GUARDIAN 12: Roger Willis
Roger Willis and his wife Colleen are part of the new swell of folks coming from the city. Roger says it was the natural beauty of the Granite Belt that first attracted the couple to their current property, and they decided to move there permanently when he retired from his position as Dean of Health Sciences at a Brisbane-based university. However, it did not take long for the history of the area to whet his research appetite and his desire to help the local community.
‘I wish I could say I was driven totally just by the interest in the history which is a very powerful influence,’ Roger says. ‘But I also have an empathy with country living and the fact that there is a lot of country villages, or towns if you like, that are dying because the business model does not seem to work any more.
‘Amiens is a place that used to be a thriving town in the 1920s. It had everything that you would want in a model village. Now the shop closed, the post office closed. The school’s still going but enrolments are shrinking. From a progress point of view, it seemed to me that we should turn this district into a destination.’
To achieve this, Roger also joined the Amiens History Association and passionately explains the need to develop places for tourists to visit along Amiens.
‘To just talk about the history in itself is really just a self-satisfying thing,’ Roger says. ‘If you can wrap that up in a form where you can interest other people, then you can come up with a new business model that might benefit the district.’
And, he has seen at first hand how it can work as a commercial venture.
‘It is a major industry for Northern France and Belgium, the battlefield tours,’ Roger says. ‘Every little village seems to have a museum, and of course there is the well-recognised trails for the different nationalities to see the historic sites and they are doing very nicely out of it. As an Australian visiting, I was really interested to learn about the places which were so important to Australian soldiers. To have the support of nice places to stay and museums to visit was just a wonderful, enriching experience. You could argue that some of those people were just in it for a commercial venture, and I have no problem with that actually. There were other people who were elderly and had links through their family with the war, and they had a passion to tell the story. Many of them, because of the place where they lived, were very passionate about the Australian involvement, so you had an immediate connection with people who are still alive that had a friendship for Australians. That was obvious and is the best aspect of it.’
Roger is quick to point out that they are not attempting to recreate the Western Front.
‘I’m very sensitive to the fact that we are not telling the stories of the battles of Northern France and Belgium. That is for someone else to tell. It is interesting background for people who travel through the area and see those names, but our reason is to tell the story of the early settlers of which some of them, many of them, were soldier-settlers from the First World War.’
Roger and Colleen are now living on what was previously the orchard on the ‘state farm’, also known as the ‘experimental farm’, that was the hub of the Soldier Settlement. The farm was set up to train the soldiers for three months in the skills required for farming before they went on to their own farms.
‘We didn’t actually know that when we bought it,’ Roger says. ‘We knew the Harsletts who just live down the road, and they are descendants of a soldier-settler. So, we were aware of the Soldier Settlement but had not realised we actually were living on part of the old experimental farm. I only discovered that years later, looking at photographs and working out the rock outcrops on our property were the same as those on the Soldier Settlement farm.’
He explains the area used to be a sheep station in the Pikedale Pastoral Company before it was subdivided into very small soldier-settler blocks.
‘Many of the solder-settlers were city dwellers and they didn’t have a farming background,’ Roger says. ‘Even though they were given a lot of assistance they were really like fish out of water, many of them. Some succeeded but many failed.
‘There is a wonderful story here of soldiers who laboured in the terrible adversity of the First World War, coming back to the utopian idea of owning land – although they did not own it. They were given leases, which was part of the criticism of the scheme. They didn’t quite feel like they owned it.
‘Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea on all sides of politics and community at large. The soldiers themselves all thought it was a good idea, and for some years it was a very successful scheme. Then, of course, there were the issues of people not really understanding the hard work needed in farming – how you have to plan and look ahead to prevent outbreaks of disease and take measures to control your environment as well as you could. Then, of course, the great depression hit, which sort of just made the business plan of the scheme untenable. The price of apples just dropped and that was the end of it.’
Although the venture was not seen as a commercial success, Roger merits it as an important element of the area’s history.
‘These people were ordinary Australians who did extraordinary things. They came back (from World War I) and tried to raise a family and do the right thing,’ he says. ‘It is just hard to imagine, after running around being shot at and killing people and seeing all the tragedy that must have happened in France, to come back and live a quiet life as a farmer. How could you do that? I just admire them. For that reason, you should, as much as you can, glorify these people by recording as much as you can about them for the future.’
That there were no tourist buses or crowds wandering about on foot, and no pushbikes or motorcycles as I left Roger, was a blessing. I slowly roamed along the Armistice Way to join the asphalt that would ultimately take me back to the city. I went back via the now-familiar route along the unsealed roads, past the signposts named after the former battlefields, and the rows of fruit trees and paddocks of grazing cattle.
The names of these places seemed strange, as I had spent more time in their European counterpart towns and villages. The road signs seemed like monuments to the dead in a way, standing serenely on their side of the road. Those names now conjured images of the European landscape, but there were no picturesque European country fields and villages out where the returned soldiers had lived. The Australian landscape of gum trees and tall grasses held a very different beauty: it was a natural, untended splendour under the wide skies. Wallabies hopped between rows of fruit trees and grape vines rather than rows of headstones in cemeteries. They stopped to share water at a dam alongside cattle.
I found myself wondering whether these quietly dignified countryside monuments represented what the Western Front was like a couple of decades ago. The Aussie visitors who trickled in during the 1990s were a novelty. Passionate local historians were quick to realise those soldiers in khaki were not all from Britain, a mere train ride away, but had travelled across the globe to be there. Stories not previously heard of were consumed eagerly, in greedy gulps. The Belgians and French had opened their arms to these pilgrims, willing to help piece together Australian family histories just as they were piecing together what had happened on their own doorstep.
As I continued along those now-familiar Australian roads, I realised that my own pilgrimage would continue. Working as a photojournalist was usually based on a short-captured moment in a place. Like an old-fashioned gunfighter, with cameras at the ready, a new place was shot quickly through the lens to capture a moment that would suitably augment the accompanying words, to be written quickly and often to deadline. Speed is of the essence in today’s media landscape: move on and rarely go back. Images and words captured mere glimpses of the surface of a place in that hour, that day, and were often published as an exemplar for a place that held far more depth.
I had lived much of my working life like this, well aware that breezing through places and people in this manner resulted in images much more about my life and me than the places and people I was meeting. This time it was different. What seemed to work in the past was insufficient and misleading in my pilgrimage to understand the centenary years of World War I. On my recurring visits to Stanthorpe, and the World War I monuments of Europe, I saw things I had missed previously. I found myself returning time and again, peering around the crowds and down the long farm driveways, curious to learn more. I ventured further into quiet roads and revisited local people. Like a ping-pong ball I bounced back and forth between Australians and Europeans, putting to them the new knowledge or ideas I was collecting along my journey. A casual comment or observation could intrigue and refocus my lens.
In this way, I reflected on how those monuments appeared to be awaiting action – like stage settings for all the commemorative rituals being conducted beneath, beside and all around them.
The scene was set. Let the rituals begin.