From feed­ing vets to fight­ing for them

RSL mis­sion changes to suit our ex-sol­dier’s needs


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.

Photo: Aus­tralian War Memo­rial

WALK­ING WOUNDED: Ladies of the Red Cross So­ci­ety dis­tribut­ing com­forts to wounded men back from World War I at No 4 AGH, Rand­wick Mil­i­tary Hos­pi­tal, later known as the Prince of Wales Hos­pi­tal, Sydney, NSW.

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