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Remembered Today:

Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms' - How true?


Griffin

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I've been reading Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms', which is described as a semi-autobiographical novel (he served in the Red Cross in Italy during WWI as an ambulance driver).

I found my self shocked while reading a passage describing how the 'Battle Police' were pulling officers out of a retreating mass of soldiers (departing from the disaster of the Battle of Caporetto) and executing them for abandoning their men amongst other reasons.

Is there any expert on the Italian Front during WWI who could comment whether this reflects what actually happened, or was Hemingway deviating from what had actually happened for the sake of his novel?

Arthur

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Is there any expert on the Italian Front during WWI who could comment whether this reflects what actually happened, or was Hemingway deviating from what had actually happened for the sake of his novel?

Arthur

I was quite struck with that passage, and my instincts are that it is based on some sort of truth. I am no expert, but have been studying the Italian Front a bit, and am in the process of translating the diary of an Italian flame thrower officer. I recently read (say last 2 weeks) about the Italian "battle police" NCOs having the authority to simply pull men over and shoot them without any legal process whatever.

Whether they (NCOs) had the authority to shoot officers out of hand is an interesting question. Hemmingway interestingly stated (from memory) that the NCOs were shooting any officer at or over the rank of major who was not with his unit. In the novel, Hemmingway's protaganist, an American volunteer lieutenant in the Italian Army, was standing in a line of people waiting to be shot at roadside, himself for the crime of having an American accent to his good Italian.

Cadorna, the Italian CO for much of the war, was well-known for brutality, and after Caparetto they sacked him and started treating the men better.

Bob Lembke

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Cadorna, the Italian CO for much of the war, was well-known for brutality, and after Caparetto they sacked him and started treating the men better.

Bob Lembke

Thanks, Bob, I searched on Cadorna and Wikipedia came up with the following in its 'Battle of Caporetto' article.

The debacle was not the result of a lack of repression or coercion. In fact, 870,000 Italian soldiers came to be denounced by authorities with 210,000 sentences in military courts; 15,000 were sentenced to life in jail and 4,000 to death. There were rumors of illegal decimations taking place after the fashion of Ancient Rome to attempt to terrorise the remaining soldiers into fighting to the death.

It certainly indicates that there were a lot of recriminations after the defeat. Cadorna was forced to resign.

It seems harsh to me that the Italian fighting man had enemies on both sides of the line.

Arthur

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Arthur;

I was just reading another novel, one of the remarkably written and researched John Biggin's books, and in it some Italian soldiers, taken prisoner, when asked why they continue fighting under awful conditions, mention decimation of Italian units.

I wonder how many of the 4000 sentenced to death, if any, were executed? But there does seem to be evidence that the Italian "battle police" could shoot people out of hand, so there must have been many deaths "off the books".

It seems that the French did shoot some soldiers without a formal process. Anyone have info? What about the Russian Army?

As a resident Hun, I might point out that, in the entire German Army, which generally at any one time numbered about 6,000,000 men, in the 4 1/3 years of the war, 18 men were shot for cowardice, and about another 50 for things like murder. For serious courts martial the various actors were formally trained, professional lawyers and judges.

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Arthur;

......................

It seems that the French did shoot some soldiers without a formal process. Anyone have info?

......................

I can recommend the following two books for information on the French bit. G. Pedroncini, " Les Mutineries de 1917". which despite its title, deals quite a bit with the process before and after the mutinies. Nicolas Offenstadt, " Les Fusilles de la Grande Guerre". The whole 9 yards. Both of these books available from the French arm of the Jungle book shop. They are of course, in French. No trouble I know, to Mrs Bob.

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Bob,

This may be true about the German Army But I have read that like the Italians there were a lot of killings off the book, so to speak.

A number of German writters of WWII have given there expirences of seeing "Chain Dogs' picking up soldiers and executing them without trial, like the statement by Hemingway.

And of cause we all have seen the photo's of German soldiers hung from the telgraph poles in France and Germany near the end of the war with signs on their bodies like "Traitor".

So As much as I admire the Germany Army they were not perfect and if and did this also happen in the Great War in the German Army, I am not in a postion to confirm it or not.

S.B

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Steve

G'day mate

And of cause we all have seen the photo's of German soldiers hung from the telgraph poles in France and Germany near the end of the war with signs on their bodies like "Traitor".

Mate I think you may be conflating WW2 common practice with WW1, something that was unheard of as far as I know.

Cheers

Bill

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And of cause we all have seen the photo's of German soldiers hung from the telgraph poles in France and Germany near the end of the war with signs on their bodies like "Traitor".

So As much as I admire the Germany Army they were not perfect and if and did this also happen in the Great War in the German Army, I am not in a postion to confirm it or not.

