Pte. Heber Rogers

Heber Symonds Rogers was born on August 12, 1895, to Richard Birdsall Rogers, superintending engineer of the Trent Canal and Peterborough Lift Lock, and Mina Rogers. The youngest of six children, Heber spent the first few years of his life at Beechwood Farm, his family’s property in Douro Township, before they moved to their house at 147 Hunter Street East in 1904. Summers were spent at their cottage in Kawartha Park, located on the shores of Stoney Lake. As a young man, Heber was known to participate in—and even win—races at the annual Kawartha Park Regatta.

Heber was described by those that knew him as “bright and cheerful” and ever-ready to help others. In 1906, he was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s medal for lifesaving after pulling two boys his own age from the Otonabee River following a rafting accident. A few weeks later, he attempted unsuccessfully to save a man from drowning in Stoney Lake—an effort that, according to his father, nearly cost him his own life. As an adolescent, he attended Peterborough Collegiate, where he was considered a good student and a gifted athlete.

Pte. Heber Rogers. Balsillie Collection of Roy Studio Images, Biographical Series #15035. Image courtesy of Peterborough Museum & Archives.

Heber was a member of the 57th Regiment, as per family tradition, and was a week shy of his 19th birthday when war broke out in August 1914. After volunteering for active service, he and many other Peterborough boys were integrated into the 2nd Infantry Battalion, 1st Canadian Contingent, which officially mobilized at Valcartier Camp in September and departed for England on October 3.    
2nd Battalion—or the “Iron Seconds”—spent a cold, rainy winter at Bustard Camp on Salisbury Plain, living out of tents pitched in the mud while they completed their basic training. Heber is said to have excelled on the rifle range and was considered one of the best marksmen in his unit. He wrote home often, detailing infantry and cavalry manoeuvres he witnessed, and spoke highly of the machine gun section. The Battalion left England late that winter and arrived in Europe in February 1915. Though they were not yet on the front lines, they still faced significant challenges, particularly regarding the availability of food. A proper commissary had yet to be established and bread consistently arrived stale, leading many men to search for alternative sources of nourishment: on one occasion, Heber and his friend Gordon Hill Grahame dug turnips out from under an insulating layer of manure, hacked off the rinds, and ate them raw. The letters he wrote to his parents during these first few months indicate how appreciative he was of food he received from family and friends.

2nd Battalion was present at engagements such as Bois Grenier and Neuve-Chapelle—however, it was the 2nd Battle of Ypres that was their baptism by fire. In particular, the Battle of St. Julien proved to be both a defining moment and a catastrophic defeat. They had entrenched themselves southeast of Kitcheners Wood on the night of April 23-24, 1915, and in the morning came under heavy German fire. By 1pm they received an order to retire, which was belayed, as 2nd Battalion’s commanding officer believed they would be able to hold their position. However, despite efforts to repel the German advance, a second order to retire came less than an hour after the first. According to the 2nd Battalion’s war diary, it was during this retreat that they suffered the worst of their losses. They had gone into battle 984 strong and suffered 544 casualties of all ranks. Over 300 of these casualties were listed as missing, the majority of which were later established as killed in action. A handful had been injured and taken prisoner.

Soldiers of the “Iron Seconds.” (Pte. Heber Rogers: front row, second from left.) Balsillie Collection of Roy Studio Images, Biographical Series #15937. Image courtesy of Peterborough Museum & Archives.

Heber was a member of the machine gun section during the Battle of St. Julien in April 1915. On April 24, prior to the retirement order that drew what was left of 2nd Battalion back from the front lines, he was badly wounded by a shrapnel shell that exploded near his head. Despite his injuries, he is reported to have remained at his gun, firing until he ran out of ammunition. There is no record of what precisely happened next, but when 2nd Battalion arrived at Divisional Headquarters on the morning of April 26, Heber was not with them.

On May 4, Richard and Mina Rogers received unofficial news that their son was missing and presumed dead—news later confirmed by a telegram from the Adjutant General on May 15. For two long weeks, they received dozens of sympathy letters from extended family, friends, and business associates. A memorial service was organized and held at St. Luke’s, which was attended by many Peterborough residents. Then, on May 19, they received a telegram from England with the news that Heber was alive. After being taken prisoner, he had written first to a family friend in London and requested she inform his parents he was alive, as writing directly would have taken too long. A letter received by his mother a few weeks later provided more detail: while operating his machine gun at St. Julien, he had been hit in the face about fifteen times by the pieces of a shrapnel shell and was still unable to see out of his right eye. Over the subsequent weeks, his vision slowly returned, although deficient, and he was released from the hospital and transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Giessen. The following year, he was moved again, this time to Soltau, where he spent the remainder of the war.

