Robert was the grandson of John Sands who had established the successful Sydney printing company John Sands Pty Ltd in the 1840s. Robert was born in Sydney, educated at King’s School, Parramatta and at All Saints College, Bathurst.
After joining the Scottish Rifles in NSW as a bugler he quickly rose through the ranks. His skill in military matters, combined with a good business head, saw him hold responsible positions. He was Adjutant-quartermaster, and second in command of the 1st Australian Infantry Regiment, under General Holmes; he became A.D.C. to Governor –General Lord Northcote, liaison officer during the visit of the American Fleet and in 1914 was made Commandant of the concentration camps of Australasia. These included Trial Bay Goal and Holsworthy internment camps.
Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1916 it is believed Robert was asked to undertake secret service work that involved travel, to a number of countries, until the end of the war. He was created a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1924.
After the war Robert returned to John Sands Pty Ltd as Managing Director. In 1919 he moved into ‘Marmion’, 9 Silex Road, Mosman. This house had been designed by architect, Edwin Roy Orchard who was responsible for many Arts & Crafts houses in Clifton Gardens and Mosman.