|Drum Sergeant Robert Lyons (193rd Battalion portrait)|
In 1905, while living at Louisbourg, Bob assumed the duties of band master with the community’s brass band. Young Catherine McAulay, a native of nearby Kennington Cove and daughter of Angus and Christie McAulay, soon caught his eye. The couple married at Louisbourg on February 14, 1906, and relocated to Glace Bay sometime afterward, forcing Bob to abandon his band master duties.
In his new community, Bob sang and played with St. Mary’s Anglican Church Choir. He also became a member of the Independent Order of Oddfellows and the Tyrian Youth Lodge. A later news item stated that he was “well known [locally] in musical circles, being cornet soloist for some years with the Wight orchestra,” a local musical group. Around 1909, Bob enlisted with the 94th Victoria Regiment (Argyll Highlanders), a local militia unit. A major attraction may have been the unit’s brass band, of which he became a member. Each summer, Bob attended a militia training session with the unit at Camp Aldershot, near Kentville.
|94th Victoria Regiment Band, Aldershot (1911)—Robert Lyons at right end, 2nd row|
In the months following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Bob’s family circumstances provided sufficient justification for him to remain at home. Certainly, there were several opportunities for Bob to volunteer for overseas service during the war’s first 18 months. Within weeks of the British declaration of war, the 94th joined militia units across the country in sending volunteers to Camp Valcartier, QC, to form the First Canadian Contingent. On November 7, 1914, military officials authorized the formation of the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles). The unit canvassed the province in search of recruits, establishing a recruitment office in Sydney.
During the autumn of 1915, the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) conducted a similar province-wide campaign. The subsequent formation of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade in January 1916 and formation of the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders) on February 1, 1916 provided another enlistment option. In the end, perhaps a combination of factors—loyalty to his British homeland, involvement with the 94th Victoria Regiment, the wave of military enthusiasm that swept the province at the time, a desire not to miss out on the opportunity—finally tipped the scales. On July 6, 1916, Bob Lyons, father of four young children, enlisted with the 193rd Battalion at Camp Aldershot, NS.
Bob was actually added to the unit’s pay list two days earlier, with the comment “to be Sgt. (Prov.) fr. 4-7-16” recorded on his pay card. The following month, he was promoted to the rank of “Band Sgt. fr. 4-7-16.” A 193rd Brass Band photograph, taken sometime during training at Aldershot, depicts a mustached Bob Lyons, cornet in hand and turned slightly to the left, Sergeant’s stripes plainly visible on his right sleeve.
After a summer of intense training at Camp Aldershot, the Highland Brigade’s four units—the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders), 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders), 193rd and 219th Battalions—made their way to Halifax and departed for England aboard SS Olympic on October 12, 1916. That same day, Bob was officially appointed the 193rd Band’s Acting Band Sergeant. Six days later, the vessel docked at Liverpool and the Brigade’s soldiers made their way by train to Camp Witley in southern England.
Over the next several weeks, personnel resumed training and completed the various tasks required prior to deployment at the front. On November 30, Bob signed his military will, bequeathing his real and personal property to his young wife. At some point during his time in camp, he found a few minutes to write a letter to his elder son, John:
“Dear old curly head,
“Just a line to let you know I’m alive and well. I am glad to hear that you like going to school and are a good boy. You must be a little man to mama and your sisters and brother Bob. Help mama all you can and if papa is spared to come back home we will have lots of little rides once again. Well dear I must close now[,] hoping you will get someone to answer this for you in your own little [way]. I conclude with lots of love from your own soldier’s daddy.
“PS: Kiss Margaret and Bobbie for me and tell them papa sent them. Say prayers for papa.”
|Drum Sgt. Robert Lyons, 193rd Battalion|
Not surprisingly, Bob quickly found a place in the 17th’s musical ensemble. On Saturday, April 28, the unit’s regimental band gave three performances in the new concert hall of London’s famous Wyndham Theatre. Its 11:30 a.m. playlist included the selection, “If You Were the Only Girl,” with “Drum Major Lyons” identified as the cornet soloist. The band performed two more sets—mid-afternoon and evening—and included a wide variety of selections, from waltzes to military airs and marches, in its playlist.
