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George Vincent Fox's dog tag from World War I.

The World War I Diary of George Vincent Fox

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One of the treasures of the historical society’s collection is the daily diary kept by George Vincent Fox, an artilleryman in World War I. Fox documents his journey across the Atlantic, his time on the front lines, and his postwar duty as peacekeeper. Although the prose is sparse and matter-of-fact, it vividly captures both the thrill and the tedium of war and peace.

The War

Fox, a soldier in Battery “E” 148th Field Artillery, begins his diary in January 1918 as he sets sail from New York. Even before he arrives in Europe, he gets his first taste of war. Another ship traveling with Fox is torpedoed 200 yards behind him just off the coast of Ireland.

On the continent, he trains, convoys, and parades for the first five months. He even sees “the sweetheart of the AEF,” Elsie Janis, in concert. But this respite ends at the beginning of July. He must leave for the front.

He arrives on July 7th. The battery barely establishes its position before a German shell explodes 300 yards away. “Our first initiation, and it was never to be forgot.” At first German shrapnel flies over them, and Battery E is complimented on its accuracy. This changes July 14-15, when the Germans “pour a rain of shells” into the camp for ten hours. “War is sure hell,” Fox writes. Undaunted, the 148th returns fire, sending 500 rounds back to the Germans.

The Germans are forced to retreat. The 148th follows. Sadly, on August 5th, Battery E suffers its worst attack of all. A stray shell falls among the tents, killing three and sending 12 to the hospital. Of the wounded, only three will live to see their families again. One will be crippled for life. “When Sherman said war is hell he still left something out,” Fox writes. “Captain Nelson broke down and cried. We fired all night in the rain.”

Altogether, Battery E will spend four months at the front. Orders are given then withdrawn. Rumors spread before they’re proven false. Troops advance only to turn back. “Nothing is certain in this army. You have to see to believe.”

They manage to enjoy a few halcyon days while resupplying. They hear the regimental band in concert or talk with the chaplain. Others play baseball or horseshoes. And still others drink themselves senseless with vin blanc. Faced with the prospect of returning to the front, Fox says, “Suits me alright. It’s the only way to bring this conflict to an end.”

At the front, if he’s not firing shells, he’s marching. The battery must lug their mortars through the rain, across swampy roads, usually at night. They spend weeks without a full night’s rest. At one point Fox goes three days without sleep. At times they keep company with rats, “many of them were wearing 3 to 4 service stripes.” Planes harass them from the skies, and every day ever more German shells rain down around them. “Old Fritz sent over some of his favorite souvenirs,” Fox likes to say.

As the war progresses there are more quiet days, and more Germans taken prisoner. Finally, armistice is reached on November 11. “The Kaiser has kicked thru,” Fox writes. “Cheers and celebration all over.”

After the Peace

Despite the peace, Fox’s tour does not end. He’s told the 66th Brigade is the only unit of the army that was “entirely satisfactory.” This distinction earns the soldiers the “honor” of following the Germans across the Rhine and guarding the border. They stay in Germany another six months.

Between the drilling, target practice, guard duty, equipment cleaning, and inspections (“Everything is inspections these days”), life settles down. There are dances, concerts, lectures, church on Sunday, boxing matches, and baseball, basketball, and soccer games. He can take a bath again, and, when it’s not canceled by influenza fears, he attends noncom school. He takes several trips up the Rhine to Koblenz, and is allowed to travel to England. The only blight of his stay, besides its length, is the misfortune of having to fill in for the furloughed supply sergeant.

The battery is billeted, at least at first, in the homes of German families. He is amazed how “the people here show more hospitality than the French folk did.” He is treated to waffles, potato dumplings, and hot cakes. He stays a few days with a family whose 19-year-old son served 10 months on the front in the German army. Fox understands enough of the language to converse, and the two get along well. Fox, the son, and the father talk long into the night. After this, Fox no longer writes “boche,” “huns,” or other derisive terms. He simply writes, “Germans.”

Fox’s final entry is dated at the end of May. He’s on his way home. He lists the towns he’s passed through along the way: Trier, Oberbillig, Conflans, Saint Aignan, Clermont… He reaches the port town of Sant Nazaire at 11:30 p.m., May 28, 16 months after sailing from New York.

Postscript: Fox’s dog tag and a copy of his diary were donated to the Costa Mesa Historical Society in 1983 by George’s wife, Berineance Bunch Fox. Read the diary in full at the Costa Mesa Historical Society Museum