Nova Scotia

A goat comforted troops in WW I. Now a museum curator wants to find his grave

The chief curator of the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel is trying to find the grave of a goat called Robert the Bruce, who served as a mascot for a Nova Scotia battalion during the First World War.

'It demonstrates the human element of war, and it has nothing to do with weapons, nothing to do with battles'

Guy MacLean Matheson, on the right of the photo with the two soldiers, and the goat he took home from the war. Robert the Bruce lived out his days in the Baddeck area. (Army Museum Halifax Citadel/Nova Scotia Archives)

Ken Hynes spent part of Monday traipsing through the woods near an old farm in Cape Breton. He was searching for the grave of a goat that died almost 100 years ago. 

Hynes, the chief curator of the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, is looking for the final resting place of a goat called Robert the Bruce. The goat was bought in Belgium in 1915 to serve as a mascot for the 25th Battalion Nova Scotia Rifles.

It accompanied the battalion through some of the deadliest battles of the First World War. At Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and other battlefields, the goat would walk ahead of the troops as they entered the fight.

Around its neck, Robert the Bruce wore a custom-made collar engraved with all the locations the battalion visited and fought.

The 25th Battalion Nova Scotia Rifles had a collar made for Robert the Bruce. It is engraved with the names of all the places the battalion travelled. (Robert Short/CBC)

Many of the battles took a heavy toll on the unit. 

Hynes's research shows 32 officers and 686 soldiers who served with the Nova Scotia Rifles were killed in the war. Another 156 officers and 2,557 soldiers were wounded.

Only two original officers and 96 soldiers remained with the battalion when it returned to Halifax in 1919.

They made sure they had room to take Robert the Bruce back to Canada with them. 

"It's a heck of a story because it demonstrates the human element of war, and it has nothing to do with weapons, nothing to do with battles per se, but everything to do with the feelings that someone may have had for a poor little goat," said Hynes. 

Ken Hynes is the chief curator of the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel. (Robert Short/CBC)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the battalion's return to Nova Scotia. Hynes thought it was time to try to find the goat's grave.

After a parade in Halifax welcoming soldiers home on May 16, 1919, the remaining members of the battalion decided to give the goat to Guy MacLean Matheson. He was  a member of the battalion and was one of Canada's most decorated soldiers from the First World War, according to Hynes.  

The 25th battalion's pipe band with Robert the Bruce in front. (Robert Short/CBC)

Matheson won numerous medals for gallantry during the war. 

While his trench was being bombarded in Givenchy, France in January 1916, his commanding officer was injured and Matheson took command. He dressed the wounds of three men and placed them in comparative safety, according to research materials assembled by Hynes.  

Another time Matheson had to take command of two companies during battle.

Then in August 8, 1918, during the Battle of Amiens, he took command of his battalion. He was seriously wounded during an advance the next day, but remained on duty for another 24 hours, according to the London Gazette dated Dec. 2, 1918. 

"He was definitely a man of action and a hell of a soldier," said Hynes. 

But Matheson and the other members of his battalion also had a soft spot for their four-legged friend that accompanied them through the war. Hynes said the goat provided some comfort for the soldiers. 

"It was a bit of levity in the midst of chaos and terror and I think to have something like that would have meant a lot to the battalion, particularly near the end of the war when old Robert the Bruce was still with them," he said. 

Only a few overgrown stones mark where the the Matheson house and barn stood in Inlet Baddeck. (Submitted by Ken Hynes)

Many military units in the First World War had similar mascots, usually goats or dogs. But Hynes believes it was rare for the animal to be taken back across the Atlantic after the war.

After the battalion gave him the goat, Matheson took him back to his family's farm in Inlet Baddeck, where Hynes believes Robert the Bruce lived out the rest of his days as a family pet. 

It's believed the goat died sometime in the 1920s after eating some plants that were sprayed with insecticide. 

"I always felt because of his stature within the battalion as the mascot, and because Guy MacLean Matheson thought highly of Robert the Bruce, he wouldn't simply have been discarded when he died," said Hynes. "He may have been buried somewhere on that old family farm."

What was once a farm is now overgrown. The property is owned by Duncan Gillis.

He was surprised when he was told that the goat might be buried on his property. 

Ken Hynes and Duncan Gillis, the owner of the property where its believed Robert the Bruce is buried. (Submitted by Ken Hynes)

"I'm a businessman," he said. "I get a lot of funny calls … but that one was high on the list because it certainly wasn't something that I was expecting. I knew the property but I knew nothing about that."

But Gillis was eager to help, so he let Hynes on his property to search for Robert the Bruce's grave. Gillis even cleared away some of the brush around what's left of the old Matheson home to try to make the search a little easier.

However, after a few hours searching, Hynes had no luck.

He's not giving up.

He wants to reach out to Matheson's grandchildren to see if he might have told them stories about where the goat is buried. Matheson died in 1981. 

It's believed that Robert the Bruce died sometime in the 1920s after eating plants sprayed with insecticide. (Robert Short/CBC)

If the grave is found, Hynes hopes to commemorate the site as a place of importance in Canadian military history. 

"To have a story like that unique to Nova Scotia with a connection between a farm animal from Belgium and a real hero from Cape Breton, I think is worthy of some reflection and storytelling that demonstrates how much was given by our small province at that time," he said. 

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