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Thomas Griffiths (1865–1947)

by Warren Perry

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Thomas Griffiths, by George Coates, 1919

Thomas Griffiths, by George Coates, 1919

Australian War Memorial

Thomas Griffiths (1865-1947), army officer and civil servant, was born on 29 September 1865 at Presteigne, Radnor, Wales, son of James Griffiths, builder, and his wife Mary Ann, née Knowles. Educated at the Old Vicarage, Wrexham, Denbighshire, he migrated to Australia as a young man and enlisted as a gunner in the Victorian Permanent Artillery on 22 July 1886. In March 1890 he was appointed to the headquarters of the Victorian forces as a military staff clerk and next year, on 7 October, married Delia McNamara at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Hawthorn. He was promoted in October 1894 to regimental quartermaster sergeant and a year later became chief clerk of the Victorian forces, with the rank of warrant officer. After Federation he was appointed, in April 1902, to Headquarters, Australian Military Forces, as a superintending clerk in the adjutant general's branch. In September 1908 he was appointed secretary of the military board, A.M.F., with the honorary rank of lieutenant in the Corps of Military Staff Clerks. He was granted the honorary rank of captain next August and five years later became an honorary major.

When the Australian Imperial Force was raised in August 1914 Griffiths joined as an original officer with the rank of captain. Although his first posting was that of general staff officer, 1st Australian Division, he performed the duties of assistant military secretary to the general officer commanding the A.I.F., Major General (Sir) William Bridges, who was aware of his ability and experience and wanted him on his staff. Griffiths sailed with the first contingent. In Egypt, in January 1915, he was officially posted to Bridges's A.I.F. Headquarters staff as assistant military secretary and retained this appointment until 28 March when he became deputy assistant adjutant general of 1st Division. He was D.A.A.G. at the Gallipoli landing on 25 April and remained at Anzac until the evacuation. On 12 May he was made temporary deputy assistant adjutant and quartermaster general to the division and in August was confirmed in this appointment; in June he had been promoted major. At Gallipoli he was mainly concerned with personnel movements and an almost nightly duty was to supervise the landing of reinforcements, frequently under shell-fire, and the evacuation of the wounded. In October he was transferred to Headquarters, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, nominally as military secretary to the corps commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, and was charged with all details concerning promotion; in effect he was adjutant general to the A.I.F. He was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work at Gallipoli and in the reorganization of the A.I.F. in Egypt.

From May 1916 Griffiths served in France as a lieutenant-colonel and A.A.G. at A.I.F. Headquarters and was attached for duty to the Headquarters of Birdwood's 1st Anzac Corps. Much against his will he left France in April 1917 to become acting commandant of A.I.F. Headquarters, London, and under the direction of Birdwood and Brigadier General (Sir) Brudenell White drafted the orders for administration of the A.I.F. In May he was promoted colonel and confirmed as commandant. On 1 January 1918 he became a temporary brigadier general and remained A.I.F. commandant in London until the end of the war. His tasks included servicing the divisions in the field, recording deaths, casualties and promotions, liaising with the Department of Defence in Australia, and being administratively responsible for A.I.F. personnel in the United Kingdom. In October 1918, with Major General Sir Neville Howse and Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Butler, he returned to Australia to discuss medical policy with the minister for defence. The Armistice made this mission unnecessary and in December Griffiths re-embarked for London where he resumed duty at A.I.F. Headquarters. Five months later he sailed for home, reaching Melbourne on 4 September 1919.

'No praise can be too high for Griffiths', Brudenell White concluded. 'The administration of nearly half a million men in war conditions, without much guide and precedent, was no mean task, and its successful accomplishment was mainly due to Griffiths'. Charles Bean described him as 'One of the great figures in the Australian Army', 'responsible for a great part of what is noble' in its traditions. He was known throughout the force as industrious, indefatigable, capable but unobtrusive. He was mentioned in dispatches in 1916, and appointed C.M.G. in January 1917 and C.B.E. in January 1919.

In March 1920 Griffiths became inspector general of administration in the Department of Defence, Melbourne, but in April he was appointed administrator of the former German territory of New Guinea. He was a popular and sound administrator but after the first few months of his term, a period of preparation for the expropriation of German interests, the post of administrator lost much of its significance. In October 1920 he applied for reappointment in the coming civil government but the position went to Brigadier General Evan Wisdom who took over in March 1921. That year Griffiths became administrator of Nauru and during his six years in office the island made steady progress. He relinquished office in June 1927 but in 1929 came out of retirement to become deputy chairman of the Commonwealth War Pensions Entitlement Appeal Tribunal. Three years later he returned to New Guinea where in 1932-33 he was acting administrator and from July 1933 to September 1934 administrator. He then retired to Melbourne; in 1938 he applied, unsuccessfully, for the post of administrator in Nauru. During World War II he served briefly in the Department of Defence Co-ordination, then located in Melbourne.

Survived by his two daughters, Griffiths died on 16 November 1947 at Toorak, and was buried with military honours in Melbourne general cemetery after a requiem Mass in St Colman's Church, Balaclava. His portrait, by George Coates, is in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • C. D. Rowley, The Australians in German New Guinea, 1914-1921 (Melb, 1958)
  • Encyclopaedia of Papua New Guinea, vol 1 (Melb, 1972)
  • London Gazette, 5 Nov 1915, 3 June, 11 July 1916, 24 Jan 1917, 1 Jan 1919
  • Reveille (Sydney), Jan 1934
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Dec 1947
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 Nov 1918, 4 Sept 1919, 17 Nov 1947
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Nov 1947
  • CRS A518, items 852/1/451, 118/12, 518, 432, 29/1581 (National Archives of Australia)
  • records (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Warren Perry, 'Griffiths, Thomas (1865–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Griffiths, by George Coates, 1919

Thomas Griffiths, by George Coates, 1919

Australian War Memorial

Life Summary [details]


29 September, 1865
Presteigne, Radnorshire, Wales


16 November, 1947 (aged 82)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.