Think Piece: A 5th Pioneer Battalion legacy at Pompoota

Source: Graeme Buchan, published on Thursday 5th January, 2017.

graemeWith the centenary of the opening of the Pompoota Hall approaching, I was motivated to explore the history of Pompoota as a training farm for returned soldiers during World War 1. This included the role the community hall played as a central meeting place for soldiers and their families as they came together to socialize and provide support for each other while they worked to farm the land.

For those working and living in Pompoota, the hall still plays a central role in the community’s life, and there exists a very strong sense of place regarding the role Pompoota played in repatriation of returning WWI servicemen. The research I undertook was partly inspired by the experiences of my own father, James Buchan, who returned from World War II after fighting in New Guinea. His journey and the impact of his service made me conscious of the importance of repatriation for servicemen and women, and the vital role it plays in providing a future for whole families.

Being involved with such a project gave me the opportunity to investigate more closely the relative of a neighbouring dairy farming family – Rupert Wren Ellis.  As a returned WWI soldier, Rupert trained in dairying at Pompoota and was eventually allotted a block here, through the Soldiers Settlement Scheme.

Rupert (or Rue as he was affectionately known) joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 24 May 1916, embarking from Adelaide on 14 August 1916 aboard the HMAT Itria. He was 31 years of age, married to Hilda Beryl (nee Bethune), and a father of three.

The 5th Pioneer Battalion had been formed in the aftermath of the failed Gallipoli campaign when the AIF was expanded in readiness for deployment to the Middle East and Europe. The battalion served in most major battles fought in France and Belgium between 1916 and 1918, with their first major action at Fromelles on 19 July 1916. There, two companies of pioneers were assigned to support the Allied attack later described by Charles Bean as ‘the worst 24hours in Australia’s entire history.  Rupert was one of the many reinforcements sent to replace those who had been killed in action at Fromelles.

Pioneer Battalions were specialist battalions and their work was crucial. They consisted of men who had not only been trained as infantrymen, but who were also capable of undertaking engineering functions. The large majority of those recruited for the pioneer battalions possessed a trade qualification attained in civilian life. Although Rupert listed his profession as fruiterer on his enlistment papers, he must have showed potential in this regard, and after undertaking additional training in England, was deployed to the Western Front with the 5th Pioneer Battalion in December 1916.

In early 1917 the battalion was involved in extension of the railway lines that enabled the Allies to bring guns and ammunition up to the front as German forces retreated to the Hindenberg Line. They dug defensive mines used in the Second Battle of Bullecourt and constructed plank roads behind the lines at Zillebeke and Hooge, making the roads passable for artillery and supplies in readiness for the coming offensive. They suffered 81 casualties in the fighting around Polygon Wood in September, and although Rupert survived these battles his service record indicates he was wounded at Ypres in Belgium in November 1917. He would recover to re-join the fighting in January 1918, when the 5th Pioneers were called upon to support the Allied defensive actions initiated in response to the German Spring Offensive.

Elements of the Battalion were subsequently subjected to gas attack whilst guarding road mines around the village of Villers Bretonneux. Suffering further casualties at Morlancourt the Battalion was also involved in the Allied Hundred Days Offensive supporting the actions around Peronne. Their final actions of the war were fought around Bellicourt during the Battle of St Quentin Canal in late September and early October 1918 where in a single day the 5th Pioneers lost 64 men.

However Rupert was not destined to be involved in the later battles of 1918 as he was hospitalised in England in March, earlier that year. There he spent the remainder of the war until being repatriated to Australia in December 1918. He was discharged at the rank of Lance Corporal in April 1919, returning to Hilda and his three children.

Following discharge Rupert applied to attend the Pompoota Training Farm established by the state government to support South Australian servicemen as they transitioned from military service back to civilian life. It was here he learned the basics of the agricultural business of dairy farming.

Rupert and Hilda were later allotted their own Soldier’s Settler block as part of the combined Federal and State initiated Soldier Land Settlement Scheme. In South Australia, the scheme played an important role in establishing many rural townships and laid the foundations for the beginning of expanded agricultural areas across the state. Rupert and Hilda turned their block into a success story that continues to this day.

Rupert’s granddaughter, Joan Lindner still lives in Pompoota with her husband Pete. Joan is the daughter of Reginald Ellis, the oldest of Rupert and Hilda’s four children –  the fourth child born post war.

Born in the late ‘30s, Joan has fond memories of going to the family farm as a young child. She recalls being picked up from Mannum by her ‘Grandpa’ and driven to the farm at Pompoota. Her ‘Gran’ Hilda, stayed on the farm after Rupert died, living there with Aunty Olive (Joan’s father’s youngest sister) milking the cows and continuing to run the farm.

Joan met Pete in the mid ‘50s after he had completed National Service. Pete had a career in banking, but was called up for National Service, as all Australian men who turned 18 after 1 November, 1950 were required to complete. This gave him a taste of outdoor life, which he found “attractive”. He started a driving job at Pompoota on a farm near the Ellis property and, as destiny would have it, met Joan. Joan and Pete were married in 1958, and bought the Ellis farm from ‘Gran’ Hilda two years later.

Joan and Pete had three children; Shirley, Carol and Robert. Robert, always known as Rob, grew up on the farm helping in the dairy. After working part-time at the Mannum Bakery he realised he had a preference for being self-employed and working independently. He met Sharyn, whom he married in the mid ‘90s and gradually together, with Pete’s help, they took on full responsibility of the Ellis farm.

Following deregulation, and the exodus of other dairy farmers from Pompoota, Rob and Sharyn remain the sole dairy farmers in the district. They miss the comradery of the time when the entire Pompoota swamp was active, but are determined to see the legacy continue despite the challenges they face.

With his two nieces, Ellen and Michelle Budarick, helping out on the farm, Rob and Sharyn’s resolve to continue the legacy of the family farm has been strengthened.  In Joan Lindner’s own words: “Gran and Aunty Olive would love the idea of another generation becoming involved in the farm.” There is no doubt, Rupert would have too.

Now that I am on the other side of what has been a thoroughly interesting journey of documenting and curating a history of the Pompoota Training Farm, I am excited about the launch of an exhibition titled “After The Trenches” taking place in Pompoota on Sunday 22 January. The exhibition provides a window into the welfare of returned soldiers, and how their future was considered and managed by those in government, during and directly following those challenging World War 1 years.

My overriding thoughts are, that there are far reaching benefits that result from the successful ‘repatriation’ of those who survive war, and that we should continue to ensure such repatriation is carefully considered for our current defence force veterans.

Lest we forget.


Graeme is a practicing visual artist who lives on a farm at Pompoota. He teaches Art and History at Mannum Community College. He graduated from the South Australian School of Art with a degree in Fine Arts in 1980, returning to undertake a Design Education degree at the University of South Australia, which he completed in 1989. Graeme and his wife Colleen went dairy farming at Hindmarsh Tiers in the early ‘90s. The enterprise led them to Pompoota in 1998. Their farm occupies part of the land that was formerly allocated for the Pompoota Training Farm established in 1916 and to this day a number of the training farm buildings still stand on their property. Following deregulation of the dairy industry in 2000, Graeme and Colleen decided to sell their herd, and Graeme pursued a return to teaching. This led him to teach in the Murray Lands Region over the past 8 years, while still maintaining his involvement in cereal farming.