Usually in Germany in the last weeks of the war - I haven't seen any such photos taken in France. The situation was completely different for the German Army of 1918 and that of 1945 (they weren't facing total obliteration for starters!). The desperation, fanatacism and nihilism of 1945 wasn't (in most cases) in existance in 1918.

Dave

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The German Army executed 1000s of its own soldiers in WWII but very few in WWI. According to Hitler's Army by Omer Bartov 48 German soldiers were executed by their own side in WWI (this includes murderers as well as deserters so Bob's figure may be too high) but 15,000 in WWII, In the Kaiser's army there was a recognition that conscripts were civilians serving unwillingly & thus the military justice system made it hard for desertion to be proved . It was up to the army to show that a man did not intend to ever return to duty rather than being simply AWOL & not a permanent deserter, which was hard to do unless the evidence was damning, such as being caught crossing into a neutral country. This attitude had been abandoned by WWII & draconian discipline introduced.

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I have to join the chorus. Steve, we cannot assume that because something happened in WW II, it must have happened in WW I. Since I have started seriously studying WW I about six years ago, I have read hundreds and hundreds of sources on the WW I German Army, and have never seen such a thing. (Men shot out of hand by officers or military police for desertion or failure of performance.) 95% or more of these books and documents have been primary sources or official histories or documents, and the vast majority have been in German. Some have been written by monarchists and super-patriots, but some also have been by communists like Renn. I also have been collecting and translating letters and diaries from German soldiers; last night I was working on a German soldier's diary for a Pal from this Forum.

I also have the vantage point of my father's oral history. When me interest in WW I re-kindled, triggered by finding my father's and grand-father's letters from the front, nearly 50 of them, I first wrote down what I remembered the various stories that my father told me about those times. I was at first dubious about their reliability, but years of studying those anecdotes and comparing them to other materials, documents (I have a bunch of documents from his units that my father collected and kept together), etc. has shown me that these stories are very accurate.

My father mentioned all sorts of unpleasant and unflattering things; how the company CO stole from the men, how the Feldwebel (company sergeant major) only let men take earned leave after he buggered them, etc. Other details from his experiences are instructive. My father (and some other men), disgusted by the cowardice as well as the thievery of the company CO, shot the guy to death on a training ground at the Crown Prince's HQ town. It was done quite openly, and he was hit with 32 rounds. The company was marched back to barracks, surrounded with infantry, and for three days staff officers came into the barracks, interviewed the men, and took depositions, and withdrew for deliberations. Then the verdict came in. The infantry pickets were withdrawn, and large barrels of beer were brought to the barracks for consumption by the company that had just openly shot their rotten CO to death. The officer seems to have been written out of the rolls of the regiment, but I think that I have found his shadow, so to speak, in the death rolls of the unit.

Can anyone cite a reasoned and compassionate incident in, say, the British or the French Army?

My father also kicked a sergeant in the face, from above, with the 32 hobnails on his boot-sole; the sergeant then chased my father with his bayonet. This was observed by an officer. The sergeant was punished for coming too close to an EM; he could not say how he got kicked while staying away a proper distance from an OR, and he was punished.

My father also had a big mouth, so to speak. He was hardly the most popular guy, and he only got his Iron Cross in 1921, despite having been wounded in combat four times, and was not even promoted even to lance corporal, although he led a small unit.

In short, I have never heard of such summary punishment in the WW I German Army. Additionally, I understand that, probably uniqely in the combatents' armies, if there was a serious court martial, all of the principals involved (prosecution, defense, judge) were professional lawyers or judges. (My father's CO, Major Dr. Reddemann, although a published scientist, had his doctorate in jurisprudence.)

Bob Lembke

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The Ottoman military of WW1 did execute some of the deserters but only if they desert the units during the actual combat. In all of the reported cases the execution were carried out after the verdict of the military court. As in the famous example of 77th Regiment in Gallipoli in which regiment was disorganized and fled during the general assault of 25-26 April 1915. At first, everybody blamed the soldiers. But after a detailed examination, 19th ID CO LtCol Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) Bey clearly identified the real culprit as the regiment commander. According to Mustafa Kemal Bey the role of the soldiers in the retreat was relatively minor. Only three of the deserters from 77th Regiment were shot in order to discipline the regiment and to set an example for the incoming units.

The case of 77 became famous due to the British intelligence estimates in which the poor conduct of the regiment was linked with its predominantly Arab recruitment district which was Aleppo (Halep). In reality the regiment fought valiantly afterwards thanks to the general shake up of its officers.

At the end of the war desertion became so common that in most of the cases no effective punishment was given.

I came across some interesting stories in some of the memoirs but could not able confirm these with archive documents.

Regards

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Mates,

I am sorry your right I have no evidence that the Germany Army did anything like what happen in WWII during WWI, as I said "I am not in a postion to confirm it or not".

