Arthur Gordon Smith

Portrait of Captain Arthur Gordon Smith

Rank

Captain

Roll title

Royal Navy

Convoy ship

HMAT Orvieto

HMS Endymion, commanded by Smith from October 1910 to June 1912.

© Imperial War Museums (Q 38807)

Born in Cornwall on 30 March 1873, Arthur Gordon Smith joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1888. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant in 1892 and full lieutenant the following year. In June 1900, while serving as a lieutenant on Aurora, Smith landed with the Pekin Relief Force as part of the China Relief Expedition, launched in response to the Boxer Rebellion. He was Mentioned in Despatches for:

Services with advanced guard of the expedition; took part in the capture of the Hsiku Armoury and Pei Yang Arsenal; in defence of Teintsin settlement and the capture of the Teintsin native city. Also landed in charge of naval guns for defence of Teintsin during the final advance on Pekin, August, 1900.

He received the China Medal, with Relief of Pekin clasp.

By the end of 1909, Smith attained the rank of captain. He commanded HMS Endymion, Pembroke and Jupiter before being loaned to the Australian Government for service in the Royal Australian Navy. He came to Australia in 1913 and was appointed as the second Naval Member of the Naval Board. He gained the captaincy of HMAS Encounter just before the outbreak of war. 

HMS Jupiter commanded by Smith in 1912.

© Imperial War Museums (Q 21409)

HMS Dominion, shown here in 1918

© Imperial War Museums (Q 21170)

HMAT Orvieto.

Courtesy of the Western Australian Museum MHK D1 765

At the outbreak of war, Smith was given command of the First Convoy of Australian and New Zealand troopships that departed from Albany. As commander, he was charged with assembling the convoy and ensuring it reached Europe safely. This was not an easy task, as late in 1914, the threat posed by German cruisers in the Indian Ocean made a voyage on the scale of the First Convoy a dangerous prospect.  Reflecting on his assignment, Smith wrote:

It must be remembered that it was not until the beginning of 1915 that the seas could be considered safe for the passage of transports.  The German Pacific Fleet was still ‘in being’. It was, therefore, necessary that this division should proceed as one convoy, in order that it could be escorted by an adequate naval force.  … I took for my flagship the Orient liner ‘Orvieto’, which was to sail from Melbourne with a battalion of infantry, the general in command and his divisional staff.  There were to be twenty-eight ships in the Australian contingent ; practically every merchant vessel of any size that happened to be in Australian waters at the time had been commandeered, including a dozen or so of 10,000 tons and over.

Orvieto departed from Melbourne on 21 October 1914  and, after a five-day passage, arrived at King George Sound, Albany on a ‘cold and misty morning’. Over the next week, Smith worked tirelessly organising transports, commissioning ships, coaling, delivering letters and orders or landing troops for medical attention. He took on a great deal of the work himself. As he put it, ‘we worked like slaves’, ensuring all necessary arrangements had been made.’. 

Listen to Smith describe the preparations in the days leading up to departure.

[M]ost of the time we were [in Albany] it was blowing freshly from the south-east. Boatwork was very difficult and somewhat dangerous, and there was plenty of it. All the transports…coal [and] water…had to be filled up to their fullest capacity. This involved their going inside the inner harbour, where there was only room for three of them at a time. We worked like slaves; so did the authorities on the shore. We were at it from early morning till eleven at night, visiting ships, making the necessary arrangements, and solving… the many questions that arose. For instance, one transport smashed a portion of her capstan and reported that she could not weigh her anchor. The damaged parts were landed, and the village blacksmith at Albany managed to repair them somehow. Then there were millions of letters and orders to take round and collect; telegrams to distribute; soldiers to be landed for medical or other reasons, and others, who had missed their ships, to be brought off. It was a regular nightmare. By the evening of the 31st we were all ready. The last bag of mails had been distributed, the last sick soldier had been landed, all the transports had been topped up with coal, the sailing orders had been issued, and we were ready to leave.

In calm waters at 6 am on Sunday 1 November 1915, the First Convoy set sail from King George Sound. The convoy was made up of 38 troopships: 28 Australian (two of which did not assemble at Albany, but departed from Fremantle and met the convoy at sea) and ten New Zealand. There were also four escort ships. The troopships carried a total of more than 28,000 men and women and over 7,000 horses.

Listen to Smith describe the departure.

Our departure was rather impressive… The day was breaking, and the sombre blue hills and islands enclosing the Sound were tipped with a rosy glow. Over the Sound hung a canopy of funnel smoke. We filed out in single file; the ‘Orvieto’ leading, followed by the first division of transports. The morning was calm, and there was a strange stillness, broken only by the long-drawn surges at our bows as we began to plunge into the ocean swell.

