Over one hundred years ago Australia established the Repatriation Department to undertake the massive task of ‘restoring men to health’ after the First World War.
When the Armistice was declared more than 160,000 men gradually returned to Australia and needed sustenance, housing, medical treatment, jobs and training.
Creating the new department was assigned to Senator Edward Millen who had been Defence Minister at the outbreak of war and believed repatriation was ‘an emanation of the heart … worthy of the last shilling’.
Demobilisation from the Western Front and Egypt also required a military commander with exceptional energy, experience and intellect.
General Sir John Monash took up his appointment in December 1918, a month after the Armistice. He oversaw the withdrawal of Australian soldiers and established them in England where they took part in education and re-training programs.
Using ships he had commandeered from the market, he repatriated an average of 500 veterans back to Australia each day.
Demobilisation was expected to take two years but Monash accomplished the task in ten months, a feat described by historians Clem Lloyd Jones and Jacqui Rees as ‘a towering achievement’.
Monash approached demobilisation as a psychological problem that required ‘Reconstruction Morale’, by keeping disbanded men focussed on their future citizenship and openly consulting them about their transition.
The process, however, was not without its challenges and Monash experienced ‘a great clamour’ of veterans wanting an early return for urgent business, family reasons and distressful grounds.
Some travelled around France and Britain while they waited for transport and many married, returning to Australia with their new families.
Another logistical complication was the outbreak of Spanish influenza, a deadly pandemic that had spread quickly due to troop movements and overcrowding during the war.
In Australia, a maritime quarantine was imposed and movement between states was restricted.
Once the ex-soldiers and nurses arrived home, they tried to pick up the threads of their previous lives, including employment and relationships.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes introduced an economic plan which, he said, promised ‘a land fit for heroes’—this plan included the Soldier Settlement Scheme, which was taken up by 37,000 returned service men.
Most, however, were restless after their wartime experiences and at least 170,000 were injured, diseased, affected by gas, disabled or traumatised.
The Repatriation Department helped ex-soldiers and nurses find paid work, although Australia’s unemployment rate hovered around 5 per cent in the post-war years.
The department also granted pensions, allowances and other benefits, and provided treatment and services through its hospitals, institutions and community facilities. This assistance extended to veterans, their dependants and widows.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs now continues this role, providing essential support to people who have served Australia in wars, conflicts and peace-keeping operations.
Clem Lloyd and Jacqui Rees. The Last Shilling: A History of Repatriation in Australia. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2017.
Philip Payton ‘Repat’ A Concise History of Repatriation in Australia. Published by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, 2018