The irrigation activity that had taken place along the River in the 25 years leading up to the First World War continued once service personnel began to return. Many found that their previous jobs were no longer available, and the states found themselves responsible for assisting them.
Soldier settlement satisfied a two-fold impetus: to repatriate and compensate servicemen, and the political and economic requirement to open up and develop the land with intensive agriculture. The states were to provide the land while the Commonwealth government sponsored the loans. In South Australia, the first Returned Soldiers Settlement Act was passed in 1915, with soldiers being advised about the offer of land in material provided to service personnel and through media coverage.
From 1917 the Soldier Settlement schemes were intensively developed along the River Murray in the Cobdogla, Waikerie, and Berri areas, and in new areas at Cadell, Chaffey, and Block "E" of Renmark, initiating a rapid expansion in irrigated areas. Leases and long-term loans were offered to soldier settlers and land was split up from the Riverland to the south east of the state for dairy farming, viticulture, horticulture, cropping and grazing.
However, in many cases the First World War land settlement scheme failed to support soldiers and their families. Settlers had to irrigate their trees by hand for years as the government had failed to prepare irrigation facilities. Many settlers lived in sheds or huts and faced problems such as rabbits destroying crops, diseases in their stock and devastating frosts.
In the 1920s the superphosphate ‘breakthrough’ facilitated a great expansion in dried fruit and grape production, but by 1938 many settlers had left their holdings. Acreages were too small, the land unproductive, supplied goods and trees were of poor quality and government help was deemed inadequate. There were also problems processing fruit as there were no canneries nearby, and difficulties in getting produce to market due to inadequate transport, with prices for produce fluctuating greatly.
After World War II, the war service land settlement scheme expanded to the Loxton Irrigation Area and the Cooltong Division of Chaffey. The Returned Services League (RSL) had lobbied the Government to open up land for returned soldiers at Loxton, and people learnt about the scheme at the RSL and in handout material.
Loxton was South Australia’s largest soldier settlement scheme and began to entirely change the character and economy of the area. This time settlers had the benefit of those with previous experience to help them avoid some past mistakes. Some were the children of First World War soldier settlers who had grown up on a “block”, or others had seen their families struggle during the Great Depression and believed that having their own land would provide security.
Under the supervision of the Department of Lands, people worked together in order to survive. Women assisted each other to cope under rough conditions and did backbreaking work to help their husbands. Again these pioneer landholders were placed on blocks without irrigation facilities and had to hand-water their trees. As most settlers were of a similar age and background, strong community bonds developed. There were times of both despair and success, with many settlers remembering the humour and mateship that developed within the communities.
These irrigation schemes eventually formed the bedrock of the highly productive orchard and vineyard businesses that support the region today. Many original farm settlements were bought out and consolidated by private businesses and now operate on a much larger scale.
George, Karen A place of their own: the men and women of war service land settlement at Loxton after the Second World War. Kent Town, S. Aust: Wakefield Press, 1999
State Library of South Australia Web Publications, South Australians at War, especially Return to Civil Life: http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/saatwar/civilianlife.htm