Enigmatic Writer Shared Tales from the WWI Trenches with Herald Readers, the World
American Man Joined British Army To Fight Overseas
Arthur Guy Empey, a World War I soldier, author, and actor, caught the attention of national audiences several times throughout his life. Although he had seemingly no connection to Vermont or the White River Valley, some of his life’s drama played out in the pages of The Herald (then known as The Herald and News).
In the early 20th Century, The Herald devoted considerable ink to covering World War I. As the social media of the time, many letters written by Vermont soldiers serving overseas were published weekly. Over several weeks in 1918, The Herald also serialized chapters of Empey’s first book, “Over the Top, an American Soldier Who Went.”
An ad in the January 31 edition of The Herald and News was the sole introduction to the book’s presence in the newspaper. The ad read “the bound volume of ‘Over the Top’ sells at $1.50 and editions are exhausted so rapidly that it is hard to get a copy. By special arrangement, we shall begin the publication of this great story in serial form.”
The story was based on Empey’s time as an American who served in the British army during World War I. Largely autobiographical, the fictionalized account was his first claim to fame after its release in 1917.
Frustrated with the United States’ lack of involvement with the war, Empey decided to enlist in the British Army in 1915, following the sinking of the Lusitania, which killed more than 100 Americans.
The book followed Empey’s year of service with the British army, and ended with his honorable discharge after receiving injuries during the commencement of the Battle of Somme.
When the United States declared war on Germany, “Over the Top” was used by the U.S. government to promote U.S. war efforts.
Cliches and Stereotypes
Full of stories of the “heroics of Tommy Atkins,” (a nickname given to British privates) and enlisted soldiers, the book was used as propaganda to inspire young men to enlist in the U.S. military.
Empey’s writing, colorful as it was, was filled with cliches and stereotypes that have caused people in recent years to criticize him for perpetuating prejudice and anti-Semitism.
The author’s association with the U.S. military also proved controversial.
Empey tried to join the U.S. Army unsuccessfully at least once and eventually received a commission from the U.S. Adjutant General’s Department, in the National Army in 1918.
He was discharged three days later, with no clear explanation.
A series of New York Times articles follow theories that were emerging about the sudden discharge.
“Empey is underweight, either that or his renunciation of citizen-ship caused his discharge,” an article from the New York Times read on July 27, 1918.
The report noted that Empey believed that his weight or his service in the British military were two possible reasons for his discharge.
According to another New York Times article the next day, it was intimated in a “high quarter in the War department” that Empey’s quick dismissal was due to his commission being an error, in the first place.
A third theory emerged several days later. Reportedly, President Woodrow Wilson had been in the audience of a play featuring Empey. After the play that evening, Empey allegedly criticized draftees, saying that volunteers were the real heroes of the war.
However, both Empey and his sister denied these claims.
Empey’s sister told the New York Times that “it was an honorable discharge for confidential reasons, which the government has full rights to entertain.”
Pulp Fiction Writer
Empey was also known for writing pulp fiction about a character known as Terence X. O’Leary.
The stories were mostly based on Empey’s experience in the army, however he also made a brief foray into writing science fiction stories that were wildly unsuccessful, after which he refocused his fiction on strictly terrestrial plots.
Empey starred in several Hollywood movies, including an adaptation of Over the Top, however none were received with much enthusiasm by general audiences.
In 1930, Empey married Hollywood actress Marguerite Andrus, and the couple had a daughter, Diane Webber, before getting divorced in 1934.
Empey died in 1963, in Wadsworth, Kansas, at the age of 79.