How a WWII soldier's initials carved in a tree connected a Dutch village to Toronto

Dutch journalist Ernst Arbouw used a Canadian soldier's initials carved in a tree to trace the young man's story from a village in the Netherlands all the way back to Toronto.

Dutch journalist found the initials 'H.W.R' carved in a tree and traced it to a soldier's family in Toronto

Heather Weber never got to meet her uncle Harold Wilbert Roszel, who died during the Second World War before she was born. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Ernst Arbouw can't recall exactly why the photo captivated him.

He first saw it on Facebook in November 2014. A shot of a tree in the woods near Eelde, his small town in the north of the Netherlands.

Someone had carved their initials — "H.W.R." — and, underneath, they'd written "Toronto, Canada."

"We can still touch our liberators here," reads the Facebook caption written by Arbouw's friend, originally in Dutch.

The mystery behind who made the carving piqued the curiosity of the freelance journalist. He wondered if he could track down and meet the Canadian veteran, a man would have been part of the Canadian forces tasked with liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation in the final gruelling chapter of the Second World War.

More than 70 years later, it's something Arbouw says the Dutch have never forgotten.

He began sifting through archives and firing off emails to Canadian officials. He eventually found the family of a Toronto man who was just a teenager when he headed off to fight in the war.

"Everything you ever read about World War II is about all the big military engagements and everything," Arbouw says.

But the carving, he says, was so personal, so human.

"That's what started this: A small sign of humanity in a conflict."

Dutch journalist Ernst Arbouw used a Canadian soldier's initials carved in a tree to trace the young man's story from a village in the Netherlands all the way back to Toronto. 2:30

Who was Harold Wilbert Roszel?

In a database of Commonwealth war graves, Arbouw discovered the name of a man from Toronto that matched the initials carved on the tree: Private Harold Wilbert Roszel, a driver in the Second Canadian Infantry Division.

After weeks of research, he figured out the young man's route to that Dutch forest, south of the city of Groningen.

"I just started to connect the dots, all the way from Toronto, to British Columbia where he was in a training camp, and then to the United Kingdom, to Normandy, and then all the way to Northern France, Belgium, then Germany, then to the Netherlands," he says.

Harold Roszel was a young Toronto man who was killed in his early 20s, just days before he was meant to head back home to Canada from the Netherlands. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Arbouw connected with Roszel's family after spotting his last name in an obituary for George Weeden, whose deceased wife Lenora's maiden name was Roszel. Lenora, it turned out, was the soldier's sister.

He started reaching out through social media to family members listed in the obituary in December 2014, including Roszel's grand-niece on Twitter, and later met her aunt in Amsterdam.

He also connected with Lenora's daughter, Heather Weber — the soldier's niece, who lives in Toronto.

Through Arbouw's research, he learned some grim news: The young Canadian never made it home from the war.

Harold Roszel's sister was the one who received this telegram informing the family about his death. She recalled singing 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' around the house right before the grim news arrived. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Weber says her uncle was just four days away from leaving for Great Britain — and then back home to Canada — when he was killed by a German sniper on April 16, 1945.

The young man with blue eyes and a mop of blonde hair, who jokingly called himself "Baldie" in letters home to his sister, was 21 when he was hit, according to the official record.

But Weber says her uncle pretended to have the same birthday as his older brother when he joined the army at 17, meaning he might have been just 20 when he died.

'He actually came to life'

Weber never knew her uncle — he was killed long before she was born — but in July 2015, Weber headed to the Netherlands to meet Arbouw, and see where Roszel once carved his initials in a tree.

Arbouw took Weber and her daughter, Zoe, to the woods of Eelde where they met the forester who'd first spotted the carving. Weber says the man, Booi Kluiving, was sitting in an old 1940s army Jeep.

"I just had goosebumps at this point," she recalls. "It was just surreal that this was happening."

In the summer of 2015, Heather Weber (middle) headed to the village of Eelde to meet Dutch journalist Ernst Arbouw (right) and forester Booi Kluiving (left). (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Then, the strangers-turned-historians drove out to the tree with "H.W.R." carved into it. 

"And so all of a sudden, this uncle who I never knew, it was like he actually came to life," Weber says. "I was standing where he had been standing. I was right by the tree that he had carved his initials in."

Since then, Arbouw has stayed in touch with Roszel's family, and he's been working on a book about the ordinary Canadians who served in the Second World War and helped liberate the Netherlands.

He says it's an important part of history, and the moment when modern Dutch society was created. 

Harold Roszel's niece, Heather Weber, believes her uncle was just 20 when he died in a German sniper attack. She says he lied about his age to join the army at 17. (Supplied by Heather Weber)

The young men who helped make it happen should always be remembered, he adds.

So what would he say to Private Harold Wilbert Roszel if he'd actually been able to meet him like he'd hoped?

"One: Do you fancy a beer? And two: Do you know you have a really lovely family?' Arbouw says.

"And, by the way — thank you for coming to liberate us."

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: