Saturday, April 30, 2016

Over the Top -- Chapter XVII -- April 30, 2016

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:   
"Mills." Name of a bomb invented by Mills. The only bomb in which Tommy has full confidence, — and he mistrusts even that

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
CHAPTER VIII -- The Little Wooden Cross


AFTER tea, Lieutenant Stores of our section came into the dugout and informed me that I was "for" a reconnoitering patrol and would carry six Mills bombs.

At 11.30 that night twelve men, our Lieutenant, and myself went out in front on a patrol in No Man's Land.

We cruised around in the dark for about two hours, just knocking about looking for trouble, on the lookout for Boche working parties to see what they were doing.

Around two in the morning we were carefully picking our way, about thirty yards in front of the German barbed wire, when we walked into a Boche covering party nearly thirty strong. Then the music started, the fiddler rendered his bill, and we paid.

Fighting in the dark with a bayonet is not very pleasant. The Germans took it on the run, but our officer was no novice at the game and didn't follow them. He gave the order "down on the ground, hug it close."

Just in time, too, because a volley skimmed over our heads. Then in low tones we were told to separate and crawl back to our trenches, each man on his own.

We could see the flashes of their rifles in the darkness, but the bullets were going over our heads.

We lost three men killed and one wounded in the arm. If it hadn't been for our officers' quick thinking the whole patrol would have probably been wiped out.

After about twenty minutes' wait we went out again and discovered that the Germans had a wiring party working on their barbed wire. We returned to our trenches unobserved with the information and our machine guns immediately got busy.

The next night four men were sent out to go over and examine the German barbed wire and see if they had cut lanes through it; if so, this presaged an early morning attack on our trenches.

Of course, I had to be one of the four selected for the job. It was just like sending a fellow to the undertaker's to order his own coffin.

At ten o'clock we started out, armed with three bombs, a bayonet, and revolver. After getting into No Man's Land we separated. Crawling four or five feet at a time, ducking star shells, with strays cracking over head, I reached their wire. I scouted along this inch by inch, scarcely breathing. I could hear them talking in their trench, my heart was pounding against my ribs. One false move or the least noise from me meant discovery and almost certain death.

After covering my sector I quietly crawled back. I had gotten about half-way, when I noticed that my revolver was missing. It was pitch dark. I turned about to see if I could find it; it couldn't be far away, because about three or four minutes previously I had felt the butt in the holster. I crawled around in circles and at last found it, then started on my way back to our trenches, as I thought.

Pretty soon I reached barbed wire, and was just going to give the password, when something told me not to. I put out my hand and touched one of the barbed wire stakes. It was iron. The British are of wood, while the German are iron. My heart stopped beating; by mistake I had crawled back to the German lines.

I turned slowly about and my tunic caught on the wire and made a loud ripping noise.

A sharp challenge rang out. I sprang to my feet, ducking low, and ran madly back toward our lines. The Germans started firing. The bullets were biting all around me, when bang! I ran smash into our wire, and a sharp challenge "'Alt, who comes there?" rang out. I gasped out the password and groping my way through the lane in the wire, tearing my hands and uniform, I tumbled into our trench and was safe, but I was a nervous wreck for an hour, until a drink of rum brought me round.

Next: CHAPTER XVIII -- Staged Under Fire 

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