Commemorative stone unveiled for First World War Victoria Cross recipient

A commemorative stone has been unveiled to mark the 100th anniversary of Aberdeen-born Captain Archibald Bisset Smith, who received the Victoria Cross posthumously for his gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the SS Otaki, on March 10 1917.

The Victoria Cross (VC) commemorative paving stones programme is a national scheme that will see every VC recipient of the First World War commemorated with a paving stone.

The Lord Provost of Aberdeen George Adam was joined at the ceremony on Schoolhill by relatives of Captain Bisset Smith; pupils and staff from Robert Gordon’s College – Bisset Smith was a former pupil, and former employees of the New Zealand Shipping Company – the company which owned the SS Otaki.

Sir Neil McIntosh CBE, Honorary Consul of the New Zealand High Commission, Aberdeen City Councillors and the Leader of the Council Councillor Jenny Laing were also in attendance.

The ceremony took place on Schoolhill on the raised pedestrian area in front of the entrance to Robert Gordon’s College. It began at 10.45am with a welcome to guests by the Lord Provost followed by a reading of the Life of Archibald Bisset Smith by Fraser Cowie (S6) School Captain at Robert Gordon’s College.

Fellow school captain Anna Kelly (S6) read aloud the Otaki poem before the Citation for the award of the VC was read out by Peter Low, of the Durham Association – the organisation of former employees of the New Zealand Shipping Company.

The commemorative paving stone was then officially unveiled by the Lord Provost and Robert Gordon’s College pupils David Roddy (S6), the Lord Lieutenant’s cadet and Brodie Barker (S6) Senior Army cadet, while Jason Sumner, piping instructor of the Robert Gordon’s College Pipe Band performed the Otaki Lament.

The Lord Provost brought the special service to a close at 11am and the Robert Gordon’s College Pipe Band performed a selection of tunes as guests departed.

The Lord Provost of Aberdeen George Adam said: “We cannot possibly begin to imagine the fear going through the minds of all those aboard the SS Otaki one hundred years ago – but the bravery of Captain Smith and his crew is a matter of record, and that bravery is what we commemorate today.

“It is my hope that generations of Aberdonians to come will see this stone and take the time to find out more about the bravery of Archibald Bisset Smith and the story of his life.”

Archibald Bisset Smith was born at Cosie Brae in Cults on 19th December 1878, the second youngest in a family of three sons and two daughters. His father William Smith was an accountant and later a wholesale tea and dry goods merchant who could trace his ancestry back to Bold Peter Smith, a Jacobite killed at Culloden.

His mother was Annie Nicol; both his parents were born in Rhynie. Archie Bisset Smith spent two terms at Robert Gordon's College from 1893 to 1895 before joining the Merchant Navy. He gained his Master's ticket in 1903 while serving with the New Zealand Shipping Company and went on to serve aboard the steamers

In about 1914 Archie Smith married Edith Clulee (née Powell) in London, England. He had met her in Port Chalmers, New Zealand where her family had emigrated from Wales. She had been married before and had a son Alfred (born 1900) who later took his stepfather’s surname.

During the war, Archie served as captain on the Rakaia, Hurunui and Otaki. In March 1917 Captain Smith was in command of the SS Otaki, a refrigerated cargo ship built in 1907‐8 by Denny’s of Dumbarton. With a crew of 71 he was sailing from London to New York when his ship was attacked by the German raider Moewe.

Although armed with only a small 4.7inch gun, the Otaki returned fire and fought bravely. But when the Otaki was badly damaged and five of his men had been killed, the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. He himself stayed on board as his ship sank. 14-year-old midshipman William Esson Martin also went down with the ship.

Captain Smith’s stepson Alfred was a cadet on board and was among the crew members picked up by the “Moewe” when the ship went down. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Germany.

Archibald Bisset Smith was one of only two Merchant Seamen to be awarded the VC during the First World War. Sailors of the Merchant Navy were not eligible for the Victoria Cross during the First World War hence Captain Smith was posthumously enlisted as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserves and awarded the VC.

Every year the bravery of the former Robert Gordon’s College pupil, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, is commemorated through the Otaki Shield, a scholarship awarded to the head boy to take a seven-week trip to New Zealand.

Simon Mills, Head of Robert Gordon's College said: "The commemoration of the Otaki 100 event to remember the sinking of the SS Otaki and the heroism of Captain Archibald Bissett Smith, a former pupil of Robert Gordon's College, has drawn the two nations of Scotland and New Zealand closer together as we jointly hold acts of Remembrance together. The example of the men involved during this sea battle in 1917 continues to inspire young people today a century later."

Anne Bisset Smith said: “Archibald Bisset Smith was my grandfather’s cousin. I feel honoured to be related to a person who, with his crew, demonstrated so much selfless bravery in the face of such terrible odds. I understand the Moewe was disabled by this action and so countless lives were saved.

“I feel very appreciative of Aberdeen City Council and Robert Gordon’s College for commemorating this event.

“I am aware that Archibald’s stepson Alfred was also on the Otaki and I am looking forward to meeting his descendants at the ceremony.”

Sir Neil McIntosh CBE, Honorary Consul of the New Zealand High Commission, who attend the event said: “It is a privilege to be present as New Zealand Honorary Consul, Scotland to pay tribute to Captain Archibald Bisset Smith VC. The strong links which have been formed between Robert Gordon’s College and Otaki in the North Island of New Zealand are a continuing, living reminder of his bravery and commitment.

“The Commemorative stone is a welcome permanent recognition of his service and sacrifice and of the key part played by the Merchant Marine during the First World War.”

Susie Cox, senior curator, P&O Heritage (P&O acquired the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1917) said: “We have all been touched, inspired and united together today, a century later, by the unflinching courage of Captain Archibald Bisset Smith and his merchant crew.

For many years Captain Bisset Smith’s VC and portrait were proudly displayed on the 1953 OTAKI (the third cargo liner to bear the name). Today they are treasured in our heritage collection and serve as a constant and poignant reminder of the vital role played by men and women of the Merchant Navy in both World Wars.”

The anniversary was also marked in Otaki, New Zealand where the Governor-General of New Zealand Dame Patsy Reddy unveiled the Otaki Centennial Monument.

Representatives of the New Zealand, British and German governments, the Merchant Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy were among the guests. The event was funded as part of New Zealand’s World War I commemorations.