In 1917, Arthur Guy Empey, an American who served in France with the British Expeditionary Force, wrote the book "Over the Top." Pitched to the growing public interest in the War in the United States, Empey's story of his service, from his decision to go to England to enlist after the sinking of the Lusitania to his wounding and discharge, provided a tale of the popular hero doing the right thing. His narrative covers all the familiar ground of the Great War soldier, and reads as well today in harmony with popular perceptions of the War as it would have to his audience in 1917.
Empey's story, perhaps, fits almost too nicely with those popular perceptions, polished as they have been for us now by almost a century of repetitive descriptions of the same elements of Great War service. While some of Empey's tale might need to be taken with a grain of salt, even if only for the way his service seems to include every stereotypical experience of a soldier of the Western Front, we find that the included "Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches" offers the best view that he is writing to entertain, perhaps more so than to educate. Some selected examples are included below:
"Any complaints" – A useless question asked by an inspecting officer when he makes the rounds of billets or Tommy's meals. A complaining Tommy generally lands on the crime sheet. It is only recruits who complain; the old men just sigh with disgust.
Bayonet – A sort of knife–like contrivance which fits on the end of your rifle. The Government issues it to stab Germans. Tommy uses it to toast bread.
C.C.S. – Casualty Clearing Station. A place where the doctors draw lots to see of Tommy is badly wounded enough to be sent to Blighty.
Crime Sheet. – A useless piece of paper on which is kept a list of Tommy's misdemeanors.
C.S.M. – Company Sergeant Major, the head non–commissioned officer of a company, whose chief duty is to wear a crown on his arm, a couple of Boer War ribbons on his chest, and to put Tommy's name and number on the crime sheet.
"Lonely Soldier" – A soldier who advertises himself as "lonely" through the medium of some English newspaper. If he is clever and diplomatic by this method hegenerally receives two or three percels a week, but he must be careful not to write to two girls on the same block or his parcel post mail will diminish.
Mentioned in Despatches – Recommended for bravery. Tommy would rather be recommended for leave.
Military Medal – A piece of junk issued to Tommy who has done something that is not exactly brave but still is not cowardly. When it is presented he takes it and goes back wondering why the Army picks on him.
"On the mat" – When Tommy is hauled before his commanding officer to explain why he has broken one of the seven million King's regulations for the government of the Army. His "explanation" never gets him anywhere unless it is on the wheel of a limber.
Runner – A soldier who is detailed or picked as an orderly for an officer while in the trenches. His real job is to take messages under fire, asking how many tins of jam are required for 1917.
Sergeant's Mess – Where the sergeants eat. Nearly all of the rum has a habit of disappearing into the Sergeant's Mess.
Trench Feet – A disease of the feet contracted in the trenches from exposure to extreme cold and wet. Tommy's greatest ambition is to contract this disease because it means "Blighty" for him.1
V.C. – Victoria Cross, or "Very careless" as Tommy calls it. It is a bronze medal won by Tommy for being very careless with his life.
1. Hardly a minor concern, trench feet could lead to severe infections and amputations. By the winter of 1915–16, trench foot was considered a crime and a unit could lose leave privileges if it became prevalent.