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There are many unusual war stories, and one of the best concerns a Cape Breton soldier and a Belgian goat.
Ken Hynes, chief curator of the Army Museum Halifax Citadel, said Robert the Bruce was more than a mascot for the 25th Battalion Nova Scotia Rifles during the First World War.
The iconic goat not only followed the battalion through the war and survived some fierce fighting but came home with them home to Nova Scotia to live out his retirement with war hero Major Guy MacLean Matheson near Baddeck.
Hynes has part of their story and now is searching a Baddeck area farm land for the rest.
“Both (man and goat) are a part of the proud military history of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.”
On Tuesday Hynes conducted a reconnaissance of the old Matheson farm site at Inlet Baddeck in Cape Breton
“After over a century, we intend to bring more light to their stories,” he said. “They will not be forgotten.”
Robert the Bruce
- Robert the Bruce was purchased by the pipe band of the 25th Battalion in 1915 near Loker, Belgium, for two Belgian francs.
- It’s believed Robert the Bruce was named after the former King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce who reigned from 1306 until his death in 1329. He was one of the most famous warriors of his generation.
- The goat led the battalion on route marches. He was trained to walk out in front of the pipe band.
- After the war, Robert the Bruce came home on the Olympic with the 25th Battalion, arriving in Halifax May 16, 1919.
- War hero Major Guy MacLean Matheson took Robert the Bruce home with him to his family farm in Inlet Baddeck.
BEGAN IN 1915
Everything began back in 1915 when the 25th Battalion Halifax Rifles went overseas during the First World War.
Robert the Bruce was a goat purchased by the 25th Battalion pipe band near Loker, Belgium, in 1915, for two Belgian Francs. The battalion ended up adopting the goat as their battalion mascot.
“I think companionship and the fact other battalions over there did have mascots (was why it was done)," explained Hynes.”
From 1915 to 1918, whenever the battalion was on route marches from one area of the Western Front to the other, the pipe band would lead the battalion and Robert the Bruce would be trotting out in front of the band.
It’s felt the goat was most likely named after the king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, who reigned from 1306 until his death in 1329, as one of the more famous warriors of his generation.
“The 25th, like other NS infantry battalions, cherished their Scottish heritage,” Hynes said while adding the battalion wore Mackenzie tartan kilts.
On May 16, 1919, the 25th Battalion Nova Scotia Rifles, 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division returned home aboard RMS Olympic and Robert the Bruce was with them.
Major Guy MacLean Matheson of Inlet Baddeck was given custody of Robert the Bruce and took him home to his family’s farm.
Hynes said Matheson is a real Nova Scotia hero.
“He’s one of the most decorated soldiers in the First World War.”
Sadly, Robert the Bruce didn't enjoy a particularly long peacetime retirement. Sometime in the 1920s, he ate some vegetables from a garden that had been treated with insecticide and died.
Matheson’s father, Peter, was a naturalized U.S. citizen and, after the war, Matheson moved to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and sometime before 1941 also became a naturalized U.S. citizen. In 1942 Matheson accepted a commission as a major in the Rhode Island State Guard. Matheson and his wife Flora MacDonald — originally from Middle River — had two sons and a daughter. Matheson died in 1981 at age 88. All three children died sometime around 2005-2006.
Hynes doesn’t have any doubt that Robert the Bruce was buried on the Matheson family farm, as he was important to the battalion and clearly important to Guy MacLean Matheson, so it was unlikely the body had been simply discarded.
“It's more likely that the goat would have been treated with respect in death and probably laid to rest somewhere nearby, within sight of the farm house and/or barn.”
Hynes said it was always nagging at the back of his mind that there’s is perhaps some indication where he was buried. Discovering there are seven grandchildren in the family, he’s anxious to find them to see whether or not they ever heard stories from their grandfather about Robert the Bruce and where he might have been laid to rest.
In the meantime, Hynes visited where the family farm once stood on Monday, spending hours searching through the overgrown remains of the farm house, barn and surrounding one-acre sit in hopes of finding the remains of this iconic 25th Battalion mascot.
