Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Remembering World War I: An Engineer’s Diary of the War reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

Remembering World War I: An Engineer’s Diary of the War
by Charles Edward Dilkes
Edited by Virginia A. Dilkes, Georgia Dilkes Harris, and Lola Dilkes Koniuszy
Published by Juliet Publishing, 2014

Charles Edward Dilkes (1887–1968) graduated from Georgetown University with a background in engineering in 1910. On 1 May 1917, Dilkes responded to the nation's call to the colors by enlisting in the army and being assigned to the 1st Engineer Regiment at Washington, DC. In explaining why he enlisted, Dilkes, ever patriotic, said that "[e]very man must shoulder a weapon in defense of his home". For the rest of his time in the army, including service overseas in combat, Dilkes served in the 1st Engineers, part of the 1st Division.

Departing from Hoboken on 7 August 1917, Dilkes didn't have to wait long to experience combat as his ship, the Finland, was attacked by U-boats on August 20 as they neared France. The ensuing battle, eagerly watched by Dilkes and probably thousands of other soldiers and sailors, involved transports with deck guns, destroyers, and airplanes.

Order Now
Upon safe arrival in France, Dilkes and his regiment underwent training that included construction of barracks and stables along with infantry training and tours of duty in the trenches. Dilkes, who applied several times for officer training without success, also attended a school on road building. During their tours of duty in the trenches, the men repaired trenches and barbed wire entanglements, fortified reserve trenches, and constructed and repaired dugouts. While in the trenches, engineers had to participate in wire-stringing details in No-Man's-Land. Dilkes statement gives one an inkling of the perils of such work: "I was always ready to leave when the next detail arrived; there was no delay either …"

Dilkes describes a harrowing nighttime trip to the rear along a communication trench that was being heavily shelled. Loneliness had a way of magnifying the terror involved in such a trip: "On reaching the slope a company of infantry was hurrying along, and in the rear of this outfit I followed. I felt relieved a bit, for, if wounded, there was aid; but when alone there is nothing but the stars to offer sympathy." (p. 61) Throughout the narrative Dilkes records vignettes of war that he experienced, including searching the dead for rations and watching a muleteer calmly unhitch his two lead mules that had just been killed by shell fire and then drive on with the remaining two mules. Indeed, the book is replete with accounts of air raids, gas attacks, and artillery barrages, as well as stories of suspected German spies in French or American uniforms.

1st Division Engineers in Action
Dilkes, promoted to sergeant in April, 1918, went through all the battles of the 1st Division. He did his first real work in combat while the division was near Cantigny. There the men constructed "roads, observation posts, barbed wire entanglements, trenches, dugouts, and first aid stations." (p. 46) Constructing a communication trench required men to be posted every three feet; at the signal, each man then commenced digging a portion of trench six feet deep, three feet long, and two feet wide. Dilkes's description of such work, performed at night while anticipating or experiencing enemy artillery fire, evokes a feeling of helplessness in the reader.

During the Aisne-Marne campaign, Dilkes's company followed the assault wave as a part of the reserve; their duties included clearing debris from the roads in order to make them passable for follow-on artillery and supply units. At St. Mihiel, Dilkes and his company accompanied the infantry assault wave as wire-cutters. After the fighting died down, Dilkes helped set demolition charges to German items that might have appealed to souvenir-hungry Doughboys, but which could have been booby traps. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Dilkes performed much the same types of duties, filling in craters and repairing and reconstructing roads.

After the Armistice, the 1st Division became part of the Army of Occupation in Germany, and Dilkes describes his march to the Rhine bridgehead. Although happy with his treatment by the German family with whom he was quartered, Dilkes, in common with most Doughboys, was dissatisfied with his post-war army life. "Drills, hikes, inspections, and reviews were the daily routine...I considered my work finished with the signing of the armistice; now home and discharge were my cry".

After his return home, Dilkes, using a diary he kept during the war, wrote his memoirs for his family. Editors Virginia A. Dilkes, Georgia Dilkes Harris, and Lola Dilkes Koniuszy, Charles Dilkes's daughters, used his diary and memoirs to prepare this book. The editors include what they call "Living History" sidebars, snippets of information gleaned from various sources that illuminate or summarize aspects of the regiment's history. They have also included many General Orders and other commendations that were issued to either the regiment or the division.

Memoirs of infantrymen abound; this book, however, helps us to remember that, amidst the patrols, trench raids, and artillery duels, the backbreaking work of the engineers in and just behind the front lines continued. It is interesting to read Dilkes's engineer-centric narrative. Firsthand accounts by enlisted engineers are comparatively rare, and the editors have done a good service by publishing their father's memoirs.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. Thank you for this review. I've ordered the book. Cheers

  2. Congratulations to Ms. Dilkes and family members on the publication of your father's diary. Personal writings like this give an invaluable perspective on life during the war, and this one is especially interesting because of your father's role as an engineer. Wishing you much success with the book.

  3. The Lost Sketchbooks, A Young Artist in The Great War is a book about another engineer, Ed Shenton, who sketched his way through training camp and combat in France.

  4. I have just recently learned my great-grandfather's role in WW1. He was an engineer! I will order this book and learn more about what he did in France. Thank you for the post!