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Going over the top

World War I through the eyes of a veteran

Created date

October 23rd, 2015
WWI trench warfare
WWI trench warfare

Today, the name Arthur Guy Empey means nothing to most people. But in 1917, there was nary a man or woman in America whose face didn’t brighten at the slightest mention of him.

His recently published war memoir Over the Top was a runaway hit. Full of gory, gritty details about life and death in the trenches of the Western Front, Empey’s book introduced American readers to the horrors of a conflict that the United States had yet to enter.

“The war to end all wars,” as some called it, had been raging in Europe for three years. The fighting was brutal, and Empey was among the few Americans who bore its scars.

For the United States, the First World War wouldn’t officially begin until the spring of 1917. For Empey, however, it started in May 1915, when he saw the headline "LUSITANIA SUNK! AMERICAN LIVES LOST!" splashed across the front page of a newspaper.

Germany’s sinking of the ocean liner killed 128 American citizens. In Empey’s eyes, it was an attack on the United States.

Nevertheless, President Woodrow Wilson did not declare war.

The notion of remaining neutral under such circumstances, to Empey, was unconscionable, unforgivable even. He was a born warrior and patriot.

He served for six years in the U.S. Cavalry and was working as a recruiting officer for the New Jersey National Guard at the time of the sinking—a fact that no doubt heightened his frustration over the country’s failure to act. 

He had made up his mind. If America’s army wasn’t willing to fight, he would go to Europe and join one that was. 

Within a month, 31-year-old Empey was in England wearing the uniform of a sergeant in the Royal Fusiliers. From here, it was off to France, where he spent the next year and a half huddled in fire trenches along the front line.

Each day brought perils and privations. 

The realities of trench warfare

Food rations were limited in quality and quantity, sleep was sporadic and rarely restful, and hygiene a mere afterthought secondary to food, sleep, and survival. Indeed, men sometimes went months without a bath or a change of clothes, all the while living in muddy, rat- and flea-infested ditches.

There were also the pressing dangers of injury and death. Shrapnel from artillery bursts was a constant threat, as were bullets from sniper rifles and machine guns.

According to Empey, a soldier never forgets the first time he sees a comrade torn to pieces by enemy fire. The pungent odors of blood, burnt flesh, and gun powder are indelible.

A soldier’s own wounds are equally memorable. Empey remembered all three of the bullets he took during the Battle of the Somme: two in the shoulder and one in the left side of his face.

Empey’s days in combat had come to an end. In 1916, the British Army discharged the wounded sergeant. 

Immediate best-seller

Upon returning home to the states, he wrote a memoir of his war experiences. Released in 1917, Over the Top was an instant success.

At the peak of sales, vendors couldn’t keep up with the demand. By some estimates, 250 copies sold every hour.

In total, roughly 3 million people read Over the Top in 1917 alone, and another 25 million read Empey’s syndicated newspaper articles—a series of essays highlighting his 17 months in Europe.  

Men and women alike devoured his raw narrative sketches of the Fusiliers’ squalid existence in the trenches. Through vivid descriptions both of daily life and the gruesome facets of combat violence, Empey put readers on the front line to show them just how much a soldier risked and sacrificed simply by being there.

Americans wanted to know about these things, their curiosity driven not by an appetite for lurid entertainment, but rather by the need to ready themselves for their own part in a war that appeared increasingly difficult to avoid.

In the spring of 1918, Empey’s readers knew what to expect.