The program’s reference to Bob’s rank suggests that he played a prominent role in the musical ensemble. On May 10, he was officially appointed “Sergeant Drummer to complete establishment,” a position he held for the next five months. Unfortunately, nothing more is known of Bob’s activities throughout the summer of 1917, although one can surmise that his involvement with the 17th’s band occupied a considerable amount of his time.
|Robert Lyons in 17th Reserve Battalion uniform|
The group nevertheless continued with its plans, sitting down at the “banquet table” only to discover that “a plate had been laid for the missing man and that his dinner had been prepared.” The situation presented somewhat of a problem:
“The full bill must be paid, but how? Then came Drum Major Lyons to the rescue. Seating himself next to the vacant place[,] he gave the signal to say he was ready for what might come. When the eats appeared [,] he was there for a double—and when the liquids came to the scene[,] he was ready to drink a toast to Hosie [Pipe Major Alexander Hosie, 17th Reserve Battalion] with a vim.”
The news item concluded by posing a number of questions about the various individuals in attendance. In referring to Bob, the reporter asked: “Does Drum Major Lyons dislike Burgundy and was this dislike the cause of his not being able to find White Chapel?”
While “The Clansman” related the story in a light-hearted manner, several more serious matters took place around the time of its publication, according to a document in Bob’s service file, on October 17, he “reverted to Private (absent without leave).” It is unclear whether an infraction occurred during his recent visit to London. A second document in his file mentions the demotion, but makes no reference to violation of military rules, creating the possibility that he may have relinquished his rank to accommodate a transfer to France.
The newspaper’s subsequent edition published another item that may provide an alternative explanation. Under the heading “Many changes made in Camp Arrangements,” the article described several major events that had recently taken place in the 17th’s camp, particularly the fact that “several Reserves have gone out of existence through amalgamation.” Specifically, the “Nova Scotia Reserve [17th] and the Seaforths [Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, a prominent British Columbia military unit] have been cast together under the Seaforth rule and the two units, which had been strong rivals in musketry, football and baseball, are now one.”
“The Clansman” went on to note one additional change that may have impacted Bob’s circumstances:
“A regrettable feature of the amalgamation… is the breaking up of Lieut. [John Thomas] Arenburg’s [26th Reserve Battalion] band, in the organization of which he has worked so strenuously for the past several months. A number of his men have been taken on the strength of our band, filling vacancies made by a recent draft. Similar changes were made in the north camp and another band, one of the best in the camp, went out of existence.”
Lt. Arenburg, a native of Lunenburg, NS, had initially enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) but following its dissolution was eventually transferred to the 26th Reserve Battalion, where he presided over the musical ensemble mentioned in the article. Its absorption into the 17th’s ranks suggests that some of the 17th’s band members had been selected for service at the front. This raises the possibility that Bob voluntarily “reverted to ranks,” in order to proceed overseas. In fact, his inclusion in the London excursion suggests that he may have already been selected for service at the front, a possibility that may also explain his decision not to return to camp prior to his leave’s expiration.
Whatever the case, Bob was officially “struck off [the] strength” of the 17th Reserve Battalion on November 11 and proceeded to France on the same day, destined for the ranks of the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). He arrived in his new unit’s camp at Raimbert, France, on November 23, part of a reinforcement draft that included 22 Officers and 222 “other ranks.” A little more than three weeks previously, the 85th had suffered what proved to be its worst losses of the entire war during the second stage of the Canadian Corps’ attack on Passchendaele Ridge, Belgium, and was in the process of rebuilding its ranks.
The 85th Battalion had arrived in France of February 10, 1917, and became part of the 4th Division’s 12th Brigade shortly after the Canadian Corps’ successful April 9, 1917 capture of Vimy Ridge, France. The unit served alongside the 38th (Ottawa, ON), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) and 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalions for the remainder of the war. Upon arriving in camp, Bob was assigned to “B” Company’s No. 5 Platoon and commenced regular rotations in the forward area shortly after his arrival.
