience and carried war injuries and mental scars, but were keen to start a new life and get ahead. Others just wanted a quiet escape to the margins of society.
In the Stanthorpe region, one of several tracts selected throughout the country, 700 parcels of land were made available in what became known as the Pikedale Soldier Settlement.
Pikedale was named after its original owner, John Pike, and likewise soldiers and nurses returning from the Western Front chose names that meant something to them; they wanted to honour places where they had fought or lost mates.
Queensland’s state surveyor endorsed the move and one town, which was due to be called Diggerthorpe, was named Amiens. The Lands Department and Post Master General, responsible for coordinating wartime placenames across Queensland, approved Fleurbaix, Pozieres, Bullecourt, Messines, Passchendaele and Bapaume.
The Soldier Settlement with French names grew quickly, thanks to government incentives.
Clearing began in 1917 and eight hectares were set aside for the Passchendaele State Forest to train the ex-soldiers. A saw mill provided timber for bark huts and more job opportunities.
More than 4,000 apple and peach trees were planted and a school opened. The ex-servicemen were given a loan equivalent to 2½ years’ pay so they could purchase the land, equipment and materials.
Within two years, the Pikedale district had 46 soldiers and their families. A jam cannery was opened and the settlement expanded to 400 ex-servicemen.
Mining took off in 1920 when tin, gold and silver were discovered at Swiper’s Gully with many soldiers trying their luck while waiting for their fruit trees to mature.
A railway opened to cart produce to the Brisbane markets and soon there were nearly 200 buildings, churches, cold stores and medical facilities.
A highlight was when the Prince of Wales made an official visit to open the Amiens branch railway line and view the model settlement.
But, beneath the optimism, serious difficulties began to test even the most resilient. Farms were over-capitalised and returned soldiers were experiencing health problems. The region lacked water and drainage, and crops were vulnerable to frost, hail, vermin and disease.
Some ex-soldiers left their blocks, but others battled on. By 1927, only half of the settlers remained on their land. Ten years later, the figure was 50.
Today, many descendants still live in the region and, while the Soldier Settlement Scheme was generally deemed a failure, these people have built on the pioneering work of the ex-servicemen.
Stanthorpe, like many parts of France, is now recognised for its winemaking and diverse produce – apples, pears, berries, stone fruit, persimmons, figs and olives, as well as a wide range of vegetables.
Today’s farmers are understandably proud of their Soldier Settlement origins and the placenames that honour the former battlefields of France.
The Amiens History Association in Queensland is an active community group that has established an Amiens Legacy Centre to commemorate the centenary of the Pikedale Soldier Settlement Scheme.
- Bruce Scates and Melanie Oppenheimer. The Last Battle: Soldier Settlement in Australia 1916-1939. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
- Marilyn Lake. The Limits of Hope: Soldier Settlement in Victoria, 1915-38. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1987.
- Lorene Long. Soldier Settlers of the Granite Belt: The Pikedale Soldier Settlement Scheme. Self-published. 2014.