At the end of the war, the earth in Northern France and Belgium was littered with remnants of the Western Front battles. Millions of bodies were buried in the local farmers’ fields. Children grew up with warnings about the shrapnel that remains underground.
Many Australian returned soldiers attempted to carve out a new life from a harsh Australian landscape in resettlement communities such as the Pikedale Soldier Settlement on the Granite Belt in southern Queensland.
I enjoy the freedom of the open road of dust and flies and quiet. Driving through the Granite Belt it is clear why it is so named: massive lumps of rock rise at regular intervals across paddocks. They are great hulks, throwing off far-stretching shadows in the afternoon light across a vast land dry from the lack of rain. Unfortunately, rain often makes its entry in the form of sharp hailstorms that cause catastrophe for local farmers.
This is where men who survived the trauma of war returned to start their readjustment in a country not geographically involved in the war. Their family members were forced to wait months, often years, for news of their loved ones fighting on the other side of the world. The men who returned were not always the same as when they left. Veterans, sometimes physically disabled, and quite probably damaged mentally, faced a new battle in places like the Pikedale Soldier Settlement to create a livelihood from farming.
They each paid £625 for a farming block and access to a newly established support community that included a teaching farm, school and community hall. It was the Amiens Branch Railway that linked all this to the nearby towns of Stanthorpe and Warwick. Primary records from this time reveal that considerable debate between various government departments, local committees and the community resulted in the decision to name the railway sidings along the branch line Fleurbaix, Pozières, Bullecourt, Passchendaele, Bapaume and Messines, with the terminus being Amiens. These place names were specifically chosen, as they were the scenes of some of the great battles fought by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Belgium and France. Diggers fought in every one of the railway-siding battles, and many are still buried in those European locations today.
Chatting with locals, they suggest the names of the rail sidings may have provoked memories of hardship, loss and despair for the returning servicemen. They would bring a daily reminder of the battles where many of their mates lost their lives, and caused the physical and mental scars they carried for the rest of their lives. Stories also emerge of how hulking boulders of granite blocked all efforts to farm the area, although the veterans bravely took to them with pick and axe. Their new battles often included isolation, drought and financial hardship, all experienced within a shroud of war memories.
However, a local council tourist website suggests ‘it was considered the perfect place for small farms capable of supporting one man and his family, and the high country was considered good for health problems. The veterans named their farms, and the roads linking them, after battles in which they had fought.’ Council, and the community, has created a drive along roads still named after the Western Front battles, known as Armistice Way.
I get to know the Armistice Way route well – up the road from Stanthorpe, along Amiens Road, passing signs reminiscing the old railway sidings of Fleurbaix, Pozières, Bullecourt, Passchendaele, Bapaume, Messines and Amiens – the same trip I took that first time many years ago.
As is usual with many country locations, the population of an area can be gauged by the standard of the road. My route into the heart of the Soldier Settlement community starts on the smooth, dark roads, clearly lined in the town of Stanthorpe before moving into narrower stretches of faded, potholed tarmac as it winds further into areas where the large granite boulders loom. Finally, there are the unsealed roads with teeth-rattling rocks snapping up at the car.
These are the roads that take me to David Evans. He lives on the same resettlement farm his grandfather was allocated after the war. Rattling up his driveway off Evans Road, I am directed around the back of the house where he has prepared for our meeting.