Throughout the winter of 1917-18, the 85th served in the Avion, Méricourt and St. Émile sectors, near Lens, France. Tours were for the most part uneventful, a mid-January 1918 thaw presenting perhaps the greatest challenge, creating “mud and water was from three to four feet deep, too thin to shovel and too thick to pump.” As spring approached and weather conditions improved, Allied forces braced for an anticipated attack on their lines.
The cessation of hostilities between Russia and Germany on the Eastern Front—the result of a December 1917 peace treaty—combined with the anticipated arrival of large numbers of American troops on the Western Front, prompted the German High Command to plan a major spring offensive. Given the code name “Operation Michael,” the campaign commenced in British sectors south of the Canadian Corps on March 21, 1918, and was designed to push westward to the French coast, driving a wedge between British forces to the north and French units to the south.
In response, all Canadian Corps units were placed on high alert, in anticipation of an attack in their sectors. In late March, officials assigned the 85th to “Odlum’s Composite Brigade,” a combination of 11th and 12th Brigade units under the command of the 11th’s Brigadier General Victor Odlum. The unit entered the line near Bailleul on the evening of March 29 and “stood to” the following morning, in anticipation of a German attack. While no subsequent assault materialized, the battalion suffered significant casualties during two days in the line.
As time passed, it became apparent that German forces had no plans to attack the Canadian sector and the 85th returned to its regular 12th Brigade rotation in early April. During subsequent days, Bob found several opportunities to write home to his family. On April 9, 1918, he wrote to his “darling daughter” Rosie:
“Just a few lines in answer to your letter. You sure have surprised me [with] the way you have got on in school. In am sure proud of you and I will expect a note from you often. You must help Johnnie to get along with his lessons and tell him to send Papa a copy of his work in school. Well, sweetheart, we are having pretty hard times in France this spring, but you must pray to spare your Daddy to come home. Also, you must try to help Mama along and be good to Johnnie, Bobbie and your dear little sister [Margaret].”
Four days later, Bob wrote to his “dear wife and kiddies”:
“Just a few lines to let you know I am still alive and well. I hope you and the Bairns are enjoying the best of health. I am scribbling this on a box by candle light in the dugout which was once belonging [sic] to our old friend “Heinie,” who departed from here toot sweet [sic - tout suite] some time ago when the Canadians got busy. Well, kid, you should certainly be proud to be a Canadian as we certainly get good praise from every nationality, even from Fritzie, for the way we do things. In fact, our friend Fritz would just as soon know the devil was in front of him as our boys, as we are everlastingly tormenting him with our patrols…. [We are] all well and fine and wishing for this war to end but [are] willing to stick until a satisfactory peace is obtained which I think should come about around this summer. Well, Kate, kiss the children for me and tell them to pray for a safe return of their daddy. Hoping to hear from you soon, I remain your loving Husband and Father.”
On April 16, Bob departed the 85th’s camp to complete a training course with the 4th Canadian Machine Gun Battalion. During a six-week assignment with the unit, he once again found a few minutes to write home on May 12, which happened to be Mother’s Day:
“Just a few lines to let you know I am still alive and well. Hoping this will find you enjoying the same…. I am still on the machine gun course way back from the lines in a quiet and peaceful spot which, when I go to bed—if it can be called such—the frogs in the marsh and the scream of the locomotive’s whistle remind me of home and you all that I get a little homesick, and can it be wondered at after two years and all we have been through since we left our homes and loved ones. But we are still cheerful and longing for the day when we will be in a position to drive Heinie and his cursed tribe out of this country and come back to straighten things out over there…. It has been three weeks since I had a line from you. Do try and write a little oftener as a letter is the only link between us that helps to keep up the courage to carry on this murderous business…. I shall certainly have some fine old tales to tell when I get back…. I will close with the best of love and kisses to you all from your loving husband and father.”
