Nova Scotia

A privilege 'worth fighting for': Letter reveals how family's military legacy began

A 104-year-old letter is helping Robert Manzer shed light on a family military tradition that has lasted three generations.

A letter from 1916 is helping Robert Manzer understand how patriotism led his grandfather to enlist

Robert Howard Manzer gave up his job as a school principal to enlist in 1916. (Robert H. Manzer)

A 104-year-old letter is helping Robert Manzer shed light on his grandfather and namesake who started a family tradition of military service that has lasted three generations.

Manzer, 63, lives in Halifax, but his family history in the military started at the opposite end of the country in Nanaimo, B.C.

His father, Robert Banting Carson Manzer, was born in B.C., and served with the merchant marine from 1937 to 1953, and with the Royal Canadian Navy from 1953 to 1965, reaching the rank of lieutenant. He died in 2001.

Manzer's father, Robert Banting Carson Manzer, served with the merchant marine and the Royal Canadian Navy. (Robert H. Manzer)

Robert Manzer was always aware of his father's storied military service, but knew very little about his grandfather's enlistment during the First World War until he inherited the century-old letter.

"My grandfather passed away in 1961. I was four years old," said Manzer, a retired commander who spent 35 years in the Canadian Armed Forces and the navy before retiring in 2017.

"It's only by reading letters like this one that he wrote to his mother — my great-grandmother — on the 3rd of June, 1916, that I can sort of get to understand a little bit about his motivations and what kind of man he was."

Robert Manzer was a commander when he retired from the military in 2017 after 35 years of service. (Cpl Mélani Girard/Canadian Forces Support Unit (Ottawa))

In the letter, Manzer's grandfather says he plans to enlist to support the war effort. At the time, the world was in the grip of war and Canadian troops had suffered heavy losses in the previous two years. 

"We expect to live in this country in the future and I'm sure that privilege is worth fighting for," wrote Robert Howard Manzer, who was just shy of 30 years old and working as a school principal in Nanaimo. 

Robert Howard Manzer (pictured front, centre) was principal of the Quenelle School in Nanaimo, B.C., before joining the war effort. (Robert H. Manzer)

He was determined to enlist out of a sense of duty and patriotism.

"He was somebody that really cared that when the country needed more soldiers, that somebody in his family had to go for it and he had decided it was him," said the younger Manzer.

Despite suffering from numerous medical conditions, including varicose veins, flat feet and muscular rheumatism, his grandfather managed to pass his physical.

In his letter, Manzer's grandfather tells his mother that the thought of army life fills him 'with loathing.' (Robert H. Manzer)

He enlisted with the British Columbia company of the 196th Western Universities Overseas Battalion.

Many young men at the time joined the war effort with thoughts of adventure and excitement in mind.

Manzer's grandfather was under no such illusion.

"I have passed the age in life when such an enterprise has any fascinations for me. In fact the thought of the drudgery, discipline and routine of the soldiers' camp life fills me with loathing," he wrote.

"I anticipate nothing pleasant in the whole undertaking so I am not bargaining for disappointments."

Robert Manzer at Kandahar Airfield as a lieutenant-commander in 2002. (Robert H. Manzer)

He served overseas as a clerk with the Canadian Forestry Corps until he was found medically unfit for service and discharged on Nov. 1, 1918, just a few days short of the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11 that ended the war.

The poignancy of his grandfather leaving behind a fairly comfortable life to face the uncertainty of war isn't lost on Manzer. 

"Sometimes you have to put your country in front of your own personal safety and your own personal comfort and rise to the occasion. And I think that's what my grandfather and my father both did," he said. 

Halifax ceremony solemnly marks Remembrance Day

2 years ago
Duration 3:10
The Royal Canadian Legion held a scaled-back Remembrance Day ceremony at Halifax's Grand Parade due to COVID-19 restrictions. Nova Scotians were encouraged to watch from home to pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

As Canada observes an unusual Remembrance Day under pandemic restrictions, Manzer said he hopes people take a moment to think of those who lost their lives in the service of their country. 

"We still need to take time to think about those who came before us that made those kind of sacrifices so that we can continue to enjoy life in Canada that we do enjoy."



Vernon Ramesar


Vernon Ramesar is a reporter and video and radio journalist originally based in Trinidad. He now lives in Halifax.