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Over the Top


Arthur Guy Empey

Editor and Annotator

David Scott Stieghan



Print Version



Arthur Guy Empey served as an American in the British Army in the early days of World War I. After fighting in the trenches, Empey began writing short stories of his overseas military experience. Wounded in the line of duty and discharged soon after, Empey returned to America and compiled his stories into one volume entitled Over the Top. Published in 1917 only weeks after the United States declared war on Germany and the Central Powers, Over the Top quickly became a bestseller, bringing fame and notoriety to the previously unknown author. An estimated one million copies were printed from May 1917 through November 1918. To date, Empey’s American point of view of fighting as a British soldier makes Over the Top the most readable and engaging introduction to the experience of trench fighting in print. The novel offered American readers a glimpse of what their own American Expeditionary Force members might face in this new Modern War. While most books that appeared before the Armistice focused on military strategy and politics, Over the Top provided a rare glimpse into the life of the common soldier in World War I. An overnight sensation, Empey’s candid and readable style made this book a “must read” book of its time. Here, almost 100 years later, we hope that modern readers will appreciate Over the Top as much as did the original audience. 

About the Editor

David Scott Stieghan is the United States Army Infantry Branch Historian at Fort Benning, Georgia. After a training accident while on active duty in Germany resulted in a permanent disability, Stieghan was honorably discharged from the United States Army as a Captain in 1992. He then taught history at colleges in Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia. Stieghan returned to government service in 2001, as the Military History Instructor for the U.S. Army Infantry. Since 1999, Stieghan has worked on twenty-eight Armed Forces Radio and Television Service Military Heritage Spots, eight shows for the History Channel shows, nine for the Outdoor Channel, and twenty-one shows for the Military Channel as a technical advisor and Subject Matter Expert. He also served as technical advisor for the mini-series “Truman” on HBO and “Rough Riders” on TNT.


"In commemoration of the centennial of the Great War, the University of Georgia has reprinted Arthur Guy Empey’s bestselling account of his experiences in the British Army during the World War I, Over the Top. Written with the intent to provide Americans an idea of what to expect having just entered the war, his account provides vivid and accurate detail of life at the front. He wrote with a sense of humor reminiscent of Mark Twain, which provides for an entertaining read. David Scott Stieghan does not bore the reader with endless footnotes but provides just enough to set the context in which the book was written and fill in the few gaps the author left out. This book is a must have for any World War I library."

-Richard E. Killblane, Author of The Filthy Thirteen

Whether one is a World War I scholar or knows little about “The Great War,” Empey’s Over the Top is a valuable read.  With wry humor, this American turned British soldier relates in engaging fashion a tale otherwise filled with horror and gore, humanizing the troops in a way that takes the reader along for their terrible experience.  Mixing a light-hearted tone with sardonic observance of the world around him, Empey wrote for an early 20th century audience in a way that still relates to a reader one hundred years hence.  Even as he describes scenes with great magnitude of tragic loss and destruction, tales are told that leave the reader with a chuckle, and occasionally one must laugh aloud.  The notes from editor David Stieghan add scholarly detail to Empey’s articles, providing context for military historians or today’s general reader.  Stieghan’s “Afterwards” covers the remainder of Empey’s life, and is as engaging a story as the book itself. Nowhere in Over the Top does Empey’s unique view of life in the trenches shine brighter than in the dictionary of slang terms, found in the book’s appendix and not to be missed. Empey’s original work and Stieghan’s editorial additions are an accessible way for the reader to better understand this “Great War” which yet impacts our lives and for which we now observe the centennial.

 Thomas H. Jackson, Jr., Ph.D.
Heritage Communications Executive, University System of Georgia
Executive Director, Georgia World War I Centennial Commission

Arthur Guy Empey's Over the Top is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. Empey's writing is personal, graphic, and gives readers a profound glimpse into the timeless thoughts and fears of every combat zone soldier, no matter when or where they served.

Scott Delius
Afghanistan veteran
Georgia World War I Centennial Commission Member

Mr. Empey’s rousing first-hand account of his time in the British Armed Forces during World War I is as close to infantry trench warfare as any sane person would ever care to be. Mr. Empey’s adventurous nature and good humor show through anecdote after anecdote about every stage of his deployment from England to France. His experiences in combat are harrowing. His experiences in the rest areas behind the frontline trenches are humorous and light hearted. Finally, his experiences recuperating from his wartime injuries suffered at the Somme are melancholy and yet inspiring. His dictionary of Tommy slang is frankly hilarious.

Over the Top's simplicity allows the author to bring the realities of his experiences directly to his audience without the fog of an official military history. Nevertheless, Over the Top provides a good description of the necessary fieldcraft that the infantryman had to develop to survive on the frontline. Despite being wounded several times the author’s natural zest for life shines through and provides an excellent example of coping with extraordinarily difficult trials and hardships. Likewise, the book offers interesting advice on dealing with a large bureaucratic animal such as the World War I era British Army while trying to win a war.

 In all, Over the Top is a delightful read paired with great annotations which is why I highly recommend for readers who have either casual or deep interest in World War I.

Thomas Lacy
Vice Chair, Georgia World War I Centennial Commission

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