A portion of a fourth, undated letter described an incident that illustrates the perils of service in the forward area:
“I think the Lord has been with me all the time this last while back. I had a very narrow escape about a week ago just passing an ammunition dump when Heinie landed a shell [that] killed four men… just ahead of me and wounded the chap that was with me, so you can tell how close a call it was for me…. Well sweetheart tell Rosie I still have the letter and lessons she sent me and tell her to write me another and get Johnnie to write. Tell Bobbie that his card made papa homesick. Tell him I thank him very much for it and if God spares his papa to come home again we will have some dandy times again. Say, see if you cannot spare a dollar or two and have your picture taken again so I can see the change that a year makes in you all and if I can get out to some civilized town where there is a photographer I will have mine taken…. I will close with all the best love and wishes from your affectionate and loving husband Bob.”
|Lyons family 1917 portrait—Johnnie (left), Kate, Margaret, Rosie & Bobbie (sitting)|
The break from the line continued through the month of June, the training schedule pausing to allow personnel to attend a Brigade Sports Day at Ferfay on June 12. Bob rejoined the 85th before month’s and as training extended into a third month. A Canadian Corps Sports Day was held at Tinques on July 1, in honor of “Dominion Day.” Five days later, the entire battalion participated in a “full dress rehearsal of [the attack] scheme” as training continued into a third month. On July 19, the 85th returned to the forward area and entered Divisional Reserve at Sterling Camp, northeast of Arras.
The unit provided working parties for several nights before entering the Fampoux sector’s front trenches on the night of July 25 for its first tour in almost three months. Within days of its deployment, rumors circulated that “the whole Corps is moving in a few days—in fact has started now. For where—no one knows, but it looks like a big scrap ahead.”
At month’s end, personnel withdrew from the line. Within days, the accuracy of the recent rumors became fact. At mid-day August 2, the 85th boarded a train for an “unknown” destination. After departing, personnel learned that they were heading southward to Hangest-sur-Somme, approximately 25 kilometers northwest of Amiens. Sometime during the day—perhaps while aboard the train—Bob once again penned a short note to his family:
“Just a few lines to let you know that I am back again safe and sound from the front lines but I am sorry to say... I have lost [my] old pal Jimmie [Pte. James Forbes McDonald, regimental number 877646]. He volunteered for a risky piece of work and died facing the enemy like a soldier and a man. He was well liked and was thought quite a lot of by the boys and we all feel this loss very much. Such is the fortune of war…. I am writing to Jimmie’s mother tonight. I know she would like to hear from the boys. Well kids old Fritz is catching Hell just now and don’t think he can stick what he is going to get much longer. Well as it is fearful hot and not having much news of the present will close with the best. Love and Kisses from your loving Husband and Father.
“PS: I should love to have another picture of you all as a year makes a lot of difference.”
While Bob had no idea of what the move to Amiens held for him and his mates, his comments concerning the enemy soon proved uncannily accurate. The Canadian Corps was about to participate in the commencement of a massive Allied counter-offensive, slated to take place east of Amiens within days. Having withstood the German spring offensive, Allied commanders set about planning a response, knowing that the enemy now faced the task of manning a longer front line while grappling with troop shortages and declining morale. The appropriate blow might break the stalemate and bring four years of fighting to an end.
The operation was to take place along a 20 to 30 mile section of the front line east of Amiens and would involve the Canadian Corps, the 3rd British Army Corps, the French 3rd Army and the Australian Corps. The 85th’s 12th Brigade would not participate in the initial assault but was scheduled to follow the 9th Brigade’s advance, leap-frogging through its lines toward a location east of Bayeux Wood.
While the 85th would initially occupy support positions during its Brigade’s advance, its soldiers were assigned the day’s final task—passing through their comrades’ lines and capturing a defensive trench system to the right of the village of Caix and in front of Bayeux Wood. Within the 85th’s ranks, the advance was in turn divided among its Companies, “B” and “C” carrying out the attack’s initial phase, while “A” and “D” would pass through their mates and press onward to the final objective.
In the early hours of August 7, the 85th arrived at the assembly area near Bois de Boves. That evening, personnel moved into their assigned “jumping off” position to the left of Gentelles Wood. At 4:20 a.m. August 8, a massive artillery barrage signalled the commencement of the day’s attack. One hour later, the unit made its way around the southern edge of Gentelles to a second assembly point southwest of Demuin. A thick morning mist prevented German forces from detecting their movement and protected personnel from retaliatory artillery and machine gun fire.
