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Experience | Over the Top

By Arthur Guy Empey
Winter 2018 • MHQ Magazine

Frustrated by his own country’s neutrality in the early years of World War I, Arthur Guy Empey traveled to London and enlisted in the British Army. Soon he was in the trenches on the Western Front.

In 1914, as World War I broke out in Europe, Arthur Guy Empey was living in New York City and working as a recruiting sergeant for the New Jersey National Guard. But at the end of 1915, frustrated by the neutrality of the United States, he traveled to London and enlisted with the 1st London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), Territorial Force, going on to serve with it in the 56th (1/1st London) Division on the Western Front as a bomber and a machine-gunner. He was medically discharged after being wounded in action in the Battle of the Somme.

Empey returned to the United States and wrote a book about his experiences on the Western Front, Over the Top, which was published in 1917 and sold more than a quarter of a million copies. That same year he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but was rejected because of his wartime injuries. He then began touring the United States, giving public performances and readings from his book to rally the American people to the nation’s entry into World War I.

Empey went on to become an actor, songwriter, movie producer, and writer of pulp-fiction stories. He died at age 79 at the U.S. Veterans’ Center Hospital in Wadsworth, Kansas, in 1963. 

 

ON MY SECOND TRIP TO THE TRENCHES OUR OFFICER was making his rounds of inspection, and we received the cheerful news that at four in the morning we were to go over the top and take the German front-line trench. My heart turned to lead. Then the officer carried on with his instructions. To the best of my memory I recall them as follows: “At eleven a wiring party will go out in front and cut lanes through our barbed wire for the passage of troops in the morning. At two o’clock our artillery will open up with an intense bombardment which will last until four. Upon the lifting of the barrage, the first of the three waves will go over.” Then he left. Some of the Tommies, first getting permission from the sergeant, went into the machine-gunners’ dugout, and wrote letters home, saying that in the morning, they were going over the top, and also that if the letters reached their destination it would mean that the writer had been killed.

These letters were turned over to the captain with instructions to mail same in the event of the writer’s being killed. Some of the men made out their wills in their pay book, under the caption, “will and last testament.”

Then the nerve-racking wait commenced. Every now and then I would glance at the dial of my wrist-watch and was surprised to see how fast the minutes passed by. I could not take my eyes from my watch. I crouched against the parapet and strained my muscles in a death-like grip upon my rifle. As the hands on my watch showed two o’clock, a blinding red flare lighted up the sky in our rear, then thunder, intermixed with a sharp, whistling sound in the air over our heads. The shells from our guns were speeding on their way toward the German lines. With one accord the men sprang up on the fire step and looked over the top in the direction of the German trenches. A line of bursting shells lighted up No Man’s Land. The din was terrific and the ground trembled.

Then, high above our heads we could hear a sighing moan. Our big boys behind the line had opened up and 9.2’s and 15-inch shells commenced dropping into the German lines. The flash of the guns behind the lines, the scream of the shells through the air, and the flare of them, bursting, was a spectacle that put Pain’s greatest display  into the shade. [From 1879 to 1910 Henry J. Pain’s fireworks extravaganzas were among the top attractions at New York City’s Coney Island.] The constant pup, pup, of German machine guns and an occasional rattle of rifle firing gave me the impression of a huge audience applauding the work of the batteries.

Our eighteen-pounders were destroying the German barbed wire, while the heavier stuff was demolishing their trenches and bashing in dugouts or funk-holes.

Then Fritz got busy.

 

THEIR SHELLS WENT SCREAMING OVERHEAD, AIMED IN THE DIRECTION of the flares from our batteries. Trench mortars started dropping “Minnies” in our front line. We clicked several casualties. Then they suddenly ceased. Our artillery had taped or silenced them.

During the bombardment you could almost read a newspaper in our trench. Sometimes in the flare of a shell-burst a man’s body would be silhouetted against the parados of the trench and it appeared like a huge monster. You could hardly hear yourself think. When an order was to be passed down the trench, you had to yell it, using your hands as a funnel into the ear of the man sitting next to you on the fire step. In about twenty minutes a generous rum issue was doled out. At ten minutes to four, word was passed down, “Ten minutes to go!” Ten minutes to live! We were shivering all over. My legs felt as if they were asleep. Then word was passed down: “First wave get on and near the scaling ladders.” These were small wooden ladders which we had placed against the parapet to enable us to go over the top on the lifting of the barrage. “Ladders of Death” we called them, and veritably they were.

