20 Question about Over the Top, answered by David Scott Stieghan

David StieghanToday we’re interviewing, Mr. David Scott Stieghan, Fort Benning, Georgia’s Infantry Branch Historian, and editor and annotator of Over the Top originally authored by Arthur Guy Empey. The following twenty items are fascinating tidbits about the book, author, WWI, and a little about the editor.

  1. )What does “Over the Top” mean? The title, Over the Top means three things to Empey. It is best known as a phrase to order or encourage troops to climb out of their trenches to cross No Man’s Land under enemy fire and to jump into the enemy’s trench with rifles, bayonets and hand grenades. Secondly, it meant that Empey had to leave his comfort zone of peace in America, cross the dangerous submarine-infested Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain, and join the British Army to fight as a Soldier. Third, Empey wrote the book to encourage his countrymen to get involved with what he considered a crucial struggle of the Western Democracies against Germany and its imperial allies. This was a war for the survival of the West. As the Empey’s book “Over the Top” went to press, he changed his introduction from an encouragement to get his countrymen to join the Allies to a rousing explanation of why they should fight and what it might look like for young Americans.
  2. ) Who wrote Over the Top and can you tell us a little bit about him? Arthur Guy Empey was an American citizen who served in the British Army as a Soldier in the trenches during World War I.  Empey was born in Utah the son of a Canadian father and American mother. He received part of his schooling in Virginia before the family moved to New York City. While still only seventeen, Empey lied about his age to join the New York National Guard and served in the Infantry and, for a time, in the state naval militia. His sense of adventure led him to enlist in the United States Regular Cavalry for two, three year hitches that included service in Georgia and Texas before his discharge at the rank of Sergeant. Returning to New York City, Empey was working with an engineering firm in Jersey City, New Jersey when the World War began in 1914. He served part-time as a Sergeant and recruiter in the State Cavalry in New Jersey and was certain that the United States would enter the war when 128 Americans were counted among the victims when a German submarine sank the British passenger liner SS Lusitania in 1915. After a few months passed and the United States remained neutral, Empey resigned all his civilian and military positions, obtained his passport, and sailed to Great Britain to enlist in the British Army. His book begins about the time of the sinking of the Lusitania and the story ends upon his discharge on account of wounds received in battle. He urged his fellow Americans to mobilize their industry and manpower to defeat Germany and her allies as we were “in it now.”
  3. Why do you think Empey wrote this book? After the SS Lusitania was sunk by a submarine, Empey felt that America should have declared war on Germany. Eager to get in the fight, Empey quit his job at an engineering firm in Jersey City, NJ, crossed the submarine-menaced waters of the Atlantic Ocean, enlisted and then fought as a member of the British Army. Following basic training, Empey was sent to fight in the the trenches of the Western Front in France where he was wounded at least twice. The second wound was serious enough to disable him and forced his return to America. Later, Empey wrote a series of short stories for publication in newspapers and magazines, but was soon convinced to publish his material as a book. As luck would have it, the book Over the Top appeared for sale a few weeks after the United States declared war on Germany and the Central Powers in 1917.
  4. What is Over the Top about? This book was the first of its kind which featured stories of the common Soldier’s life behind the lines and concentrated on the details of combat in the trenches.
  5. ) What is unique about this book? This was Empey’s first book and, by far, the most successful. An estimated one million copies were printed from May 1917 through November 1918.  Appearing in print within a month after  entering the war, Over the Top acquainted readers with the training and combat experienced by his main character “Tommy Atkins,” a common British Soldier. This offered the American reader a glimpse of what members of our own American Expeditionary Force might experience in this new Modern War. The book is also written in a humorous style by an artist who spent the rest of his life engaged in various forms of entertainment and self-promotion. It is an insider’s look at the Tommies of the British Army told in their slang by an American who served alongside them. Empey liberally spices his text with the jargon of this industrial war and includes a thirty page “Tommy’s Glossary of the Trenches” at the end which should be read completely for an explanation and for a funny look at the life of the Soldier.
  6. ) As editor, what interested you in Over the Top? Empey tells his story of fighting as a British Soldier from an American point of view. He does not take himself very seriously, but does consider his efforts as part of a crusade. The book is written as an explanation of the common Soldier’s life to a general audience as seen through the life of Tommy Adkins while training, fighting, and trying to amuse himself out of the ranks and trenches. New to the business, and a foreigner in Great Britain, Empey described everything in extraordinary detail, including common daily routines. What made it a fascinating book to those who wished to get a sense of the new style of war in 1917 are the same characteristics that make it informative and interesting to a modern audience. One would have to read a number of books, or collections of letters, by other veterans to enjoy the same level of detail offered by Empey in Over the Top. It is a classic that I read again every few years. Each time I read it, I find new details.
