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Heirs of history
Exactly one hundred years ago Thursday, William Valentine Ashley penned his first war diary entry as he embarked from Curragh, Ireland to enter the Great War. He and his brother Joseph served together in the Fourth Hussar Regiment in France, and both kept journals despite a ban on personal records by the military. Those two journals sat continents away from each other until this year, when they reunited along with the descendants who dug them unwittingly out of storage generations later.
Chilliwack resident Rich Fulcher discovered his grandfather William’s diary after asking his mother about it one day in 2001.
“He died when my mom was three so she didn’t even really know him,” says Fulcher. “When my grandmother remarried a lot of his stuff just kind of disappeared into the back cupboards.”
“So there was nothing ever really known about him except this diary he left and a couple of his medals that he left behind.”
The discovery turned into an obsession.
After trying to read the small faded handwriting in the diary, Fulcher decided he needed to transcribe the entire book digitally using magnifying glass to help.
Some stains and physical particles actually leave evidence of his grandfather, speculates Fulcher. The residue from the trenches where he was fighting and the cigarette ashes tell as much as the words within the book.
“Even the way his writing changed over the whole thing,” he says. “You can see the stress hitting him through the year that he wrote it.”
In 2005, Fulcher started sharing his records and research on the Great War Forum online. One day, another forum poster mentioned his grandfather who shared a similar story to Fulcher’s.
“He was in the Eighth [Hussars] before the war and then joined the Fourth [Hussars] to be with his brother,” he says. “And this other guy is talking about being from Bow, London and that’s where my family originates from.”
So Fulcher sent him a message with his grandfather’s service number, his unit and more details.
“I’ll never forget Richard’s face when he came out in the morning,” says his partner Shelley Stevens. “He had goosebumps.”
Fulcher had found his cousin, Gary Ashley, the grandson of William’s brother Joseph.
Slightly older, Gary was remarkably similar to Fulcher. He shared the same interest in war history—so much so that he runs historical tours.
Their bond has grown strong over the years of online correspondence about family history. It’s a history that keeps coming more into focus, as they collaborate between each other and those in the forum.
Last Friday, those years of communication culminated when Fulcher and Stevens landed in France.
“Richard’s got a list a mile long of all the gravestones and places he wants to see,” says Stevens.
In fact, that list contains every mentioned person in the diary who was killed.
After meeting Gary in Europe, they’ll travel to the sites Fulcher has read about so many times in his grandfather’s journal.
They’ll see where William and Joseph rode their cavalry into battle, and where Joseph carried his wounded brother back to safety amid shellfire.
They will stand in those places where their grandfathers stood, and remember a war as told through their experiences, passed down in written word.