…Our line was considerably longer than was provided for in the orders. Most of the ships were inclined to play for safety and certainly did not imperil their next ahead by being too close on moving off. The ‘Orvieto’ was well out to sea and heading to the westward before the ‘Wiltshire’, leading the second division, was sighted, rounding the grim black bluff at the entrance. The speed of our division was reduced to allow our column to close up, and the other two divisions to form up on either beam, all according to programme. Then the fun began. The Captains of the transports, who, through not starting their engines in time, had got astern of station in moving off, now made the contrary mistake of not reducing speed until too late, as they arrived in their correct positions. Our line began to get “concertina’d” and one ship after another, approaching her next ahead too closely, shot out to starboard or port to avoid her. I could imagine the state of some of their Skippers. I could, indeed, almost hear them swearing – at each other, perhaps; or, more likely, at me and the navy in general, for all this foolishness. We had no actual bumps however. By and by our line straightened itself out again, and the ships, more or less, resumed their stations. … This huge convoy was a great responsibility for those whose job it was to protect it. It was a clumsy sort of fleet at best. Its total length, including the New Zealanders, should only have been seven miles, but on some mornings it was double that, and sometimes our tail was almost out of sight. At such times one of the cruisers would go along the line like a policeman, making the queue close up; slapping signals at the laggards or at those that had been too cautious or too casual during the hours of darkness. Also we had trouble with lights at night. Some ships could not be induced to limit themselves in that respect. If their penchant for illumination had not been checked we should have made a glow on the sky that could be seen 50 miles off on a dark night. We had also to contend with the habit ships have of throwing overboard refuse, casks, wooden boxes, straw, etc., which would have left a trail on the ocean as plain as any raider could desire. The horse transports, naturally, were the worst offenders in this respect. We were also obliged to be very careful in using our wireless. That was more easily controlled, as only a few men were concerned. No ship while in company was allowed to speak out loud on its aerial, or to answer if called up. The only exception was the senior officer’s ship, the Minotaur. … We had our moments of anxiety from time to time, especially during the first few days and nights. There was one contingency, however, that I dreaded above everything, and for which I could devise no procedure that was feasible. This was an attack by night by a hostile cruiser… We had to get these soldiers to Europe somehow. One has, of course, to take risks in war-time. But this was one we did not talk about, or even think about, more than we could help.

Concern over the unknown location of German cruisers was realised when, eight days after the convoy departed, a radio alert from staff on Cocos Island reported “Strange warship off entrance”, and then, “SOS … Emden here”. Smith wrote:

At that time the ‘Emden’, the ‘Konigsberg’ and another smaller cruiser, the ‘Geier’ were unlocated, but were believed to be somewhere in the Indian Ocean.  … The ‘Sydney’, being nearest, was dispatched to investigate and in a few minutes had disappeared over the horizon, leaving only a trail of smoke. 

On 9 November, HMAS Sydney engaged and defeated Emden. Smith received word that Emden was ‘beached and done for’, a message greeted with cheers by the troops, but did not hear full details until they reached Colombo, where prisoners were transferred from the Sydney and divided among several ships of the convoy including the Orvieto

After leaving Colombo, the convoy next stopped at Aden, where Smith learnt that the Commonwealth was at war with the Ottoman Empire and the troops would be disembarked in Egypt rather than continuing on to Europe. Navigating through the Red Sea was challenging, and they took an unusual route to avoid possible mines, which almost ended in disaster: 

The Turks had put out all the lights in the Red Sea, and it was rumoured that they had brought a lot of mines on camels for distribution along this thoroughfare in some of the narrow channels.  … The absence of lights in the southern part of the Red Sea caused us a little anxiety. There are a lot of rocks and small islands scattered about near the entrance, and the currents are strong and rather irregular. We took a very unusual route on account of the possibility of mines.  Fortunately, the weather was clear, and the Captain of the ‘Orvieto’, having passed through it regularly six times a year, knew the Red Sea from end to end.

It was a good thing he did.  On the first night we sighted ahead the shadowy shapes of a group of islands that ought not to have been there according to our reckoning; the convoy was steering straight for them.  The question was, On which side of them should we go?  The captain, fortunately, recognized one of the lumps by its outline, and we had just time to signal an alteration of course, which took us clear of the whole group. It was a bit exciting. We barely cleared them. If we had tried to pass on the other side we should have put the whole convoy on a rocky shoal.

The Orvieto reached Suez on 1 December and led the convoy through the canal. It docked at Alexandria on the morning of 3 December to disembark troops.  Smith wrote,

It was a fortnight or more before all of the ships were cleared of men and stores.  It was a tedious job, and it rained continually – not the sort of weather one expected in Egypt.

He remained in Egypt for a short time, and recalled watching the troops as ‘khaki specks … swarming all over the Great Pyramid like mites on cheese, and the Arabs … doing a roaring trade photographing Australians mounted on camels with the Sphinx in the background’. 