  7. ) Why would you recommend reading Over the Top? Over the years, colleagues and students have asked me what should be the first book about World War I that they should read.  I always tell them to find a copy of Arthur Guy Empey’s Over the Top and read it in one sitting, if possible. It is the most readable and entertaining introduction to the experience of trench fighting in print. Unfortunately, until now the only copies available were nearly one hundred years old, and they are getting hard to find. When I was presented with the opportunity to edit a series of classic World War I books, the choice was simple.  Not only have I always wanted to make Over the Top more widely available, but have also wanted to edit it to make it more accessible to modern readers. Empey only hints at his pre-war experience in the book.  He discretely censors many locations in an attempt to protect wartime intelligence. Not all of the terms make sense today, but I do my best to put it all into context for modern readers. While the essence of Empey’s unique writing style is retained, an additional introduction to the author himself and the setting in the front lines of the Western Front is added, along with additional illustrations.
  8. ) How was the book received when it was originally written? Somewhere around one million copies of Over the Top were printed during the eighteen months that the United States participated as a combatant in World War I. It immediately became a best-seller and turned Empey into a overnight celebrity. He and his book were mentioned or featured numerous times on the front page of the New York Times and other papers across the nation. Many surviving copies have multiple owner’s names written in the flyleaf suggesting that some copies were passed around as recommended reading. Many of those who expected to serve in the trenches in Europe purchased copies of Over the Top and even wrote home from France recommending that their families read it. For many Americans, the book was their window to the war as it was easily understood and enjoyed by a wide audience. It was certainly an important influence on public knowledge of trench warfare for the public while the war raged on.
  9. ) How does “Over the Top” compare to other works available about World War I? “Over the Top” was the only important book and primary source written about trench warfare and combat in World War I by an actual participant while the fighting took place.  All other books that appeared before the Armistice were related to strategy, politics, the overall conduct of the war, and other big picture issues or conjecture about how the Americans would serve. Empey was a common Soldier who trained and fought in the war at the front and published his experiences just as America was beginning to participate. The timing and subject was a perfect match for the needs of the reading, and fighting, Americans. Plus, Empey’s style was popular among many readers.
  10. ) What prepared you to edit “Over the Top” for modern readers? I enjoy the study of the Great War, or World War I, and have for over forty-five years. I have  been reading general histories, tactics manuals, and collecting militaria from the period all my life. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I sponsored Veteran’s Day events for surviving Doughboys and interviewed all that I could. In 1983, I escorted Sergeant Alvin York’s widow, Gracie, and a son and daughter, along with twenty-eight World War I veterans, across a football stadium at a Veteran’s Day half-time football game at Middle Tennessee State University. I, and the other members of the ROTC rifle drill team, wore historic American uniforms. I chose to wear the Doughboy uniform and to meet the oldest veterans who were to attend the game. The veteran Doughboys made a great impact upon me and I continued to seek them through my years serving as an Army officer, and for years beyond. They were a great inspiration to me. The vast majority of veterans do not write of their experiences and most will not share them with one who was not also involved in the war. The more I studied the dwindling number of Doughboys and listened to what they had to share during my interviews, the more I began to understand the horror of trench warfare and how they were permanently affected after facing modern killing machines.One of the film projects I worked on as a technical consultant resulted in the mini-series, “Truman,” starring Gary Sinise. I was initially hired to provide uniforms and props, but the director began to use me in front of the camera for the three World War scenes and used my suggestions to improve action and dialogue. My experience as a Field Artillery officer, military historian, and countless Doughboy interviews became an asset for the director to tap to make  “Truman” entertaining and historically accurate, particularly Sinise’s portrayal of Truman’s service as an Field Artillery battery commander. I have also made appearances in uniform in documentaries as an actor, and also as a subject-matter expert in other history television programs. I believe that what I learned from Doughboys, and from Empey’s writings, better equipped me to understand the experience of the Great War.

    After being discharged from a military career due to injuries stemming from a training accident with the U.S. Army, I had the opportunity to explore other occupations. These include college History instructor, museum and historical society director, Civil War battlefield and plantation director. After the attacks of 9/11, I resigned the latter position and returned to work for the United States Army as a civilian at Fort Benning, Georgia. For over fifteen years, I have been the primary Military History Instructor and the Infantry Branch Historian for the Army and continued to study and collect military and Western antiques. I have moonlighted since 1982 working on ninety-seven television documentaries or mini-series as an actor, subject-matter expert, technical advisor, or script writer. I have used my study of the American common Soldier and the changing technology of the battlefield to bring realism and accuracy to all these projects.

Thank you, Dave, for the interview and thank you, reader, for reading this. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our blogs and will enjoy reading Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey.