This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in New York.
Robert Archer Bowlby is one of two American dancers to feature in this project—the other, much more famous, is Vernon Castle, who is buried in the same cemetery in New York. There are numerous newspaper reports, and records of talks given by Lieutenant Bowlby, that testify to his war service in France, his shell shock and subsequent role in support of the War Bond drives in the United States. His service was more prosaic, however—he made it to England before falling sick and being diagnosed with a heart condition, which resulted in his return to Canada and discharge.
Robert Bowlby was born on 27 February 1887 in Somerville, Massachusetts, the eldest of the four children of James and Katie Bowlby. His father was born in Nova Scotia and emigrated to the United States as a child in 1864, becoming a citizen in 1888; he worked as a teamster in Boston.
Robert attended Latin High School in Cambridge before starting at Wesleyan University, Connecticut (Class of 1910). He left in his sophomore year and went to work for the Central Electrical Co. in Chicago. Sometime after that he became a semi-professional dancer and, with a number of partners, gave exhibitions of ‘the new dances’. He then found work with the Canadian Pacific Railway that owned hotels across Canada and, in June 1914, he moved to Winnipeg in Manitoba.
In the early spring of 1916, the United States citizens in Manitoba were called to volunteer for the 212th Battalion—the Winnipeg Americans—and many did so but the idea to form an ‘American Legion’ was not carried through and the Battalion was disbanded in October 1916, by which time its men had been dispatched to other units, particularly the 97th Battalion (American Legion).
Robert Bowlby had enlisted for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and specifically with the 212th Battalion, on 27 March 1916 and was allocated the regimental number 261059. He was commissioned on 13 May and sailed for England with a draft of officers on 12 October, arriving a week later, when he reported to the Canadian Military School at Shorncliffe. Contrary to later newspaper reports and his own narrative, Lieutenant Bowlby did not make it to France.
On 20 December 1916 he was admitted to 2nd Eastern General Hospital at Brighton suffering from dizziness. Having reported that he had ‘never been able to do route marches’ and was unable to do light work, the board concluded that ‘he will never be fit for full duty ’, and recommended his discharge. During his time in hospital and then while awaiting his return to Canada, he was attached to 100th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers) at Seaford in Sussex, which was absorbed by the 11th Reserve Battalion at Shorncliffe on 20 January 1917.
During this period a newspaper reporter found him in London and reported:
‘After months of mud wading in camp, Bowlby was discovered in London, eagerly watching the afternoon dancers at one of the leading hotels. He seemed glad to be back in ‘the life’ again if only for the short duration of his leave.
“It seems like Broadway in the days when dancing was it” he remarked reminiscently. “These couples don’t appear as enthusiastic as Americans and though it may be the European way, I’m wondering if the craze isn’t fading.”
The dance craze caught Bowlby about the time the Castles, Vernon and Irene, reached the top of their fame. Joining the tango peer’s company he speedily foxtrotted his way to the top of the new profession. Little more than a year ago he was in charge of the catering and entertainments in a Canadian system of railroad-owned hotels. Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg were Bowlby’s towns and thousands of Canadians stepped the new measures while he conducted affairs.
Canadians were enlisting every day. Bowlby’s friends melted from sight as the transports carried new contingents over the seas. He is over six feet tall, athletic and a football veteran of Connecticut Wesleyan, at Middletown, Conn. Civilian clothes were becoming out of fashion, so Bowlby joined at Winnipeg.‘
He returned to Canada on 4 April 1917, on board the SS Olympic. Subsequent medical boards confirmed that he would not be fit for further service. Pending discharge he was treated as an outpatient at Pine Hill Military Convalescent Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was discharged on 31 October 1917.
Lieutenant Bowlby then became involved with the drive to raise money for the war through the sale of Liberty Bonds, where he was described as ‘…an American who fought with the Canadians in France when the war was new…’. He also appeared at venues across the United States as an official speaker for the United States Shipping Board, and took part in drives to raise money through voluntary contributions and subscriptions for the Red Cross. This was the occupation that he recorded on his draft registration card, on which he also stated that he had suffered ‘shell shock, heart trouble sustained on active service with Canadian Army ’.
On 2 March 1918, Robert Bowlby married Muriel Murray; she too was a dancer in the era of Vernon Castle. The couple honeymooned in the Caribbean and arrived back in the United States in early April; they lived at 31 West 51st Street.
During the influenza epidemic in the early autumn of 1918, Robert Bowlby fell ill and was admitted to Hahnemann Hospital on Park Avenue. He developed pneumonia and died on 15 October. He was buried with military honours in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx. His grave is in the north-east part of the cemetery in Section 141, Butternut Plot, Grave 14224W, and shared with Major E A St G Bedbrook. There are six CWGC commemorations in Woodlawn Cemetery. His grave is marked with a private memorial.
Exaggerated accounts of his service in France continued to be reported and were included in the subsequent obituaries: for example, ‘Heave Together’, the magazine of the Northwest Steel Company, for which his brother worked, reported that: ‘At Thiepval he was disabled by shell-shock…’.
Lieutenant Robert Bowlby is commemorated on page 372 of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance; that page is displayed on 14 August. He is one of 27 men commemorated on the Wesleyan University Roll of Honor.
He was awarded the British War Medal 1914-20 for his service outside Canada. The Memorial Cross was sent to his mother and his medal sent to his father, in trust for his widow, who could not be traced.
His brother, Stanley, served as a sergeant with the American Expeditionary Force.
The War Graves Photographic Project for the photograph of the grave of Lieutenant Bowlby
1. (Back) James Lathern Bowlby (30 January 1860-6 December 1947) married Katie Francis Deare (1861-18 April 1939) on 29 October 1884: Lawrence Hollis (8 October 1888-12 September 1971); Stanley H. (12 July 1893-17 November 1973); and Katherine (later Johnston) (10 April 1895-25 March 1988). James and Katie Bowlby moved to Portland, Oregon in 1912, where they lived out their lives.
2. (Back) Pegler, H W. (January 1917). American Dancer May Join Vernon Castle In The Air. Syndicated by United Press.
3. (Back) ‘Soldier to Speak to Ship Workers’. (25 June 1918). Detroit Free Press. p 18.
4. (Back) National Archives and Records Administration. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. ‘Robert Archer Bowlby’.
5. (Back) Muriel Murray was born in Columbus, Indiana on 5 June 1894. She remarried (William H. Davis) in June 1919.
6. (Back) See also: Major E A St G Bedbrook, Captain V W B Castle, Private E J Newbery, Cadet D H Rogers, and Captain G H Wallace.
7. (Back) ‘Lieutenant R. A. Bowbly Crosses Great Divide’. (1 November 1918). Heave Together. Magazine of Northwest Steel Co. Volume 1, no 21, p 10.