HMAT Orvieto leaving Port Melbourne. The crowd watching the ship depart had rushed the pier. The photograph was taken by Charles Bean.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial G01539

A pleasure craft in Albany Harbour. Smith and his staff used small boats like this to carry orders, letters and instructions between the ships of the First Convoy.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial PS0147

Ships of the First Convoy at King George Sound, Albany, before their departure on 1 November 1914.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P02085.002

Mail delivery on board HMAT Orvieto.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial PS0305

Naval officers and officer prisoners of SMS Emden strolling on the deck of HMAT Orvieto. One of the First Convoy’s escorts, HMAS Sydney, had earlier destroyed the German raider SMS Emden at the Cocos–Keeling Islands.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial PS0240

Captain Smith on board HMAT Orvieto.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial PS0184

At sea, November 1914. Dexter (left) with Captain Gordon Smith RN, the Convoy commander (right), and an Australian officer. The photograph was taken by Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial G01558

Charles Bryant, First convoy at sea (1920, oil on canvas, 153 x 303 cm).

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial ART00190

SMS Emden after the battle, clearly showing the extent of the damage inflicted on the ship.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P01236.004

Australian troops disembarking from HMAT Orvieto at Alexandria, Egypt.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial H02030

Schuler took this photograph of a First Convoy transport unloading at Alexandria, Egypt.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial PS0375

The Order of St Michael and St George as awarded to Smith for his work in organising the First Convoy.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial OL00271.002

For his tireless work in the organisation of the convoys, Smith was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, a British and Commonwealth honour, at Buckingham Palace on 13 June 1917.

The citation read:

He worked unsparingly and his counsel was on all occasions sound and inspired confidence, particularly when war broke out. His most marked achievement was the organisation of the huge transport fleet that carried troops and horses from Australia and New Zealand at the beginning of the war. Their safe arrival in Egypt is a tribute to … Smith’s ability, tact, and organising powers.

Battleship grounding

After returning to England, Smith continued a further period in Australia serving on the Commonwealth Naval Board.  He was president of the Australian Munitions Committee in 1915–16 and on 1 April 1916 was promoted to commodore (second class) in recognition of the good work performed during the war.  His appointment in Australia was officially terminated on 25 April 1917, after which he reverted to the Royal Navy.

He assumed the captaincy of the Commonwealth on 26 April 1917. This was an old pre-dreadnought, King Edward VII class battleship attached to the 3rd Battle Squadron, at Sheerness. They were charged with detering German raids on the British coast such as those on Yarmouth and Lowestoft by German ships in April 1916. In late 1917, Commonwealth ran aground in the Downs (in the southern North Sea, near the English Channel). Smith and the navigating officer were blamed for not ‘making greater use of sounding machine and leads’. Despite this, he was made captain of Dominion in December 1917, while Commonwealth was being refitted.

Smith resumed command of Commonwealth on 16 April 1918.  A note in his service record at this time states that he was:

A good Capt., hardworking, with tact and judgement. Handles his ship well. Would make a good Capt for active work in a battleship of the Grand Fleet. A loyal Capt to be depended on, would have happy ship [and] able to get good work out of officers [sic] and men.

Armed with up-to-date weaponry and fire-control systems, Commonwealth joined the Northern Patrol in the North Sea. There, it conducted anti-submarine patrols, enforced the shipping blockade on Germany and escorted convoys between Scarpa Flow, Scotland and Norway. Apart from the daily routine, gunnery exercises and incidents such as mine scares, the ship’s log reveals the strong reliance of Commonwealth on aerial surveillance. The ship deployed a manned ‘kite balloon’, a Kestrel flying boat and liaised with airships to survey surrounding waters. At one point Commonwealth unsuccessfully sought to hunt down a U Boat sighted by its flying boat. On 21 August Commonwealth was transferred to the Grand Fleet as a gunnery training ship and Smith’s command of the ship ended on 15 November 1918. 

HMS Commonwealth on manoeuvres in heavy seas before the war.

Public domain image

King Edward VII class battleship HMS Dominion.

© Imperial War Museums (Q 21170)

HMS Commonwealth, shown here in 1918.

© Imperial War Museums (Q 21106)

A map showing HMS Commonwealth’s patrols as part of Northern Patrol in the North Sea between April and August 1918.

Courtesy of Naval-History.net

Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth. Smith was commander here for nearly two years immediately after the war.

Public domain image

Immediately after the war, Smith was appointed as a Commodore II to command HMS Victory, the Royal Navy barracks at Portsmouth. On 10 October 1920 his command at Portsmouth ended, when he was promoted to rear admiral and placed on the retirement list at his own request. On 1 March 1926 he was promoted to the rank of vice admiral on the retired list. In 1925, he wrote ‘The First Australian Convoy’, a vivid account of his greatest achievement, the raising and command of the First Convoy, in The Blue Peter magazine.

