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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Remembering Veterans: Dr. Virginia Dilkes

ww1 Centennial News Podcast LogoIn October 12th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 93, host Theo Mayer spoke with commission volunteer Dr. Virginia Dilkes about her father, Charles Edward Dilkes, an Army engineer who served in France. Dr. Dilkes helped turn her father's diaries into a memoir, which is now the basis for a play. The following is a transcript of the interview: 


Theo Mayer: This week for our Remembering Veterans segment, I want to introduce you to a longtime friend and volunteer of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, Dr. Virginia Dilkes. A member of the advisory board for the Georgia World War One Centennial Commission, and co-editor of a book about her father's service in World War I called Remembering World War I: An Engineer's Diary of the War.

Charles Edward Dilke's story has been turned into a stage production called, A Year in the Trenches, written by playwright James Rana. Virginia, you've been listening in as we produce the podcast since it's genesis as a coordinated conference for all the commissioners and volunteers way back. So it's really great to finally have you on the show. Welcome to the podcast.

Virginia: Well, thank you very much for this opportunity.

Theo Mayer: Virginia, your father was an engineer who kept a daily diary during a service in France. Tell us about that.

Charles Edward DilkesCharles Edward Dilkes, father of Virginia Dilkes, kept a detailed diary while serving overseas in the First World WarVirginia: Yes. He kept his daily diary from August 6, 1917, which was the day that he left the shores of the United States to fight the war in Europe, until April 19th of 1919, which is the day while serving in the army of occupation in Germany, he was granted a pass to Paris to visit with his sister which would be my Aunt Marie-Louise. Combat engineers such as my father were told not to keep notes, because their notes may reflect troop movements and aid the enemy. However, he knew history was being made and he was a part of this historic event. So bearing in mind this responsibility, he would bury his notes in the soil of France before going into battle. He wrote his memoirs based on his diary, probably while he was serving in the army of occupation and completing it after he returned home.

Theo Mayer: Now, you and your sisters decided to turn your dad's diary into a memoir and publish it, then go out and talk about the book. How did that get started?

Virginia: Well, we started talking about it in 1999 and really got going in 2000. It seemed like the right thing to do with the upcoming centennial. However, progress was slow because we were all working, and we lived in three different areas of the country. We would try to arrange to meet as a family typically once a year, or we would meet at a national meeting of either the National World War I museum, or the World War I Historical Association. We went to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and to the military library at Clemson University among other places.

Our father used a lot of geography of France in his writing, and it took looking at old maps a good while in order to follow his footsteps. We also made a decision to include at the end of each chapter, how historians have documented what he experienced and that took a while too.

Theo Mayer: That's actually a really great approach. Now at some point in your journey, you met Sarah Cureton from the New Jersey Commission. Tell me about that.

Virginia: Yes. She has just been a wonderful context. I was a volunteer for the United States World War I Commission and as a volunteer, I asked the United States Commission if I may reach out to New Jersey because New Jersey is my native State. I called the New Jersey historical commission, and talked with the Executive Director Sarah Cureton. Well, Sarah really was quite ahead with New Jersey's World War I commemoration plans, but she was not aware a National Commission was hard at work. I was able to connect the New Jersey historical commission with United States World War I commission. After my sisters and I published our book, my New Jersey sister asked if I'd be willing to travel to New Jersey, and do a book presentation at her local library.

About the same time, I was in communication with Sarah Cureton, and I mentioned I would be doing a book presentation at a local New Jersey library if she would like to come, and she said she would. After my presentation, she bought my book. Well, a few months later, Sarah emailed me and said she wanted to develop her idea to use the arts as a means to educate New Jersey's middle and high school students about World War I. She had been looking for a book written by a New Jersey author. So she asked if she could commission a play based on my father's book. His book turned out to be ideal foundation for the play, since he was in the war from beginning to end. The detailed accounts of his experiences in battle made it easy to inject other New Jersey World War I veterans into the story line, because one of Sarah's goals was to showcase New Jerseyites who made a difference in World War I.

So James Rona and dramaturge Gayle Stahlhuth researched World War I veterans from NJ who would have or could have encountered my father, Sergeant Dilkes. The play, entitled "A Year in the Trenches", was performed at the Eastland theater in fall of 2017, and spring of 2018. I would be remiss if I did not mention the play was commissioned by not only the New Jersey Historical Commission, but also the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.Dilkes bookVirginia Dilkes helped turn her father's diary into a memoir, which became the basis for a play

Theo Mayer: Well Virginia, it's a wonderful story and you've been on quite an adventure. What advice would you give to other people who want to pursue their family's heritage?

Virginia: Well based on my own personal journey, first of all, I would tell them to use local resources such as your library. I found my library as soon as they knew what I was trying to do, they went to all lengths to try to help me. Secondly, to read World War I references pertaining to where your relative served. For instance, even reading the autobiography of General Pershing, the two-volume set, was extremely helpful.

Then I also would suggest getting involved with World War I organizations, and build a network. For instance, we attended symposia on World War I, especially those presented at the National World War I Museum, and we talked with curator Doran Cart, and archivists Jonathan Casey. Those two bent over backwards to help us find information on our father's service. I also would say, don't be afraid to donate to these organizations and thank them for helping with your research, and give credit where credit is due.

If your relative happened to serve Over There, and you have the opportunity to go over there, visit the World War I American military cemeteries. Each is a treasure trove with the history of the battles fought nearby.

Theo Mayer: Well Virginia, this has been a wonderful interview. I want to thank you not only for everything you've done for the World War I Commissions and the whole centennial, but your dogged determination to get the story out. That's wonderful, thank you.

Virginia: You're welcome. Passion is the word.

Theo Mayer: Passion is the right word. Dr Virginia Dilkes is a member of the advisory board for the Georgia World War One Centennial Commission, and the daughter of a World War I veteran. Learn more about her, her father and his service at the links in the podcast notes.