We crouched around the base of the ladders waiting for the word to go over. Then came the word, “Three minutes to go; upon the lifting of the barrage and on the blast of the whistles, ‘Over the Top with the Best o’ Luck and Give them Hell.’ ” The famous phrase of the Western Front.

I glanced again at my wrist-watch. It was a minute to four. I could see the hand move to the twelve, then a dead silence. It hurt. Everyone looked up to see what had happened, but not for long. Sharp whistle blasts rang out along the trench, and with a cheer the men scrambled up the ladders. The bullets were cracking overhead, and occasionally a machine gun would rip and tear the top of the sand bag parapet. How I got up that ladder I will never know. The first ten feet out in front was agony. Then we passed through the lanes in our barbed wire. I knew I was running, but could feel no motion below the waist. Patches on the ground seemed to float to the rear as if I were on a treadmill and scenery was rushing past me. The Germans had put a barrage of shrapnel across No Man’s Land, and you could hear the pieces slap the ground about you.

After I had passed our barbed wire and gotten into No Man’s Land, a Tommy about fifteen feet to my right front turned around and looking in my direction, put his hand to his mouth and yelled something which I could not make out on account of the noise from the bursting shells. Then he coughed, stumbled, pitched, forward, and lay still. His body seemed to float to the rear of me. I could hear sharp cracks in the air about me. These were caused by passing rifle bullets. Frequently, to my right and left, little spurts of dirt would rise into the air, and a ricochet bullet would whine on its way.

Men on my right and left would stumble and fall. Some would try to get up, while others remained huddled and motionless. Then smashed-up barbed wire came into view and seemed carried on a tide to the rear. Suddenly, in front of me loomed a bashed-in trench about four feet wide. Queer-looking forms like mud turtles were scrambling up its wall. One of these forms seemed to slip and then rolled to the bottom of the trench. I leaped across this intervening space. The man to my left seemed to pause in mid-air, then pitched head down into the German trench. Upon alighting on the other side of the trench I came to with a sudden jolt. Right in front of me loomed a giant form with a rifle which looked about ten feet long, on the end of which seemed seven bayonets. These flashed in the air in front of me. Then through my mind flashed the admonition of our bayonet instructor back in Blighty. He had said, “whenever you get in a charge and run your bayonet up to the hilt into a German, the Fritz will fall. Perhaps your rifle will be wrenched from your grasp. Do not waste time, if the bayonet is fouled in his equipment, by putting your foot on his stomach and tugging at the rifle to extricate the bayonet. Simply press the trigger and the bullet will free it.”

In my present situation this was fine logic, but for the life of me I could not remember how he had told me to get my bayonet into the German. To me, this was the paramount issue. I closed my eyes, and lunged forward. My rifle was torn from my hands. I must have gotten the German because he had disappeared. About twenty feet to my left front was a huge Prussian nearly six feet four inches in height, a fine specimen of physical manhood. The bayonet from his rifle was missing, but he clutched the barrel in both hands and was swinging the butt around his head. I could almost hear the swish of the butt passing through the air.

Three little Tommies were engaged with him. They looked like pigmies alongside of the Prussian. The Tommy on the left was gradually circling to the rear of his opponent. It was a funny sight to see them duck the swinging butt and try to jab him at the same time. The Tommy nearest me received the butt of the German’s rifle in a smashing blow below the right temple. It smashed his head like an eggshell. He pitched forward on his side and a convulsive shudder ran through his body. Meanwhile, the other Tommy had gained the rear of the Prussian. Suddenly about four inches of bayonet protruded from the throat of the Prussian soldier, who staggered forward and fell. I will never forget the look of blank astonishment that came over his face.

Then something hit me in the left shoulder and my left side went numb. It felt as if a hot poker was being driven through me. I felt no pain—just a sort of nervous shock. A bayonet had pierced me from the rear. I fell backward on the ground, but was not unconscious, because I could see dim objects moving around me. Then a flash of light in front of my eyes and unconsciousness. Something had hit me on the head. I have never found out what it was.

I dreamed I was being tossed about in an open boat on a heaving sea and opened my eyes. The moon was shining. I was on a stretcher being carried down one of our communication trenches. At the advanced first-aid post my wounds were dressed, and then I was put into an ambulance and sent to one of the base hospitals. The wounds in my shoulder and head were not serious and in six weeks I had rejoined my company for service in the front line. MHQ

This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Over the Top

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