Remembering World War I through the Eyes of a Combat Engineer
Special Collections and University Archives’ recent acquisition bears the history of a patriotic soldier—and the daughter who lovingly brought his story to light
Virginia Dilkes earned her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1972. But one of the biggest achievements of her career came in a different field entirely—that of military history.
A native of Iselin, New Jersey, Virginia is the coeditor of Remembering World War I: An Engineer’s Diary of the War (Juliet Publishing, 2014). The book contains a transcription of the military journal of her father, Charles Edward Dilkes, who served in the First Division of the American Expeditionary Forces as a combat engineer.
Born in Philadelphia in 1887, Charles studied engineering at Holy Cross before transferring to Georgetown University where he graduated in 1910. After the war he settled in New Jersey and founded the Newark-based C. E. Dilkes Manufacturing Company, which earned international business thanks to his invention of a portable printing press.
Charles volunteered three weeks after war was declared in April 1917 and served until his honorable discharge in September 1919. As a combat engineer, his responsibilities included more than building bridges, roads, and fortifications—he was also called upon to fight in each of the First Division’s six major battles in France.
“An engineer in this war assumed the duties of a doughboy many, many times,” he wrote. “So often we discarded the shovel and picked up the rifle."
Initially conceived as a simple way to preserve Charles’s story for future generations of the Dilkes family, the project gradually expanded in scope as interest in it grew. What ultimately emerged was a meticulously researched volume with over 150 annotations providing historical context and corrections to the firsthand accounts contained in the journal.
Despite her formal training as a chemist, Virginia settled naturally into the role of historian. "Once you work at the doctoral level and learn how to do research, it is not difficult to transfer those skills from chemistry to studying your family history," she explained.
It was a process that took 15 years and saw her travel to institutions across the country, from the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City to the National Archives at College Park.
She even eventually traveled to Europe to retrace Charles’s footsteps, using the writings in his journal as a guide. She toured training grounds and battlefields in France and relived his time spent in Germany serving in the Army of Occupation. She visited churches where he had worshipped as well as military cemeteries where she searched for gravesites of First Division engineers who would have served at her father’s side. “It was a very emotional trip,” she said.
It reflected, in some ways, what Virginia describes as a “roller coaster” experience for her father.
“This was the first time our country was involved in a world war. There was so much patriotic fervor, he really rallied to the cause. And then of course he went into battle and learned about the reality of war and what you need to do to help your men,” she said. “But once the armistice was signed, he felt that, as a volunteer, his duty to his country was fulfilled. He did not like going on to the Army of Occupation—he wanted to go home. In the end, however, he left with a feeling of elation because he knew that General Pershing held the First Division in high regard.”
Upon returning from Europe, Virginia met with a number of military history and World War I museums with the intention of finding a permanent home for her father’s war artifacts. These include his enlistment and discharge papers, photographs and correspondence, and the original handwritten journal itself—which is in remarkable condition given that its author had been forced to bury it at least once for fear of capture.
In the end, Virginia chose Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives.
“When I asked the museums ‘What does it mean to archive these artifacts?’ they said, ‘Well, we’re going to put them in a box in an air conditioned room.’ The difference was Rutgers said, ‘We would like to exhibit them first,’” she explained. “And that’s exactly what our family wanted.”
Asked to reflect on the experience of publishing her father’s journal, Virginia says she considers it her family’s contribution to the World War I centennial commemorations being conducted across the country.
“World War I really was the seminal event for the 20th century—in geopolitics, art, literature, and so on,” she said. “I would like people to understand the effect it has had on our country’s history, and also on the world.”
Virginia Dilkes will come to Alexander Library this Thursday, March 9 at 6 p.m. to present about the World War I experience of Charles Edward Dilkes. Learn more about her talk here.