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Smith, Robert (1881–1928)

by Matthew Higgins

This article was published:

Robert Smith (1881-1928), soldier and wool merchant, was born on 4 September 1881 at Richmond, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born John Smith, tanner and later wool merchant, and his Scottish wife, Janet, née Anderson. He attended a state school before entering Scotch College and then joined his father in a wool-scouring business at Abbotsford. On 12 June 1906 at Wesley Church, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, he married Eliza Caroline Clemenger; they had three children.

Smith's militia service began with three years as a private with the Victorian Scottish Regiment. In 1910 he was commissioned in the 5th Australian Infantry Regiment, in April 1913 was promoted captain in the 60th Regiment and in August 1914 major. On 24 March 1915 he joined the Australian Imperial Force and was appointed second-in-command of the 22nd Battalion which was being formed. The unit sailed from Melbourne in May.

On 5 September the 22nd landed at Gallipoli. From its arrival until the evacuation, the battalion held trenches at Johnston's Jolly and Lone Pine. For a period during November-December Smith had temporary command of the battalion, which was one of the last to leave Anzac on 20 December.

Smith was promoted lieutenant-colonel, with command of the 22nd, on 24 February 1916. The battalion arrived in France in March and in July moved to the Somme, where it fought at Pozières and Mouquet Farm. The dreadful Pozières fighting was the most costly experienced by the 22nd during the war, the battalion suffering nearly 800 casualties. Smith was recommended for the C.M.G. for his service during the battle; instead he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his command of the battalion since March and especially his determination, energy and planning during the unit's assault on the Old German trenches at Pozières on 4-5 August. In November the 22nd experienced the beginning of the Somme winter in 'the mud and wretchedness of Flers'. During late November and December Smith temporarily commanded the 6th Brigade.

On 1 January 1917 he was promoted colonel and temporary brigadier general, with command of the 5th Brigade. In April the Germans attacked the Australian line at Lagnicourt. Smith, whose headquarters was about 400 yards (366 m) from the fighting, personally directed under fire a spirited counter-attack; his battalions pushed the Germans back for more than two miles (3 km) and took over 250 prisoners. He was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O. Only a month later, however, his brigade fought poorly during the 2nd battle of Bullecourt. Smith has not escaped criticism for his part in the battle.

The Australians then moved to Flanders in preparation for the 3rd battle of Ypres. On 20 September the 5th brigade helped to drive the German line back during the battle of the Menin Road; it was involved in the Broodseinde Ridge operation of 4 October and on 9 October took part in the costly Passchendaele fighting. Smith was appointed C.M.G. shortly after these operations.

The last of the 5th Brigade's operations to be commanded by Smith were those at Hangard Wood between 7 and 19 April 1918, in which the brigade fought with great spirit. Smith was evacuated sick on 3 May and in August, shortly after his award of a Belgian Croix de Guerre had been gazetted, he embarked for Australia. He had been mentioned in dispatches four times.

After the war Smith commanded various militia brigades and in 1926 was appointed aide-de-camp to the governor-general, Lord Stonehaven. Smith had returned to the wool trade. Having moved to Geelong, he organized the Phoenix Wool Scouring Co. Pty Ltd's operations and acquired the Austral Wool Scouring Works. In 1927 he entered into a partnership with wool merchants W. and I. Smith.

Smith became president of the Geelong branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. While president he helped to found a returned soldiers' woollen mill and chaired its first board of directors; he also gave preference to returned soldiers at his own factories. Smith supported Geelong Football Club and was president for a time. While watching a match on 14 July 1928 he had a stroke and died that night at his home. Survived by his wife, two daughters and a son, he was buried in Geelong Eastern cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £114,392.

Photographs of Smith show a heavily built man and hint at his powerful personality. Official historian Charles Bean described him as 'tall, bluff, rubicund … Brave, stubborn to a degree that seemingly approached hardness, level-headed, with the slow, somewhat cynical speech and assurance of many Australian business men', abhorring any show of sentiment or idealism.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Gorman, With the Twenty-Second (Melb, 1919)
  • History of Scotch College, Melbourne, 1851-1925 (Melb, 1926)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937), and Anzac to Amiens (Canb, 1946)
  • London Gazette, supplement 29 Dec 1916, supplement 18 June 1917, supplement 1 Jan 1918, 12 July 1918
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 July 1928
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 July 1928
  • war diary, 22nd Battalion and 5th Brigade (Australian War Memorial)
  • AIF nominal roll, 22nd Battalion (Australian War Memorial)
  • honours and awards (Australian War Memorial)
  • official historian's biography files (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Matthew Higgins, 'Smith, Robert (1881–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 March 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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