Hynes said property owner Duncan Gillis was very accommodating, clearing a path into the site which is about 200 metres up the hill, directly behind his home along the Trans-Canada Highway. Hynes said Gillis wasn’t aware of the story of this solider and goat, but has shown great interest since being contacted.
There are only a few traces of the old Matheson farm site remaining, including the fieldstone foundations of the house and barn and possibly the well.
Someday Hynes hopes to place some sort of historical panel or marker next to Gillis's property, adjacent to the Trans-Canada Highway, where locals and tourists could learn the story of Matheson, his gallantry and of the iconic Robert the Bruce.
Among the extensive artifacts of the 25th Battalion on display at the Army Museum Halifax Citadel is the metal collar worn by this goat which lists all the actions the battalion took part in from 1915 until 1919, including the occupation of Germany at the end of the First World War.
Duncan Gillis, of Inlet Baddeck, said he purchased the property where the old Matheson homestead once stood in 1986. Before Gillis, it was owned by a leather company which had two trailers on the property and later built a house.
On the property there are old rock ruins from the basement and barn foundations. Gillis said it’s amazing to think back to when they were put there by hand.
Gillis lives on the south side of the property while the Matheson farm was on the north side. The old road still leads to where the house once stood.
The area had grown up considerably and they had to do considerable cutting and trimming to allow Hynes to see the outline of the foundation of the house and barn.
Although Gillis has never heard the story about the goat, he has a nephew who did hear of it but didn’t know the attachment of the goat to the farm.
The nephew is in a pipe band and had studied about the Cape Breton Highlanders and other regiments and battalions.
“As soon I mentioned Robert the Bruce, he sent me quite a bit of information,” said Gillis.
Gillis said he is checking to see what he can find out locally, including contacting some elderly residents over 100 years old in hopes they might have some history. As well he plans to check with the landowners prior to him.
Major Guy MacLean Matheson
- Born in Inlet Baddeck
- Joined the 25th Battalion Halifax Rifles in Halifax in 1915 at age 22.
- Served overseas with the battalion 1915-1919.
- During the war, he was wounded in action and twice was mentioned in dispatches. As a sergeant, he earned the Military Medal for gallantry. In 1916, he received a battlefield commission and, as a lieutenant earned the Military Cross for his leadership of two companies under fire. Later, as a captain and then a temporary major, he received the Distinguished Service Order for gallant leadership of his battalion when the unit’s commanding officer lay wounded.
- Married Flora (MacDonald) of Middle River and had three children.
- After the war later moved to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and sometime before 1941 became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
- Died Jan. 17, 1981, at age 88. Buried at Union Cemetery, North Smithfield, Rhode Island.
HL Col. Corinne MacLellan of the Halifax Rifles also sits on the board of governors for the army museum and said this interesting piece of history is often discussed. The 25th Battalion display is quite popular, she said.
“(It has) strong artifacts and there is also a lot of information on the goat, including war diary accounts,” she said.
“It’s really interesting including how this goat acted in certain battles in certain places.”
MacLellan, originally of New Waterford, said it’s a wonderful story, especially where Guy MacLean Matheson, a decorated soldier, took the goat home with him. Hynes is truly an expert on this and was not going to let the summer pass without a visit to the family farm, said MacLellan.
“He’s hot on the trail of Robert the Bruce,” she said. “It’s a good story. It’s a Cape Breton story if there ever was one.”
In the meantime, Matheson’s gravesite is in Woonsocket, Rhode Island — civilian stone with no mention of his military record. Hynes sent Canadian flags to a contact in the state guard who is placing them at the gravesite.
In the event he gets to talk to the grandchildren someday, Hynes hopes to have a small stone laid in the ground, displaying his rank, decorations and service during the First World War.
“These guys should never be forgotten,” he said. “A lonely grave in a foreign land is not the way we want to remember our heroes. How long it will take, I don’t know, but I plan to keep working the problem until we can do something to mark that grave in a more appropriate fashion in Rhode Island.”
Anyone if any additional information on Robert the Bruce or members of the family of the late Guy MacLean Matheson, is asked to contact Ken Hynes at 902-719-2742.