For the first time in almost 90 years since the guns fell silent to signal the end of The Great War, the Carlton Football Club has learned that another of its sons made the supreme sacrifice in the defence of his country.

William Martin “Willie” Rogers, a defender from Wonthaggi who played three matches for the Blues back in 1913, lost his life on the battlefields of France on September 22, 1918.
Willie was just 22 years and nine months when he enlisted back in February 1916. After his arrival in France, he took part in some of the most desperate battles of the whole conflict. He was wounded, but returned to duty where his bravery and leadership was recognised by his promotion to acting Sergeant.

The circumstances of Willie’s return to active service are cruel. Surviving descendants believe that after he sustained wounds to the foot in France in October 1917, Willie was to have been ferried from England on the next Australia-bound ship.

But he never made it up the gangway. Instead he convalesced abroad and in early 1918 returned to the battlefield. There - tragically, just three weeks before the Armistice was signed - and with victory in sight, he was cut down by a burst of machine gun fire. Critically injured, he was evacuated to a field hospital, only to pass away without regaining consciousness.

William Martin Rogers, one of forty-four Blues who enlisted for active service, was among eleven who were killed in the service of their country.

The ten other Carlton players (or ex-players) to be lost in World War 1 were:

George Challis (25) 70 games, 16 goals (1915 Premiership player)
Harold Daniel, 39. 11 games.
Dave Gillespie (29) five games, two goals
Tommy Hughes (26) six games, one goal
Tom McCluskey (27) four games
Fen McDonald (24) 10 games, four goals
Stan McKenzie (25) 14 games, six goals
Charlie Oliver (44) 1 game, one goal
Jim Pender (39) 15 games, four goals
Alf Williamson (23) 11 games, two goals

Remarkably, Willie’s story had remained untold because of a simple typing error. Until November 2007, he was listed in official football records as William “H” Rogers – and no Australians with that name and initial served in the Great War.

It was only when AFL historian Stephen Rodgers dug more deeply that he discovered the mistake. He and Carlton historian Stephen Williamson then teamed up, and thanks to their diligence, together with the support of Willie’s surviving nieces and nephews and The Blueseum’s Warren Tapner, here at last is Willie Rogers’ story.

Willie’s parents John and Mary Rogers originally hailed from inner-western Melbourne. Together they raised six children – Joanna, John junior, Ellen, William, Mary and Catherine – the first two of whom were born in Flemington where the father worked as a butcher.

A niece of Willie’s, Erin Forbes, said that the family was “desperately poor” and had no choice other than to relocate to Gippsland’s Bass-Woolamai region – a little over 110 kilometres south-east of Melbourne - to where John found work at a local sawmill.

But in 1909, in a terrible twist of fate, John was killed when a tree fell on him, leaving Mary widowed and six children including Willie (then 16 years of age) without a father.

John junior and Willie Rogers grew into strapping country lads who worked as labourers in the sawmills that dotted the shores of Westernport Bay in the first decade of the 20th century. Each Saturday in winter, they chased a kick on the football fields of the booming local competition.

Willie was the more promising player of the two, and by 1913 – despite the recent death of his father - the 20 year-old defender was starring for the Wonthaggi club.

The exact circumstances leading to Willie’s journey to Princes Park are unclear, but we do know that he played for the local amateur side Carlton District. A postcard carrying an image of the University Training College, dated May 27, 1913, and forwarded to a family member, quotes Willie as saying: “I had a game of football with the Carlton District on Saturday and they reckon I played well”.

Not long after, Willie pulled on the navy blue guernsey number 28 for his VFL debut for Carlton, against Geelong at Corio Oval. That game was played on the King’s Birthday weekend in June, 1913. Willie played as a follower and Carlton won by 15 points.

Willie then lined up in a back pocket for his second match (a 27-point victory over Essendon at Princes Park) while his third and last game ended with a disappointing 47-point loss to ladder leader South Melbourne at the Lake Oval. Not long after, Willie left Carlton and crossed to VFA side Brunswick.

Less than a year later, in August 1914, Europe was plunged headlong into a long and bloody war between Germany and her allies on one side, and France and the British Empire on the other. Australia’s men were quick to answer the call to arms, and within months, the first Australian troopships were on their way to Egypt.

Although she was already a widow, Mary Rogers sent both her sons to serve their country. John junior enlisted in July, 1915, and Willie signed on in February of the following year. It has often been suggested amongst family members that Willie was advised by his older brother not to enlist, but rather remain with their mother and younger siblings in Gippsland.
Willie was trained to be part of a three-man machine-gun team, embarking for England in May, 1916. Six weeks later, he was pitched into action for the first time as two massive armies clashed in a series of offensives on France’s Western Front.

In October 1916, Willie’s ability was recognised with his promotion to Lance Corporal – on the same day as he was wounded for the first time. Hit in his left foot by a shell splinter, he was evacuated to England for treatment, and while recuperating from surgery, was sent to a training unit as an instructor.

By June 1918, Willie had recovered enough to be posted back into front line service with the rank of Corporal. Aided by the entry of American troops, the tide of the war had turned in favour of the Allies by September, but losses on both sides were still horrendous.

On September 21, 1918, Willie was a temporary Sergeant in charge of a section of three machine-guns. Somehow – perhaps while advancing, or directing his men to a better position, he was caught in the open by enemy troops. They raked his position with their own automatic weapons, and Willie was critically wounded. Although his men recovered him alive, and he was evacuated to the nearest field hospital, Willie’s wounds were severe and he died the following day. He was 25 years old.

Willie’s precious effects were recovered from the field and returned to his grieving mother – two discs, two knives, two cigarette holders, a mirror, cigarette case, card case, note case, ring, metal watch, wristwatch and strap, German mark note and a horseshoe and a prayer book.

The prayer book, which carries a nick from one of the bullets, remains a precious heirloom for the Rogers descendants.

Willie now lies with many other sons of the Southern Cross at St. Sever Cemetery extension outside Rouen, the historical capital city of Normandy in northwestern France on the River Seine.

In a footnote to Willie’s story, his brother John junior also served his country with distinction.

Twice wounded in action himself, John was awarded a Military Medal for ‘acts of gallantry and devotion to duty while under fire’ at Polygon Wood, during two days of heavy fighting on September 20/21, 1917 - precisely twelve months before his brother’s death.

The citation for his award reads; ‘Private Rogers was a stretcher-bearer, and although separated from other bearers, did splendid work in tending the wounded when under the enemy barrage. From the time of advance up to the time of relief, this bearer worked continuously. Also when reliefs were being effected, he was of great assistance to the relieving Battalions, both as a guide to their positions and in organising parties to remove their wounded. This latter work was carried out under heavy enemy fire.’

Happily, John Rogers survived the war. Although wounded in each arm on separate occasions, he was discharged from military service by a grateful nation in March 1919.

It is understood that John junior first learned of Willie’s death on his return to Australia.

In 1925, John junior married Mary Morell, with whom he shared a long and happy marriage. Together John junior and Mary Rogers raised four children – Brian (deceased), John (deceased), Bev and Thurza.

John died at the age of 72, in October, 1961. Mary died on December 23, 1995, aged 93, and is buried with her husband in Coburg Cemetery.

Lest we forget.