The soldiers arrived at their jumping off positions at 10:00 a.m. and rested while they watched the battle unfold in front of them. Two hours later, the 85th moved out in column formation, following the 38th and 72nd Battalions in the first stage of the 12th Brigade’s advance. Within minutes, the soldiers encountered their first enemy fire of the day—“considerable machine gun fire from the woods.” Upon reaching Bayeux Wood, resistance was so fierce that military commanders altered the plan of attack, placing “A” Company under direct command of the 12th Brigade while the remaining three Companies pressed forward around the southern edge of Caix and passed through the 38th’s lines.
A message received from an observation plane indicated that “the enemy were retiring in disorder,” allowing the three Companies to push onward toward their final objective without significant resistance. By 4:30 p.m., the soldiers had occupied the trenches in front of Bayeux Wood and set about establishing a consolidated line. An attempted German counter-attack launched four hours later “did not reach” the 85th’s positions.
By day’s end, the battalion had advanced a total of 11 miles from its initial starting point, a stunning accomplishment by any measure. German General Erich Ludendorff later described August 8, 1918 as the “black day of the German army.” While the one-day advance would not bring the war to an end, it raised significant questions about the ability of German forces to maintain their positions in the face of a concerted Allied counter-attack.
The 85th held its position throughout the battle’s second day and retired to a valley south of Caix following relief on the night of August 9/10. The next morning, as the second phase of the Amiens operation commenced, the unit’s soldiers moved forward to their assigned “jumping off” position under cover of darkness. At 10:10 a.m. August 10, the 85th advanced toward Rosières, with the support of several tanks. The soldiers captured the village without resistance but encountered heavy machine gun fire as they advanced beyond its boundaries.
Australian units to the 85th’s left—where Bob’s “B” Company had led the advance—failed to keep pace, exposing the flank to withering fire. Personnel found themselves “without cover” and hastily set about establishing a defensive line. While ultimately successful, the unit incurred significant casualties throughout the day. The following morning, its soldiers “stood to” in anticipation of a German counter-attack but none materialized. The situation stabilized when the Australians finally managed to secure the left flank, allowing “B” and “D” Companies to retire to support positions as the 38th Battalion continued the attack.
While the 85th’s soldiers remained in the forward area for another 48 hours, they saw no further combat at Amiens. Upon retiring from the line on August 14, the battalion enjoyed several days’ rest before moving into Divisional Reserve near Rouvroy on August 18. The unit provided working parties for several nights before returning to Caix Wood on August 23. Two days later, personnel relocated to Gentelles Wood, where they rested while the unit reorganized its ranks.
During the evening of August 27, the battalion marched to Longueau Station, near Amiens, and departed by train shortly after midnight. Under cover of darkness, the entire 4th Division made its way northward to the outskirts of Arras. Upon arriving at Marœuil at 1:00 p.m. August 28, the soldiers marched to billets. The following afternoon, the 85th relocated to Monchy-le-Preux and entered accommodations in “old trenches.” Two days later, the soldiers commenced preparations to return to the line for their next combat assignment.
While other Canadian units carried out preliminary attacks east of Arras during the last week of August, the Canadian Corps’ primary objective was the Drocourt - Quéant line, a section of the German Hindenburg defensive system east of Arras. Breaking through this barrier was key to a final victory, and the first stage of the attack—dubbed the “Scarpe Operation,” as its primary target was located on the opposite bank of the Scarpe River—was slated to commence in early September.
The 12th Brigade’s units were among the Canadian battalions selected for the assignment and returned to the forward area on the night of August 31/September 1. The 85th’s soldiers occupied a 500-yard section of the front line immediately behind the planned “jumping off” position. “A” and “D” Companies would lead the advance, their objective being the capture of the Drocourt - Quéant line’s first three trenches. “”B” Company would then pass through their comrades’ lines and seize support positions in the rear, along the edge of Mount Dury. Finally, “D” Company would pass through “B” Company and capture the day’s final objective.
