Trench warfare is a type of war strategy involving both sides digging deep trenches to defend against the enemy. In the fifty years leading up to World War I (WWI), there were many technological advances in modern warfare, making WWI a war fought in fire power–more than any past war preceding it. On the battlefield, there was only one surefire way to avoid machine guns, and that was by taking cover in the ground. What started as glorified ditches transformed into what we know as trenches throughout the course of the war, slowly turning into a curvy labyrinth covering whole fronts. The land in between was called “No Man’s Land.” The typical trench was around twelve feet deep and dug by soldiers. The western front in France was fought and defended using trench warfare; both sides were so well defended that not much land was gained or lost on either side for long, which is why the front was called a stalemate.
Within Arthur Guy Empey’s story, at one point, he tells a short story of a man he named Albert Lloyd for the sake of his story. Lloyd was drafted for the war and soon found himself sent to Paris and assigned to the D Company on the front lines. His first assignment was guard duty in the trench’s traverses.
According to the author, when a new recruit is on guard duty, he isn’t required to stand with his head “over the top” of the of the trench. They know it can be too much for someone with little to no past trench warfare experience. He only has to “sit out” while the more experienced men stand up and keep watch. “Over the top” meant exposure to the enemy and significant risk to yourself.
For Empey, this phrase represents leaving the peaceful comfort zone of America, crossing the dangerous submarine-infested Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain, and then joining the British Army to fight. The phrase “over the top” is best known, however, as meaning 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 trenches with rifles, bayonets, and hand grenades.
Keep on the lookout for more updates on the Press’s upcoming title Arthur Guy Empey’s Over the Top, newly edited by David Scott Stieghan to be released April 6th as the first book in our WWI Doughboy Series!