Robert Smith was born in Richmond, Melbourne on 4 September 1881, the son of a tanner and wool merchant. He was educated at Scotch College before joining his father in a wool scouring business in Geelong.
Smith enlisted the 5th Infantry Regiment (Victorian Scottish) as a private, serving in the ranks for three years before he was commissioned in 1910. He was promoted to captain in the 60th Infantry Battalion (as the 5th had been redesignated in 1912) in 1913 and major on 1 August 1914.
Smith was appointed to the AIF on 24 March 1915 as the second in command of the new 22nd Infantry Battalion with the rank of major. He embarked for Egypt on 8 May 1915, arriving in Alexandria on 12 June 1915. The 22nd Battalion moved to Gallipoli in August 1915, taking over the trenches at Lone Pine when the 2nd Division assumed responsibility for the position in September. Smith was evacuated sick on 12 November 1915 but returned four days later.
Following the evacuation of Anzac, the 22nd Battalion arrived back in Alexandria on 7 January 1916. Smith was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of the battalion on 24 February 1916. On 19 March 1916, the battalion embarked for France at Alexandria, arriving in Marseilles on 26 march 1916. In the struggle for the Pozieres Heights, the battalion suffered some of the heaviest shelling of the war, losing 683 men in the period from 25 July to 7 August 1916. For his part in the fighting at Pozieres, particularly the battalion's successful assault on the Old German trenches on the heights on 4-5 August 1916, Smith was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
On 25 November 1917, Smith became acting commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade in the absence of Brigadier General J. Gellibrand, who was ill, and was promoted to colonel on 13 December 1917. On 1 January 1917, he became a temporary brigadier general and assumed command of the 5th Infantry Brigade, vice Brigadier General W. Holmes, who was promoted to major general. Smith was mentioned in dispatches again on 9 April 1917.
On 15 April 1917, the Germans launched a major counterattack against the Australians at Lagnicourt. Smith, at his headquarters in a ruined house in Noreuil, about 1500 metres from Lagnicourt, was informed early of the exact point of German penetration by telephone and in the emergency took a series of steps that were level headed and appropriate, employing his reserve battalions, the 19th and 20th, to contain the German advance. Smith watched the German advance from Lagnicourt towards Noreuil from the window of his headquarters, directing the efforts of the 17th and 19th Battalions, along with cooks, batmen and signallers from headquarters to halt it. With full daylight, the Germans were forced to withdraw. For his role in the defeat of the German counterattack at Lagnicourt, Smith was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Yet less than a month later, at Second Bullecourt, the 5th Brigade performed poorly, and Smith did not escape criticism for the disaster. By keeping his headquarters in Noreuil, Smith was too far back and lost control of events. Critics charged that Smith was a careful commander, but conventional and unimaginative. He failed to make full use of the firepower available, underestimated the danger of enemy machine guns, which enfiladed his brigade from Bullecourt on the left and Queant on the right, neglected the danger of uncut wire, did not arrange adequate flank protection. Like his fellow brigadier, Brigadier General J. Gellibrand, he received scant help from 2nd Division or I Anzac Corps.
The 5th Brigade fought in the Battle of Menin Road on 20 September and Broodeseinde on 4 October 1917, and the costly Passchendale fighting on 9 October 1917. For these operations, Smith was mentioned in dispatches a third time, made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1918 New Year's list and made a brevet lieutenant colonel in the AMF.He was mentioned in dispatches a fourth time on 7 April 1918.
Smith led the brigade into battle once more at Hangard Wood from 7 to 19 April 1918. On 4 May he was evacuated sick with a septic ulcer. He was forced to relinquish his command and was evacuated to Australia in August 1918.
After the war, Smith commanded militia brigades and was aide de camp to the Governor General. A supporter of the Geelong Football Club, he had a stroke while watching a match on 14 July 1928 and died that evening. He was buried in Geelong Eastern Cemetery.
The Official Historian, Captain C. E. W. Bean described Smith as "a tall, bluff rubicund Victorian, formerly one of Gellibrand's battalion commanders. Brave, stubborn to a degree that seemingly approached hardness, level-headed with the slow, somewhat cynical speech and assurance of many Australian businessmen, abhorring any show of sentiment, idealism or of such enthusiasm as glowed in the heart of his predecessor, he had won great credit by his cool judgement during the German counter-stroke against Lagnicourt."
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 12, p. 236; Personnel File, NAA; C. E. W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume IV: The AIF in France 1917, pp. 384-387, 433
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Last update 09 September 2001