Arthur Guy Empey was a member of the US Cavalry who resigned to volunteer for the British Army during World War One. He was wounded during the Battle of the Somme. When the US entered the war, he tried to rejoin the US Army, but was rejected because of his wounds and possibly because of some disparaging comments about American draftees. He wrote a book, Over the Top, about his experiences during the war. With the 100th anniversary of the war, I thought it might be interesting to post his story. Empey later became a prolific pulp magazine author, a movie star and producer, and a playwright.
From "Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches" by Empey:
Covering Party. A number of men detailed to lie down in front of a working party while "out in front" to prevent surprise and capture by German patrols. Tommy loves this job, I don't think!
Lewis Gun. A rifle-like machine gun, air cooled, which only carries 47 rounds in its "pie-plate" magazine. Under fire when this magazine is emptied you shout for "ammo" but perhaps No. 2, the ammo carrier, is lying in the rear with a bullet through his napper. Then it's "napoo-fini" (Tommy's French) for Mr. Lewis.
"Napoo-Fini." Tommy's French for gone, through with, finished, disappeared.
"Napper." Tommy's term for head.
CHAPTER I -- From Mufti to Khaki
CHAPTER II -- Blighty to Rest Billets
CHAPTER III -- I Go to Church
CHAPTER IV -- Into the Trench
CHAPTER V -- Mud, Rats and Shells
CHAPTER VI -- "Back of the Line"
CHAPTER VII -- Rations
PICKS AND SHOVELS
I HAD not slept long before the sweet voice of the Sergeant informed that "No. 1 Section had clicked for another blinking digging party." I smiled to myself with deep satisfaction. I had been promoted from a mere digger to a member of the Suicide Club, and was exempt from all fatigues. Then came an awful shock. The Sergeant looked over in my direction and said:
"Don't you bomb throwers think that you are wearing top hats out here. 'Cordin' to orders you've been taken up on the strength of this section, and will have to do your bit with the pick and shovel, same as the rest of us."
put up a howl on my way to get my shovel, but the only thing that resulted was a loss of good humor on my part. We fell in at eight o'clock, outside of our billets, a sort of masquerade party. I was disguised as a common laborer, had a pick and shovel, and about one hundred empty sandbags. The rest, about two hundred in all, were equipped likewise: picks, shovels, sandbags, rifles, and ammunition.
The party moved out in column of fours, taking the road leading to the trenches. Several times we had to string out in the ditch to let long columns of limbers, artillery, and supplies get past.
The marching, under these conditions, was necessarily slow. Upon arrival at the entrance to the communication trench, I looked at my illuminated wrist-watch—it was eleven o'clock.
Before entering this trench, word was passed down the line, "no talking or smoking, lead off in single file, covering party first."
This covering party consisted of thirty men, armed with rifles, bayonets, bombs, and two Lewis machine guns. They were to protect us and guard against a surprise attack, while digging in No Man's Land.
The communication trench was about half a mile long, a zigzagging ditch, eight feet deep and three feet wide.
Now and again, German shrapnel would whistle overhead and burst in our vicinity. We would crouch against the earthen walls while the shell fragments "slapped" the ground above us.
Once Fritz turned loose with a machine gun, the bullets from which "cracked" through the air and kicked up the dirt on the top, scattering sand and pebbles, which, hitting our steel helmets, sounded like hailstones.
Upon arrival in the fire trench an officer of the Royal Engineers gave us our instructions and acted as guide.
We were to dig an advanced trench two hundred yards from the Germans (the trenches at this point were six hundred yards apart).
Two winding lanes, five feet wide, had been cut through our barbed wire, for the passage of the diggers. From these lanes white tape had been laid on the ground to the point where we were to commence work. This in order that we would not get lost in the darkness. The proposed trench was also laid out with tape.
The covering party went out first. After a short wait, two scouts came back with information that the working party was to follow and "carry on" with their work.
In extended order, two yards apart, we noiselessly crept across No Man's Land. It was nervous work; every minute we expected a machine gun to open fire on us. Stray bullets "cracked" around us, or a ricochet sang overhead.
Arriving at the taped diagram of the trench, rifles slung around our shoulders, we lost no time in getting to work. We dug as quietly as possible, but every now and then, the noise of a pick or shovel striking a stone, would send the cold shivers down our backs. Under our breaths we heartily cursed the offending Tommy.
At intervals a star shell would go up from the German lines and we would remain motionless until the glare of its white light died out.
When the trench had reached a depth of two feet, we felt safer, because it would afford us cover in case we were discovered and fired on.
The digging had been in progress about two hours, when suddenly, hell seemed to break loose in the form of machine gun and rifle fire.
We dropped down on our bellies in the shallow trench, bullets knocking up the ground and snapping in the air. Then the shrapnel butted in. The music was hot and Tommy danced.
he covering party was having a rough time of it; they had no cover; just had to take their medicine.
Word was passed down the line to beat it for our trenches. We needed no urging; grabbing our tools and stooping low, we legged it across No Man's Land. The covering party got away to a poor start but beat us in. They must have had wings because we lowered the record.
Panting and out of breath, we tumbled into our front-line trench. I tore my hands getting through our wire, but, at the time, didn't notice it; my journey was too urgent.
When the roll was called we found that we had gotten it in the nose for sixty-three casualties.
