A small, brown diary housed at the Saanich Archives provides a glimpse into the life of a Saanich resident who fought in the First World War.
In 2019, the wartime diary of early Saanich resident and war veteran Lt. Owen Talbot Aspray was donated to the archives, said Susanne Hervieux, Saanich’s archives specialist.
Aspray – born in England on Dec. 12, 1880 – immigrated to Canada when he was 20. He married Matilda Collier on Nov. 1, 1910, and the couple made their home on Tolmie Avenue in Saanich. By 1915, they’d moved to Sims Avenue and had three daughters. Before the war, Aspray was employed as a firefighter for the Victoria Fire Department and then began a career as a teamster.
On Dec. 11, 1914, he enlisted at Willows Camp in Victoria, Hervieux explained. He arrived in France on Sept. 22, 1915, and by March 1916, was promoted to lance corporal.
While in the trenches in Ypres, Aspray fell ill and was sent to hospital in England with worsening jaundice along with back and leg pain.
“His condition was quite grave for a while,” but once he began to improve, Aspray was sent off to a Woodcote Park, a Canadian convalescent home in England, Hervieux noted. There, he was diagnosed with “infectious jaundice” – called hepatitis today.
That fall, Aspray returned to the trenches and was promoted to sergeant the following July. However, by September 1917 he was wounded in action, she said. When he was injured for a second time in October, he was assigned to be an instructor at the Canadian Corps School and transferred to England in 1918.
From December 1917 to December 1918, Aspray kept a diary – referred to as a “Soldiers Own Diary,” Hervieux explained, adding that the journals could be purchased by soldiers and acted as both a day planner and a guide with instructions for tying knots, translations and definitions for military terms and practices.
Aspray made brief entries about what he experienced every day and where he was stationed. Hervieux noted that on Nov. 11, 1918, he wrote, “Armistice signed” and his last entry stated that he’d “bought [a] new diary.”
“While we don’t have Owen’s subsequent diary in our collection, we do have quite a bit of ephemera related to [his] time after the war – related to veterans affairs as well as his Silver Jubilee medal sent to him in 1935,” Hervieux said.
After the war ended, Aspray was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to the First Central Ontario Regiment in late 1918, Hervieux said. He returned to Canada and was discharged in Victoria on March 19, 1919. Aspray lived the rest of his life in the Burnside area of Saanich and died on March 31, 1948, she noted, adding that he was buried in the Royal Oak Burial Park.
In 2019, Aspray’s war diary was added to an existing collection of his possessions donated two years prior.
It’s “a fantastic addition to this collection” and provides insight into his life during the war, Hervieux explained.
Talbot is also among several hundred individuals commemorated by the Saanich Remembers World War One project started by the Saanich Archives is 2015, she said, adding that the project is ongoing and volunteers are needed to help research the names on the district’s First World War honour roll and write biographies.
After a 14-month closure due to a flood and then the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saanich Archives has reopened to the public by appointment between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays with pandemic protocols in place. To make an appointment or to make a donation, call 250-475-5494 ext. 3478 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Saanich Remembers project, go to saanich.ca/archives.