Joseph Robert Armstrong Lyons was born in London, England on March 25, 1883, the son of William and Mary Lyons. He went by name Robert or often Bob. When Robert was in his late teens or early twenties, he immigrated to Canada and settled in Louisbourg, Cape Breton. He worked as a locomotive fireman and engineer with the Sydney and Louisbourg Railway.
On February 14, 1906, Robert married Catherine McAulay from nearby Kennington Cove. The young couple relocated to Glace Bay where they would eventually raise a family of four children, two boys and two girls.
All his life, Robert was very interested in music. While in Louisbourg, he was band master of their community’s brass band. Later, in Glace Bay, Robert played and sang in various community choirs and musical groups. Around 1909, Robert joined the 94th Victoria Regiment “Argyll Highlanders”, a local Cape Breton militia. He became a member of the regimental band and attended militia summer camps at Aldershot, NS.
In the summer of 1914, war was declared and the 94th Regiment was mobilized for home defence duties. Various new battalions slated for overseas duty began recruiting across the province. On July 6, 1916, Robert enlisted in one of the new battalions, the 193rd Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). He signed on with his new unit in Aldershot, NS, and presumably because of his previous militia experience, he was promoted to band sergeant in the unit’s regimental band. He was assigned the service number 902533. His musical instrument of choice was the cornet. Robert trained with the 193rd Battalion in Aldershot and went overseas to England with them in October, 1916. The 193rd Battalion was a part of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade and included the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders), the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders) and the 219th Overseas Highland Battalion.
Not long after arriving in England, the 193rd and 219th Battalions of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade received the news that they were to be disbanded and the men were to be used as reinforcements for existing Canadian units being decimated on the front in France and Belgium. On January 23, 1917, Robert was transferred to the 17th Canadian Reserve Battalion in England. This battalion originated in Nova Scotia and received reinforcement drafts destined for Nova Scotia units serving at the front. Robert joined the 17th Battalion’s regimental band and eventually was their drum major.
On November 11, 1917, with the rank of private, Robert was transferred to the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) who had been fighting in France since early in the year. He joined his new unit in France the same day. It is not clear if he was demoted in rank for some reason or whether he voluntarily reverted in rank in order to proceed to the front faster.
Robert was assigned to the 85th Battalion’s “B” Company where he began life in the trenches with regular rotations in the forward areas. In April/May of 1918 Robert was sent on a training course and a six week assignment with the 4th Canadian Machine Gun Battalion, before returning to the 85th Battalion.
In late August and early September, 1918, the 85th Battalion was involved in a major Canadian attack to penetrate a section of the German Hindenburg defensive line east of Arras in France. The first stage of the attack was called the Scarpe Operation, named after the nearby Scarpe River. It was during this operation, early on the morning of September 2, 1918, that Robert Lyons was struck in the head by enemy machine gun fire. He was killed instantly. In this attack, the 85th Battalion lost 260 men, killed, wounded or missing in action, almost a third of their strength.
Robert Lyons was laid to rest in Dury Mill British Cemetery, near Arras, France. He was 35 years old. In testament to his love for his family, Robert had written numerous letters and postcards to his wife Catherine, and their children, whenever he was able to do so. Catherine never remarried and raised their four children on her own. After the war, in memory of her husband, she paid for an inscribed stained glass window that was placed in St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Glace Bay. Catherine passed away in 1952 at the age of 64.
For a more detailed biography of Robert Lyons, refer to Bruce MacDonald's excellent blog: First World War Veterans of Guysborough County
For additional information on Robert Lyons, refer to the following two online sources:
Service File of Robert Lyons - Digitized personnel file available from Library & Archives Canada in Ottawa.
The Canadian Virtual War Memorial - A website by Veterans Affairs Canada. The page on Robert Lyons contains basic information as well as some digitized images and burial information.
Thanks to Terry McCully, great grandson of Robert Lyons, for sharing his family's photos and documents pertaining to Robert Lyons.