The Anzac Day stronghold you’ve never heard of: El Arish, Far North Queensland

By Words by Sean Davey. Photographs by Kenton/Davey (Oculi) 22 April 2022
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Established as a settlement for soldiers returning from World War I, El Arish is awash in Anzac tradition.

Founded in 1920, the Queensland town of El Arish shares its Arabic name with a town in Egypt (previously Palestine), that was captured from the Turkish Army in December 1916 by Allied forces.

“Harry Chauvel led the 1st and 3rd Light Horse brigades to capture El Arish from the Turks,” recounts Wayne Kimberley, owner of the El Arish Tavern and member fo the El Arish Memorial Hall Committee. “The goal of our committee is to maintain the integrity and the historical value of our township. We have totally renovated the old railway station and converted it into a museum and renamed it the Diggers Museum. We also have a handmade ANZAC Rising Sun replica made by a local blacksmith as well.”

The rising sun replica was unveiled in 2020 as part of the town’s centenary celebrations, something that was touch and go being in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We didn’t think we were going to (have a celebration for our centenary), but it went ahead, including an official visit from the Governor of Queensland, which just about knocked us all off our chairs,” says Marie Carmen, Secretary of the Hall Committee.

Soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment based in Townsville at ANZAC Day commemorations at El Arish.

El Arish is one of a number of Queensland towns with close ties to infamous battle sites in WW1. The town was established for the returning soldiers as part of the Returned Soldiers Settlement Act. Soldiers who had returned from the war were entitled to enter a ballot for bocks of land that were earmarked for sugarcane farming. Marie’s grandfather Willy Hugh Williams was one such soldier who received a parcel of land, which the family still farms today. “My grandfather was 27 when he went to war and was 32 when he came back,” she says. “Both sides of my family were in gold mining on the Atherton Tablelands. His father was the mining warden at the Hodgkinson goldfields mine.”

An importance of preserving history runs in the family. “The El Arish Memorial Hall Committee has been going since 1930, and like me, my grandfather William was also the secretary of the committee. My father used to play with my grandfather’s books that were kept under the house. I just wish he just brought them upstairs.”

Marie Carmen at the Diggers Museum. Marie is the Secretary of the El Arish Memorial Hall Committee, as was her grandfather Willy Hugh Williams, who was a WWI returned soldier that won a ballot for land in Maria Creek Soldier’s Settlement.

Soldier settlements appeared after the WW1 and the program continued after the WW2.

“Some were for pineapple farms and other things but ours was always intended for sugar cane farming. And it’s been sugar cane ever since.” Forty- and 50-acre farm blocks were available in the first ballot, with secondary, smaller farms included for grazing horses when they were not used in harvesting season.

“Our first ballot was in late 1920 in the courthouse in Innisfail. Their names were pulled out and they were notified, they came from all over the country. We have Scottish Highland Battalion soldiers, we have fellows from all over the country who came here,” says Carmen.

By 1925 when the Tully Sugar Mill opened in 1925 there were 72 blocks settled in the area.

“The first cane went in 1923, there was a lot of hard work to be done before that first cane was harvested. Some people went bankrupt, some people drank too much, others didn’t like farming and became shopkeepers. All sorts of stories, we have boxes of files that you can’t jump over, really.”

Marie Carmen in front of the El Arish Memorial Hall.

With a dozen or so families with direct lineage to the first returned soldiers still in the area, ANZAC Day is an important day in the community’s calendar. “It’s the most important ANZAC Day (service) out of anywhere in our region,” Carmen says. “We get a lot more responses than we did 15 years ago. There are a lot of people showing a big interest now because they realise the value of living in in a community that has such direct lineage to WW1.”

Brent Cook is a local blacksmith and was commissioned to produce the ANZAC Rising Sun sculpture, which was unveiled in El Arish in 2020. In the lead up to ANZAC Day Brent and his son Arlo make some final touch-ups to the sculpture.

“ANZAC Day is a big event here,” Cook says. “A lot of people come, bagpipers the whole lot. We all get together and have a few rums or biccies and and a few speeches, a little bit of two up,” he laughs. “ANZAC Day is like Christmas in a way. Even though it has very sad memories.”

El Arish Memorial Hall Committee member and owner of the El Arish Tavern Wayne Kimberley in the Diggers Museum.

The new sculpture isn’t the only treasure boasted by El Arish. The Diggers Museum is located in the original railway station on the Queensland Rail line on the western side of town, the same line that was used to haul the harvested sugarcane to the the mills. Wonderfully refurbished, the tiny museum houses many historical records and relics that speak of the community’s involvement in WW1.

“One year we did Weary Dunlop, Weary Dunlop’s son lives here in El Arish” says Carmen. “We also have Jack Chalker’s drawings from the POW camps on the Burma Railway that were smuggled out. They were kept secret during the time they were in the camp. They’re very graphic, so we had to censor those a little bit.”

For Marie Carmen, it is a responsibility to keep the town’s history alive. Having grown up in the town, she was schooled in Brisbane before returning 16 years later. She got married and hasn’t left. “I feel a very strong connection to El Arish, I always have. It just seems natural to me to do what we do and keep the history going.”

El Arish Memorial Hall. The hall was built by returned WWI soldiers and was an RSL sub branch until it was decommissioned in 1982.