Little is known about his life after this. Before the war, on 7 June 1905, he had married Ethel Madeline Barr.  They had four children: Mignon Myrtle; Russell Claude; John Michael; and Vivien. His son Russell also served in the Royal Navy and died in 1940, aged 31. Smith died from pancreatic cancer in Westbourne, West Sussex, England, on 10 October 1953. 

References

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Smith, A.G., C.M.G. 1925, ‘The First Australian Convoy’, The Blue Peter, vol. 5. No. 45.

Gordon-Smith, Arthur – Service Record, National Archives, UK. Catalogue Reference: ADM/196/43; ADM/196/89 and ADM/196/141

National Archives of Australia: Service Cards for Navy Officers, 1911-1970; A6769, Arthur Gordon Smith’s personnel dossier; SMITH A G

Anonymous

Thank you for all you did.

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floyd

Good wishes for all. Hope it is all alright up there.

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charlotte

How did you get on the boat? Thank you for fighting the war for us. How did you fight?

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an admirer

You fought for your country. That is all anybody can ask of you. May you rest in peace.

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0live

Wow, you survived the war;]

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Anonymous

It was exciting listening to your story.

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Anonymous

Thank you for your sacrifice.

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montanaa wood

Hi, thanks for going to war.

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anonymous

You're a legend. RIP.

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jay.cox

I enjoyed learning about you.

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SHARANYA

YOU ARE A GREAT SOUL. THANK YOU SIR.

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Anonymous

THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS.

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Anonymous

THE WAR WAS HORRIBLE. SO MANY PEOPLE WERE KILLED AND PERISHED. IT WAS SAD FOR THOSE WHO WERE LEFT BEHIND. REST IN PEACE.

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Anonymous

Thank you all for my freedom.

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The Rowe Family

Thank you all.

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Anonymous

Thank you all.

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Anonymous

We say thank you.

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olivia

Hope you rest in peace.

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Anonymous

Hi Smith, I bet it was confusing. But I guess that you did want to help your country survive. Did you survive and did you get any medals?

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Anonymous

I'm so sorry what happened but so awesome like I mean your look and your name and again so sorry.

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Anonymous

Thanks for everything, mate.

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Anonymous

Hello, I am Amy. I have learnt lots about you and excited to learn more.

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Anonymous

What an amazing story!

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Anonymous

Thanks for your efforts. Hopefully after two world wars there is no need for a third.

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Anonymous

THANK YOU FOR FIGHTING FOR US. I AM REALLY GLAD YOU SURVIVED. FROM AZZY.

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Anonymous

Bless them all that fought for us!

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TOD

Useless war .

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Anonymous

Thanks for your bravery.

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Anonymous

BEING CAPTAIN OF THE FIRST CONVOY MUST HAVE BEEN HARD. Did they always try their best? I bet it was really scary on the boat knowing what was ahead of you guys.

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Anonymous

What an amazing wonderful leader you were.

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Anonymous

Please can we learn from the horrors of the past. Rest in peace all the solders of the world who fight for freedom.

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grace;]

Thanks for your bravery.

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Anonymous

Remembering your sacrifice at MOUQUET FARM. You died in 1916 but you are always remembered by your family. ROMAN OKELY AND MARCELLE BRODERICK.

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maddy

REST IN PEACE.

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Rayne

Well done Captain!

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Anonymous

Hope you survived.

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Thu Ha Nguyen

I am a great admirer and appreciation to your tireless and brave work to our country.

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Anonymous

Great admiration and appreciation for your tireless work to the country.

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TALIA KAESE

THANK YOU FOR OUR FREEDOM AND OUR HAPPINESS.

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Anonymous

So sorry that he died that way especially after surviving the war. He seemed like a great man, but once cancer has taken hold there is no escape.

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Anonymous

CAPTAIN ARTHUR GORDON SMITH, I HOPE YOU REALISE IT BUT YOUR COURAGEOUS ACTS HELPED SAVE AUSTRALIA. THANK YOU.

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MIA

HI. THIS IS A LETTER FOR YOUR GRATEFULNESS AND HEART FOR US. THANKS SO MUCH FOR YOUR BRAVERY. THANKS A MILLION.

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Sophia

RIP Mr. Smith.

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Anonymous

Dear Smith, You are the best captain Australia's had. You were a fantastic captain and you inspire me to do great things when I am older, love Cam.

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Liam T

Thank you for giving Australia a chance to live in peace.

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Anonymous

Arthur, we're both from Cornwall and have pancreatic issues. Thank you for your service. RIP.

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val hart

Thank you. We live because of the sacrifices made by people like you.

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Anonymous

Job well done. Thanks for getting our troops safely there. Sorry you all didn't come home.

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Anonymous

Thank you for saving Australia.

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Anonymous

Thank you for your story and fighting for our wonderful country.

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