At 4:15 a.m. September 2, the 85th’s soldiers assumed their attack positions, the 10th Brigade’s 47th (British Columbia) on their left while their 38th Battalion Brigade comrades occupied trenches to the right. While eight tanks were scheduled to assist the advance, none reached the area prior to Zero Hour. The soldiers commenced the attack at 5:00 a.m. and immediately encountered heavy resistance: “In passing through the first 300 yards of the advance, the Battalion losses amounted to approximately 50 % of… total casualties throughout the whole action.”
Despite the withering fire, personnel continued on to their first objective, securing the location by 6:15 a.m. “after severe fighting.” The significant casualties incurred in the opening hour required three “first wave” platoons to reinforce the attack on the second objective, which was secured by 7:30 a.m. Having broken through the major portion of the Hindenburg system, the 85th’s soldiers pressed onward toward their final objective.
Once again, personnel encountered severe machine gun fire. In response, “B” Company and available reinforcements advanced in support, targeting German strongpoints and propelling the unit forward to its final goal, an area of high ground near Dury. While the final wave suffered heavy casualties, the unit managed to capture the location by 9:30 a.m.
While its orders required no further advance, the soldiers faced formidable German resistance as they set about consolidating their position. A heavy artillery barrage inflicted considerable casualties, but no German counter-attack materialized. The 85th held the line until mid-day, when 11th Brigade personnel reached its position and the unit’s soldiers retired to Brigade Reserve, located at the morning’s first objective. In the early evening hours, personnel marched out to Divisional Reserve at Vis-en-Artois.
During its Scarpe assignment, the 85th suffered three Officer and 62 OR fatalities, while 10 Officers and 160 OR were wounded. Two more OR remained at duty despite their wounds, while 36 OR were listed as “missing, believed wounded,” for a total of 260 casualties “all ranks”—approximately one-third of the unit’s pre-combat fighting strength.
Private Robert Armstrong Lyons was one of the day’s early fatalities. According to his “circumstances of casualty” card: “During the advance about 7:30 a.m. on 2nd September 1918, he was hit in the head and instantly killed by an enemy machine gun bullet.” The 35-year-old father of four was laid to rest in Dury Mill British Cemetery, 10 miles southeast of Arras, France.
|Robert Lyons' headstone, Dury Mill British Cemetery|
Catherine also requested the following epitaph on Bob’s Imperial [now Commonwealth] War Graves Commission headstone in Dury Mill Cemetery: “Gone But Not Forgotten—Inserted by his loving wife C. Lyons.” She never re-married, dedicating herself to raising her children and ensuring that they also preserved the memories of a father lost so early in their lives. Catherine Lyons passed away at her Reserve St., Glace Bay home on September 24, 1952, at 64 years of age.
|Memorial window & plaque, St. Mary's Church, Glace Bay, NS|
John Angus “Johnnie” (1912 - 1982) was working as an insurance agent in Glace Bay when he married Mary Adelaide Lawley at North Sydney, NS, on October 8, 1938. John served with the Royal Canadian Artillery during the Second World War. His younger brother, Robert William “Bobbie” (1914 - 2009), also received an I.O.D.E. bursary and entered the teaching profession He married Goldye Patricia Williams, a native of Florence, Cape Breton, in a ceremony held at Sydney, NS, on May 24, 1940. Bob also served with the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, rising to the rank of Instructor Lieutenant-Commander. In the years following the war, he served as Principal of Pictou Academy, Pictou, NS, and later became Superintendent of Schools for the Pictou County school system.
Margaret Ann (1915 - 2009)—the youngest child, born shortly before her father’s enlistment—married Douglas Wilson, a Second World War veteran who served with the Canadian Forestry Corps in Scotland.
Service file of Drum Sergeant Robert Lyons, 902533. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Available online.
War diary of the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Available online through LAC’s Enhanced Archives Search web page.
Special thanks to Terry, McCully, Calgary, AB, Drum Sergeant Robert Lyons’ great-grandson, who provided images, transcripts of Robert Lyons’ letters, and background information on the Lyons family.