Though removed from the immediate danger of front lines, life in POW camps was both difficult and dangerous. Mail was subject to rigid censorship, and as such, Heber could not describe these living conditions in the letters he wrote to his family and friends. However, he did record some his experiences in a journal, which offers insight into some of the grim realities faced by prisoners during the First World War. Work was expected; prisoners were forced to cut trees, help lay railroad, load and unload railway cars, among other things. Furthermore, sick and wounded prisoners were not exempt from labour. In May 1916, Russian prisoners at Soltau refused to work and were cut with bayonets, forced to stand at attention for hours, and locked in cells for days without food. Despite the poor treatment of prisoners, Heber’s journal provides evidence of his attempts to stay in good spirits and preserve his sense of humour. One entry, dated June 7, 1916, offers two short sentences that exemplify this: “Laughed at German guard and sent to clink. Wrote to Mother while there.”

In 1916, Heber and two other prisoners attempted to escape from Soltau by wearing armbands that allowed them to accompany a work party out of camp. They were later able to break off from the rest of the party and avoided detection by hiding in the underbrush until well after dark. From there, they travelled cross-country towards Holland for over a week until they were caught by police in Bremen, at which point they were sent back to Soltau and confined to cells for 14 days as punishment. There is also reference to a second escape attempt later in the war, which ultimately failed as well; Heber remained a prisoner of war until the armistice in November 1918. Upon his release, he travelled to England, and was eventually repatriated in early 1919. He finally returned home that May, nearly five years after he had left for Valcartier with the rest of the 57th Regiment.

There is no record of Heber having been awarded any military medals for his service during the First World War. In June 1919, he had his eye examined by an ophthalmologist and was diagnosed with traumatic amblyopia, for which he received a medical discharge. That summer, he returned with his family to their cottage in Kawartha Park and even participated in some of the regatta events.

Heber spent the next several years living at Beechwood Farm with his parents and sisters. After his parents’ deaths in 1927, he inherited responsibility for their cottage, though it remained a place where the entirety of the Rogers family could come together. In the early 1930s, Heber moved back to his old house at 147 Hunter Street East. When World War II broke out, he re-enlisted and went on to serve in the Royal Canadian Artillery Regiment in Petawawa. After the war, he returned to Hunter Street and began working for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, first as a salesman and later as a manager. In 1951, he married Helen Rosamond Carter, and the two moved to 813 Water Street. He continued to spend his summers at the family cottage until his death on May 22, 1958, at the age of 62.

Though more than half a century has passed, in many ways, Heber remains present in Peterborough today. As a veteran of both World Wars, his name appears twice on the Wall of Honour at the Peterborough War Memorial. The house where he spent much of his life remains at 147 Hunter Street East, near the lift lock. Finally, in 1966, a 90-acre swath of land north of Peterborough was officially designated the Heber Rogers Conservation Area. Located in Kawartha Park, it stands to commemorate Heber’s loyalty to his family, community and country, his lifelong sportsmanship, and his enduring love of the outdoors. In the words of his long-time friend J.A. Edmison, “here will be enshrined, as the seasons pass, his dauntless spirit.”    

Sign marking the Heber Rogers Conservation Area in 2018. Image taken by Hazel Scott Pankratz.     

Research by Hazel Scott Pankratz and Kelsey Greer
2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion reunion pamphlet, 1937.
Address of J.A. Edmison at the official opening of the Heber Rogers Wildlife Area, July 16, 1966. Edmison family collection. 1968-020. Peterborough Museum & Archives, Peterborough, Ontario.
Canada’s History. Canada’s Great War Album. Heber Rogers.
Grahame, Gordon Hill. Short Days Ago. Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Company, 1972.
Library and Archives Canada. 2nd Battalion War Diary, 1915. Canadian Expeditionary Force, April 22-26, 1915.
Library and Archives Canada. Digitized Service File: Heber Rogers. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 8431-1, Item #286570 (CEF).
Library and Archives Canada. Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada.
Nicholson, Col. G.W.L. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962.
Rogers Family Papers. 82-022/9, Files 4-6. Trent University Library & Archives, Peterborough, Ontario.
Rogers Family Papers, 82-022/10, Files 1-6. Trent University Library & Archives, Peterborough, Ontario.
Rogers, Richard Birdsall. Diary of Richard B. Rogers, volume 15: 1906. July 13, 1906. Trent University Library & Archives Digital Collections.
The Heritage Gazette of the Trent Valley, volume 15(4). February 2011. Trent Valley Archives.
Vernon’s City of Peterborough Street, Alphabetical, Business and Miscellaneous Directory, multiple years. Hamilton: Henry Vernon & Son, 1895-1958. Accessed October 15, 2018. Peterborough Museum & Archives, Peterborough, Ontario.