Our artillery put a barrage on Fritz's front-line and communication trenches and their machine gun and rifle fire suddenly ceased.
Upon the cessation of this fire, stretcher-bearers went out to look for killed and wounded. Next day we learned that twenty-one of our men had been killed and thirty-seven wounded. Five men were missing; lost in the darkness they must have wandered over into the German lines, where they were either killed or captured.
Speaking of stretcher-bearers and wounded, it is very hard for the average civilian to comprehend the enormous cost of taking care of wounded and the war in general. He or she gets so accustomed to seeing billions of dollars in print that the significance of the amount is passed over without thought.
From an official statement published in one of the London papers, it is stated that it costs between six and seven thousand pounds ($30,000 to $35,000) to kill or wound a soldier. This result was attained by taking the cost of the war to date and dividing it by the killed and wounded.
It may sound heartless and inhuman, but it is a fact, nevertheless, that from a military standpoint it is better for a man to be killed than wounded.
f a man is killed he is buried, and the responsibility of the government ceases, excepting for the fact that his people receive a pension. But if a man is wounded it takes three men from the firing line, the wounded man and two men to carry him to the rear to the advanced first-aid post. Here he is attended by a doctor, perhaps assisted by two R. A. M. C. men. Then he is put into a motor ambulance, manned by a crew of two or three. At the field hospital, where he generally goes under an anaesthetic, either to have his wounds cleaned or to be operated on, he requires the services of about three to five persons. From this point another ambulance ride impresses more men in his service, and then at the ambulance train, another corps of doctors, R. A. M. C. men, Red Cross nurses, and the train's crew. From the train he enters the base hospital or Casualty Clearing Station, where a good-sized corps of doctors, nurses, etc., are kept busy. Another ambulance journey is next in order—this time to the hospital ship. He crosses the Channel, arrives in Blighty—more ambulances and perhaps a ride for five hours on an English Red Cross train with its crew of Red Cross workers, and at last he reaches the hospital. Generally he stays from two to six months, or longer, in this hospital. From here he is sent to a convalescent home for six weeks.
f by wounds he is unfitted for further service, he is discharged, given a pension, or committed to a Soldiers' Home for the rest of his life,—and still the expense piles up. When you realize that all the ambulances, trains, and ships, not to mention the man-power, used in transporting a wounded man, could be used for supplies, ammunition, and reinforcements for the troops at the front, it will not appear strange that from a strictly military standpoint, a dead man is sometimes better than a live one (if wounded). Not long after the first digging party, our General decided, after a careful tour of inspection of the communication trenches, upon "an ideal spot," as he termed it, for a machine-gun emplacement. Took his map, made a dot on it, and as he was wont, wrote "dig here," and the next night we dug.
There were twenty in the party, myself included. Armed with picks, shovels, and empty sandbags we arrived at the "ideal spot" and started digging. The moon was very bright, but we did not care as we were well out of sight of the German lines.
We had gotten about three feet down, when the fellow next to me, after a mighty stroke with his pick, let go of the handle, and pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger, at the same time letting out the explosion, "Gott strafe me pink, I'm bloody well gassed, not 'alf I ain't." I quickly turned in his direction with an inquiring look, at the same instant reaching for my gas bag. I soon found out what was ailing him. One whiff was enough and I lost no time in also pinching my nose. The stench was awful. The rest of the digging party dropped their picks and shovels and beat it for the weather side of that solitary pick. The officer came over and inquired why the work had suddenly ceased, holding our noses, we simply pointed in the direction of the smell. He went over to the pick, immediately clapped his hand over his nose, made an "about turn" and came back. Just then our Captain came along and investigated, but after about a minute said we had better carry on with the digging, that he did not see why we should have stopped as the odor was very faint, but if necessary he would allow us to use our gas helmets while digging. He would stay and see the thing through, but he had to report back at Brigade Headquarters immediately. We wished that we were Captains and also had a date at Brigade Headquarters. With our gas helmets on we again attacked that hole and uncovered the decomposed body of a German; the pick was sticking in his chest. One of the men fainted. I was that one. Upon this our Lieutenant halted proceedings and sent word back to headquarters and word came back that after we filled in the hole we could knock off for the night.
This was welcome tidings to us, because--
Next day the General changed the dot on his map and another emplacement was completed the following night. The odor from a dug-up, decomposed human body has an effect which is hard to describe. It first produces a nauseating feeling, which, especially after eating, causes vomiting. This relieves you temporarily, but soon a weakening sensation follows, which leaves you limp as a dish-rag. Your spirits are at their lowest ebb and you feel a sort of hopeless helplessness and a mad desire to escape it all, to get to the open fields and the perfume of the flowers in Blighty. There is a sharp, prickling sensation in the nostrils, which reminds one of breathing coal gas through a radiator in the floor, and you want to sneeze, but cannot. This was the effect on me, surmounted by a vague horror of the awfulness of the thing and an ever-recurring reflection that, perhaps I, sooner or later, would be in such a state and be brought to light by the blow of a pick in the hands of some Tommy on a digging party.
Several times I have experienced this odor, but never could get used to it; the enervating sensation was always present. It made me hate war and wonder why such things were countenanced by civilization, and all the spice and glory of the conflict would disappear, leaving the grim reality. But after leaving the spot and filling your lungs with deep breaths of pure, fresh air, you forget and once again want to be "up and at them."
Next: CHAPTER XV -- Listening Post