Ryan, who was already a nervous wreck as a result of harrowing experience in the trenches, was demoralized completely by the new tragedy. He came to London unmindful of everything, and disregarded the order for his return to the front. The sequel came in the Gazette’s announcement he had been dismissed by court-martial.
(Washington Post, 5 Nov 1915, 6)
It does seem darned shame that a man like this, although he was a good fellow and a good officer should get these ghost stores of himself put into the papers. It makes the whole thing into a screaming farce.
(Gen. John Carson to Sam Hughes, 18 Dec 1915)
Following a court martial for disobeying orders, Robert Holden Ryan was stripped of command of the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifles, cashiered from the CEF and sent home in disgrace. A sympathetic article in the Washington Post called Ryan’s dismissal “one of the most tragic stories of the war.” The real story was not so simple.
Ryan was born in King’s County, Nova Scotia on 12 November 1876. His father, Kentville Mayor James W. Ryan, founded the 14th Hussars. The younger Ryan followed his father’s example by joining the militia and volunteering to fight in the Boer War. He led a company of scouts in South Africa, fought in dozens of engagements and was twice wounded. He later became commanding officer of the 14th Hussars and was a military attaché with Japan during the Russo-Japanese War.
At the outbreak of the Great War, Ryan offered to raise a cavalry regiment from Nova Scotia, the 6th CMR, which sailed for England in July 1915. The American press later reported that Ryan had served in the trenches for nine months before an unjust court martial ended his service. He had in fact been removed from command one month before the regiment proceeded to France on 24 October.
The Washington Post claimed after Ryan was wounded on the front and invalided to England, his concerned mother had embarked from Canada to see her son. According to the Post, Ryan “prepared a royal welcome for his mother, whom he worshipped.” When the ship arrived, Ryan was devastated to learn that his mother had died en route. His depression caused him to commit a minor infraction which resulted in a conviction by court martial.
In fact, Ryan had been arrested for drunkenness at Shorncliffe on 26 August 1915. At that time, the closest he had come to action was a mock battle held in England. On 22 September, Ryan was court-martialled for one charge of drunkenness on duty, one charge of drunkenness while under open arrest, and one charge of escaping custody. He was found guilty of the first two counts and sentenced to be dismissed. Although the court had recommended mercy due to his distinguished service in South Africa, the King confirmed the punishment and Ryan was expelled from the CEF on 16 October.
Nevertheless, on the morning of 5 November, Ryan managed board a ship to France illegally still wearing his uniform. He was detained and quickly returned to England later that day. The next morning he was escorted to Liverpool, placed on board the S.S. Saxonia, and returned to Canada in civilian clothes.
On arrival in New York, Ryan captivated the press with stories “straight from the trenches.” He claimed to have been blown up by a shell that left him unwounded but destroyed his wristwatch. He recounted evading capture by the Germans by wearing a civilian suit over his uniform. He described fierce bayonet charges into enemy machine gun fire: “Men from Great Britain and her colonies don’t look human when they get the order to charge. And there’s nothing in God’s world to stop them.”
When it was reported that he had been dismissed, Ryan then shifted his stories, claiming to have been shattered by the fighting and devastated by the death of his mother. Soon newspapers picked up on the obvious inaccuracies. Ryan’s mother had died in Canada before the 6th CMR left for England.
Angered Ryan was evidently peddling these “ghost stories” to an unsuspecting American press, General John Carson complained bitterly to Militia Minister Sam Hughes:
It really is an outrage that such yarns as this should be put in papers in Canada. Here is a man that never was in the trenches in France, who never had a day’s service in France, and who was discharged from our forces as a result of Court Martial for a serious offense.
For bringing disgrace and scandal to the service, Ryan was also removed from the Canadian militia list. He was nevertheless much missed by his regiment when the 6th CMR went to France. Writing from the front, one fellow South African veteran said “we need Colonel Ryan … I never saw an officer for whom the men had such an intense enthusiasm.” By December 1915, the 6th CMR was disbanded.
Meanwhile, in March 1916, Ryan re-enlisted in the CEF with the 52nd Battery under an assumed name, Robert Holden Rowley. He claimed to have been born in British Columbia and gave his current address as St. Louis, Missouri. According to the history of the 6th CMR, as an artilleryman, Ryan “served with distinction to the end of the war being decorated for conspicuous gallantry in the field.” He earned a promotion to sergeant and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Shortly before the armistice, when Rowley was recommended for a commission, Ryan finally revealed his true identity. By 1920, once the paperwork and identities were sorted out, the former colonel was reinstated in the Canadian militia.
He drowned near Schenectady, New York on 19 September 1934.
Militia personnel file number: 1393-1