Lieutenant Colonel Robert James Bates
212th (Winnipeg Americans) Battalion
The distinctive thing about the battalions in the Legion, of course, is that they are all American, from the humblest private to the commanding officer. In the American army we have Negro regiments commanded by American officers, but the Canadians have placed all responsibility for the battalions in the Legion on American shoulders, and the Americans believe that they will consent to an American general at the head of a division if enough Yankees turn out to form one.
(The Outlook, 28 June 1916, 504)
Robert James Bates was a Canadian-born general in the Michigan National Guard. Born in 1868 in Feversham, Ontario, he moved to the United States with his family at the age of seven. He served for twenty-five years in the American army and was a captain with the 34th Michigan Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish American War.
After serving in the Philippines campaign, Bates returned to Michigan as colonel of the Third Infantry Brigade of the National Guard. In 1908, he was appointed brigadier general. As a top commander in the state militia, he promoted military discipline and effectiveness over pomp and pageantry. In response to Bates’ order cancelling a dress parade, one newspaper noted, “He is shoving his spurs into mollycoddleism and stamping out any social ambitions.” Bates retired from the National Guard in 1911.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Bates returned to the country of his birth to enlist in the CEF. The forty-seven year old retired general first joined the 213th Battalion in Toronto as a private. In May 1916, Bates was promoted to replace Lieutenant Colonel E. C. Pittman as commander of the 212th Battalion in Winnipeg. Pittman became his second-in-command. Due to low recruitment, the 212nd and the other American battalions were folded into the 97th American Legion in August 1916. When the United States declared war in April 1917, Bates joined the American Expeditionary Force. In France, he commanded the largest American air base at Romorantin.
After the war, Bates moved from his home in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Wisconsin. In the 1930s, he settled in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where he became a prominent citizen, affectionately known as “the General.” Bates took an active interest in ex-servicemen affairs as a member of United Spanish War Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
Even in old age, Bates remained a great sportsman, hunter and fisherman. He was also a keen baseball enthusiast and attended every game of the local amateur team, the Albert Lea Packers. He died at the age of eighty-three in 1951.
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