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.
"Hans Wagner" was Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, an original member of the Hall of Fame.
From "Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches" by Empey:
"Strafeing." Tommy's chief sport—shelling the Germans. Taken from Fritz's own dictionary.
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
CHAPTER XIV -- Picks and Shovels
CHAPTER XV -- Listening Post
CHAPTER XVI -- Battery D 238
CHAPTER XVII -- Out in Front
CHAPTER XV -- Listening Post
CHAPTER XVI -- Battery D 238
CHAPTER XVII -- Out in Front
"Chats With Fritz"
We were swimming in money, from the receipts of our theatrical venture, and had forgotten all about the war, when an order came through that our Brigade would again take over their sector of the line.
The day that these orders were issued, our Captain assembled the company and asked for volunteers to go to the Machine Gun School at St. Omer. I volunteered and was accepted.
Sixteen men from our brigade left for the course in machine gunnery. This course lasted two weeks and we rejoined our unit and were assigned to the Brigade Machine Gun Company. It almost broke my heart to leave my company mates.
The gun we used was the Vickers, Light .303, water cooled.
I was still a member of the Suicide Club, having jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I was assigned to Section 1, Gun No. 2, and the first time "in" took position in the front-line trench.
During the day our gun would be dismounted on the fire step ready for instant use. We shared a dugout with the Lewis gunners, at "stand to" we would mount our gun on the parapet and go on watch beside it until "stand down" in the morning, then the gun would be dismounted and again placed in readiness on the fire step.
We did eight days in the front-line trench without anything unusual happening outside of the ordinary trench routine. On the night that we were to "carry out," a bombing raid against the German lines was pulled off. This raiding party consisted of sixty company men, sixteen bombers, and four Lewis machine guns with their crews.
The raid took the Boches by surprise and was a complete success, the party bringing back twenty-one prisoners.
The Germans must have been awfully sore, because they turned loose a barrage of shrapnel, with a few "Minnies" and "whizz bangs" intermixed. The shells were dropping into our front line like hailstones.
To get even, we could have left the prisoners in the fire trench, in charge of the men on guard and let them click Fritz's strafeing but Tommy does not treat prisoners that way.
Five of them were brought into my dugout and turned over to me so that they would be safe from the German fire.
In the candlelight, they looked very much shaken, nerves gone and chalky faces, with the exception of one, a great big fellow. He looked very much at ease. I liked him from the start.
I got out the rum jar and gave each a nip and passed around some fags, the old reliable Woodbines. The other prisoners looked their gratitude, but the big fellow said in English, "Thank you, sir, the rum is excellent and I appreciate it, also your kindness."
He told me his name was Carl Schmidt, of the 66th Bavarian Light Infantry; that he had lived six years in New York (knew the city better than I did), had been to Coney Island and many of our ball games. He was a regular fan. I couldn't make him believe that Hans Wagner wasn't the best ball-player in the world.
From New York he had gone to London, where he worked as a waiter in the Hotel Russell. Just before the war he went home to Germany to see his parents, the war came and he was conscripted.
He told me he was very sorry to hear that London was in ruins from the Zeppelin raids. I could not convince him otherwise, for hadn't he seen moving pictures in one of the German cities of St. Paul's Cathedral in ruins.
I changed the subject because he was so stubborn in his belief. It was my intention to try and pump him for information as to the methods of the German snipers, who had been causing us trouble in the last few days.
I broached the subject and he shut up like a clam. After a few minutes he very innocently said:
"German snipers get paid rewards for killing the English."
I eagerly asked, "What are they?"
"For killing or wounding an English private, the sniper gets one mark. For killing or wounding an English officer he gets five marks, but if he kills a Red Cap or English General, the sniper gets twenty-one days tied to the wheel of a limber as punishment for his carelessness."
When he paused, waiting for me to bite, I suppose.
I bit all right and asked him why the sniper was punished for killing an English general. With a smile he replied:
"Well, you see, if all the English generals were killed, there would be no one left to make costly mistakes."
I shut him up, he was getting too fresh for a prisoner. After a while he winked at me and I winked back, then the escort came to take the prisoners to the rear. I shook hands and wished him "The best of luck and a safe journey to Blighty."
I liked that prisoner, he was a fine fellow, had an Iron Cross, too. I advised him to keep it out of sight, or some Tommy would be sending it home to his girl in Blighty as a souvenir.
One dark and rainy night while on guard we were looking over the top from the fire step of our front-line trench, when we heard a noise immediately in front of our barbed wire. The sentry next to me challenged, "Halt, Who Comes There?" and brought his rifle to the aim. His challenge was answered in German. A captain in the next traverse climbed upon the sandbagged parapet to investigate—a brave but foolhardy deed—"Crack" went a bullet and he tumbled back into the trench with a hole through his stomach and died a few minutes later. A lance-corporal in the next platoon was so enraged at the Captain's death that he chucked a Mills bomb in the direction of the noise with the shouted warning to us: "Duck your nappers, my lucky lads." A sharp dynamite report, a flare in front of us, and then silence.
We immediately sent up two star shells, and in their light could see two dark forms lying on the ground close to our wire. A sergeant and four stretcher-bearers went out in front and soon returned, carrying two limp bodies. Down in the dugout, in the flickering light of three candles, we saw that they were two German officers, one a captain and the other an unteroffizier, a rank one grade higher than a sergeant-major, but below the grade of a lieutenant.
The Captain's face had been almost completely torn away by the bomb's explosion. The Unteroffizier was alive, breathing with difficulty. In a few minutes he opened his eyes and blinked in the glare of the candles.
The pair had evidently been drinking heavily, for the alcohol fumes were sickening and completely pervaded the dugout. I turned away in disgust, hating to see a man cross the Great Divide full of booze.
One of our officers could speak German and he questioned the dying man.
In a faint voice, interrupted by frequent hiccoughs, the Unteroffizier told his story.
There had been a drinking bout among the officers in one of the German dugouts, the main beverage being champagne. With a drunken leer he informed us that champagne was plentiful on their side and that it did not cost them anything either. About seven that night the conversation had turned to the "contemptible" English, and the Captain had made a wager that he would hang his cap on the English barbed wire to show his contempt for the English sentries. The wager was accepted. At eight o'clock the Captain and he had crept out into No Man's Land to carry out this wager.
They had gotten about half way across when the drink took effect and the Captain fell asleep. After about two hours of vain attempts the Unteroffizier had at last succeeded in waking the Captain, reminded him of his bet, and warned him that he would be the laughingstock of the officers' mess if he did not accomplish his object, but the Captain was trembling all over and insisted on returning to the German lines. In the darkness they lost their bearings and crawled toward the English trenches. They reached the barbed wire and were suddenly challenged by our sentry. Being too drunk to realize that the challenge was in English, the Captain refused to crawl back. Finally the Unteroffizier convinced his superior that they were in front of the English wire. Realizing this too late, the Captain drew his revolver and with a muttered[curse fired blindly toward our trench. His bullet no doubt killed our Captain.
Then the bomb came over and there he was, dying,—and a good job too, we thought. The Captain dead? Well, his men wouldn't weep at the news. Without giving us any further information the Unteroffizier died.
We searched the bodies for identification disks but they had left everything behind before starting on their foolhardy errand.
Next afternoon we buried them in our little cemetery apart from the graves of the Tommies. If you ever go into that cemetery you will see two little wooden crosses in the corner of the cemetery set away from the rest.
Captain German Army
R. I. P.
Unteroffizier German Army
R. I. P.
Next: CHAPTER XXI -- About Turn