Brigadier General Sir Robert Anderson

6 August 1865 - 30 December 1940

AWM H00019 Caption: c 1916; Portrait of Brigadier General Sir Robert Murray McCheyne Anderson, KCMG. Photographer: Unknown photographer

Robert Murray McCheyne Anderson was born in The Mint, Sydney, on 6 August 1865, the third son of Robert Anderson, a police sergeant. He was educated at Sydney Grammar, from which he matriculated in 1882. He joined the Bank of New Zealand, and after service in New Zealand, became manager of the George Street, Sydney branch.

Anderson was commissioned into the 2nd Infantry Regiment as a second lieutenant in December 1886. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1891 and then to captain on 27 April 1894. The next day he resigned his commission, but remained on the Reserve of Officers.

Anderson served as Sydney City Treasurer from 1897 to 1900, and then became Town Clerk. He also became prominent in the shipping and timber industries, making a name for himself as a very successful businessman. In 1911-12, he headed a Royal Commission into the sugar industry on behalf of the Federal government. Then in 1915, he advised the Minister for Defence, the Hon. Senator G. F. Pearce, on the organisation of the paymaster's branch. As investigator and Royal Commissioner, Anderson's reports were notable for their acuity, thoroughness and directness.

Thus, Anderson seemed a logical choice for Pearce to send to Egypt to remedy abuses in the supply and procurement system, and to set up canteens along business lines. Anderson was appointed to the AIF as a colonel on 8 December 1915 and given the post of Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General at the Base Depot. As such, Anderson worked under the commanders of the Base, first Brigadier General G. G. H. Irving and then Brigadier General V. C. M. Sellheim, but also reported directly to the Minister of Defence, even recommending that Sellheim be restored to command of the base. Anderson was promoted to Brigadier General on 1 January 1916.

Anderson set to work closing loopholes for petty corruption by reforming the clothing and fodder contracts, instituting a proper audit and control system. Anderson found the British ordnance system satisfactory and contented himself with training an Australian staff in British methods. Likewise, although he had brought an expert staff from Australia to open canteens, Anderson was sufficiently impressed by the arrangements that had since been made by the British that he disbanded the staff. Anderson built up the Anzac Hostel in Cairo for the reception of soldiers on leave, where they could find accommodation and club rooms.

In the middle of 1916, questions arose surrounding the appointment of an officer to deal with the British War Office in London in negotiations concerning the method of payment for goods and services supplied to the AIF. Keith Murdoch, a journalist with considerable political influence in Australia, urged the government to appoint Anderson. Prime Minister Hughes was also of the opinion that a businessman like Anderson would be better suited to the task than Sellheim, the incumbent Commandant of the Administrative Headquarters, a regular army officer.

Thus, on 1 August 1916, Anderson was appointed Commandant of the Administrative Headquarters in London. In this capacity, he represented the Department of Defence in dealings with the War Office, and was also the GOC AIF, Lieutenant General Sir W. R. Birdwood's link to the AIF Training Depots in England, then under the command of Major General Sir N. J. Moore.

Within two months, Anderson had arranged a complete financial readjustment with the War Office. Instead of attempting to account for every item of clothing, arms, equipment and other goods supplied to the AIF, a fixed rate per head was agreed upon. This saved both the AIF and the War Office an enormous amount of complicated accounting. (The calculation of the expenses up to this point took until 1921, carried out by an officer dedicated to the purpose.) Anderson even arranged for an average to be taken of the amount of artillery ammunition fired, with Australia paying a proportion. For this work Anderson was appointed a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) on 1 January 1917.

The strong business staff that Anderson brought with him to London looked at every area of administration. The system of pay was overhauled, and an audit conducted of the paybook of each soldier in the force, in his or her presence, after which he or she was issued with a new form of paybook. The system of issue of clothing to men leaving hospital was improved, and a sweeping reform of postal methods was carried out. Anderson set up the War Chest Club in London, opposite AIF Headquarters in Horseferry Road along the lines of the Anzac Hostel in Cairo.

Anderson was impatient with red tape and abhorred "officialese". He could be tactless and aggressive when thwarted. He distrusted regular soldiers, whom he considered felt threatened by outsiders of outstanding ability like Major General J. Monash. A fiercely Australian patriot, Anderson became involved in a dispute over the composition of the Imperial Mounted Division and another concerning the appointment of Australian officers to high command outside the AIF.

In April 1917, Anderson recommended Major General J. W. McCay for the command of AIF Depots in the United Kingdom to the Australian government, which accepted his recommendation, against that of Birdwood. Birdwood subsequently decided that Anderson should return to Australia.

Anderson relinquished the post of Commandant to Colonel T. Griffiths in April 1917. He was created a Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in May, and returned to Australia via France and Egypt in June. Unfortunately, he was shipwrecked en route, but finally made it.

In 1918, Anderson chaired a committee on defence expenditure in New Zealand. Later that year he became an advisor to the Treasury. After the war he returned to business, although he advised the New South Wales government on financial and commercial matters. He became deputy chairman of Mount Kembla Colleries, chairman of Australian Mutual Fire Insurance, director of Australian Gaslight from 1927 and was deputy chairman from 1932 to 1939.

He died at his home in Double Bay on 30 December 1940 and was cremated.

Anderson was a man of strong drive and quick intelligence who thrived on business and administrative challenges. He had shrewd and wide insight into business affairs, and in using his talents to the full, he gave his nation exemplary service.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 7, pp. 62-63; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume II: The Story of Anzac pp. 392-396; Volume III: The AIF In France 1916, pp. 147-148, 172-175; Volume IV: The AIF In France 1917, p. 24

Page created by Ross Mallett
Last update 8 June 2010