Click to View

It went to hell and back


Ninety years on, it still has the power to move.

The legs are missing. So are the eyes. A dark cross-stitch stands in for the nose and mouth. And two unsteady ears curl awkwardly on top.

Yet this worn, scruffy, tiny teddy bear was chosen the most significant of all the nearly 3,000 First World War artifacts submitted to the Memory Project of The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute.

Long ago, the bear belonged to Aileen Rogers, a girl of 10 in Montreal who had braces on her legs from polio. Her father, Lawrence Browning Rogers, had gone off to fight in Europe, feeling that he would be less a man if he stayed home - even though he was already 37, a true greybeard among the hundreds of thousands of young Canadians who were part of the rush to enlist. He left behind his wife of 13 years and two children, Aileen and seven-year-old Howard.

Aileen wanted him to be safe, so she took her cherished brown teddy bear and sent it to her father in France. She insisted that he keep it with him until his return.

"Aileen told me that she thought it would protect him," granddaughter Roberta Innes said. "It was given to him as a good-luck charm, and something to remind her father of all of them back home in Montreal." Mr. Rogers mentions his daughter's heartfelt gift in a letter to his wife, May, in the fall of 1916: "Tell Aileen I still have the Teddy Bear and I will try to hang on to it for her. It is dirty and his hind legs are kind of loose but he is still with me."

A year later, during the monumentally bloody advance by Allied troops on Passchendaele, Mr. Rogers, an army medic, was killed instantly by enemy fire as he bravely tended to the wounded on the battlefield. He was one month shy of his 39th birthday. Aileen's teddy bear was in his pocket.

The bear was returned to the family overseas, with the rest of Mr. Rogers's possessions. Also returned was a letter written by his young son Howard on Sept. 8, 1917, which did not reach the front until Mr. Rogers was dead. In a childish hand, with many cross-outs, it reads: "Dear Daddy. We have had holidays since the 3rd and I have played all the time and have to go back to-morrow cct morning. I went to the movies twice ..... I try my hardest at school to come first.

"I joined the YMCA and have been there twice at gym. I haven't had a swim yet. I will have to close because I am burning up all the electric light. Daddy from Howard."

Ms. Innes believes that it was partly his father's early death that made Howard, her father, grow up into a lovely, nurturing person.

But there is a darker side to the story. Unlike Howard, Aileen remained haunted by the loss of her dad all her life. Near the end of her long life, she was still wondering why her father chose war over his family: "He left a woman alone on a farm she hated, with a disabled child and a young boy. Why did he go? Why?" Ms. Innes recalled her aunt asking.

"I think she felt cheated about not having a father as she grew up." Aileen was not the only one who wondered. Reading between the lines of Mr. Rogers's letters home, it is clear his wife was also unhappy about his decision, even suggesting that it was her fault.

Not so, her husband responds early on: "We have 13 years to look back upon, some were more easy than others, but to me all were happy as long as I was with you and you have nothing to reproach yourself for. "You are the best wife ever. It was my duty to come here and do my bit. Although my heart is very sore at being away and no telling for how long, if it came to the same place in my life again I would feel it my duty not only to England but to myself and you to enlist again."

After Mr. Rogers died, all was forgiven. His wife did not remarry, and treasured every scrap related to her husband's war service, lugging a large box full of letters and mementos with her every time the hard-pressed family moved, which was often.

"She saved everything. It was almost a shrine to his memory," Ms. Innes said.

In Mr. Rogers's letters from the front, he talks to his children about their report cards, tries to reassure his wife, and longs for home. On New Year's Day, 1917, he writes: "I am sitting in a dugout. ..... It is a fine hole - mud all over the place and all over me, and the rain leaking in a hundred spots, but I should [not] worry as I am alive and well. I got the Xmas parcel. It did make me feel happy and yet terribly lonesome."

A few days earlier, on Christmas Eve, he tells his family wryly that he will not be hanging stockings this year: "Mine will be on my feet where they have been for the last seven days and where they will be for about eleven cct more. ..... I will try and picture you and the kiddies hanging yours up and will perhaps see Santa Claus coming by on his way to you all and with hope that the stockings get well filled."

But moments like these were but a brief respite from the awful struggle to stay alive in the trenches: "It is something awful when a bombardment is on. Not only the scream of the shells but the explosion when they burst, then the flying pieces and nowhere you can go that is really safe," he writes May.

"We just sit and wait for something to happen, hold your breath when the shell screams and sigh with relief when it breaks far enough away or just hits the wall of the trench. Had Dante lived through this, he would have had other ideas for his inferno."

His niece said Mr. Rogers was a gentle man who did not want to kill anyone, preferring to look after horses and tend the wounded. He often mentioned the need to show courage under fire, fretting when he was overlooked for bravery medals.

A dispatch from Mr. Rogers's last battlefield said he was killed "while assisting to care for the wounded. A dressing station had been provided, but being a brave officer, he chose to fill it with the wounded and dress the cases as they came along in the open, totally disregarding all danger to himself."

The man with the sad little bear in his pocket was a hero, after all.

The Top 85 artifacts by category

2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.