And your right because it happen then dosn't mean it happened before.

That the German Army did do it in WWII is shown in photos in France after the collospe after Normandy and the retreat but mostly in the last months in Germany.

Like wise a number of German writters give the same thing is Russia following a number of their defeats and retreats.

That it didn't happen in the retreats in Belgium in 1918 following the allied attacks and along with many German formations falling apart or surrendering, I am surprised it didn't happen.

One has to wonder when reading a number of books on the revelution in Germany at the end of the war and the formation of the Fricorps and the murders and deaths during this post war stage.

S.B

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Martin Bennitt

I'm currently reading Neil Hanson's 'The Unknown Soldier', in which he quotes one Lt Col Graham Seton Hutchinson apparently boasting of shooting or having shot 38 out of 40 men who had raised their hands to surrender to the Germans during the March 1918 offensive. His source is a 1974 book called 'The Thin Yellow Line' by William Moore.

Does anyone know anything more about this incident and whether there were others like it?

cheers Martin B

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My father tried to save the life of a sleepy French officer during a pre-dawn trench raid on Hill 304 at Verdun, spoke to him in his good French, and the stupid s-o-a-b shot my father from a distance of about 2". Seconds later my father's sergeant cut his head in half with a "razor-sharp" spade. Darwin lives!

Bob Lembke

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Decimation was indeed common practice under Cadorna: I don't know exact figures but book references there are many: one for all Emilio Lussu war diary, the only one translated into english AFAIK as "The Sardinian Brigade".

The conditions under which Italian soldiers had to fought, above all the bad leadership and total disrespect for losses from the side of the higher ranking officers, led them to coin the say "There we have Austrians in the front and Austrians in the back". In fact in Emilio Lussu's book you find plenty of instances where soldiers were simply sent to commit suicide... And they went, despite all...

Anyway I don't think Carabinieri were allowed to simply pick out people and shot them on the spot without clear orders to do so.

Regards

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I'm currently reading Neil Hanson's 'The Unknown Soldier', in which he quotes one Lt Col Graham Seton Hutchinson apparently boasting of shooting or having shot 38 out of 40 men who had raised their hands to surrender to the Germans during the March 1918 offensive. His source is a 1974 book called 'The Thin Yellow Line' by William Moore.

Does anyone know anything more about this incident and whether there were others like it?

cheers Martin B

There was a prog broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland one November in the early 1990s that had passing mention of something similar.

The prog. "Hi Jock Are You Glad You Listed" was an attempt by two musicians to "discover" their fathers war. Both of their fathers had served in the A & SH in WW1.

At one point one of the presenters mentioned that his father was ashamed of one thing that he did during the war. His fathers unit had been ordered to open fire on some green soldiers who were either retreating or surrendering, and they were happy to do so because the soldiers were English.

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Greg Bloomfield

Martin

I posed the same question about Lt Col Hutchinson some while ago, you may find it if you use the Search facility. To cut a long story short it seems that the incident might well have occured.

Greg

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Martin Bennitt

Thanks Greg

I'll check it out

Martin

I must use the search facility more often

I must use the search facility more often

I must use the search facility more often

I must use the search facility more often

etc

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  • 6 months later...
Decimation was indeed common practice under Cadorna: I don't know exact figures but book references there are many: one for all Emilio Lussu war diary, the only one translated into english AFAIK as "The Sardinian Brigade".

The conditions under which Italian soldiers had to fought, above all the bad leadership and total disrespect for losses from the side of the higher ranking officers, led them to coin the say "There we have Austrians in the front and Austrians in the back". In fact in Emilio Lussu's book you find plenty of instances where soldiers were simply sent to commit suicide... And they went, despite all...

Anyway I don't think Carabinieri were allowed to simply pick out people and shot them on the spot without clear orders to do so.

Regards

Perhaps this strand is closed -- in case not, let me mention a good review-essay on this topic, published last year: Paul O’Brien, “Summary Executions in Italy During the First World War: Findings and Implications”, in Modern Italy, Vol. 11, No. 3, November 2006. He cites the latest research.

Of the 4,028 capital sentences passed by Italian courts martial, 729 were carried out. As for summary executions, more than 300 were documented, but the real total was much higher and may have run into thousands. The total number of summary executions in the weeks after Caporetto can only be guessed at. One author, Cesare De Simone, reckons it may have reached 4,000, but offers no evidence. An order was issued on 31 October, authorising any officer to shoot any soldiers who were separated from their units or who offered the least resistance. Effectively this made a target of the entire Second Army, which was in a state of dissolution. And on 2 November 1917, five months after the incident in Bologna, Cadorna made Gen Andrea Graziani, a notoriously sadistic figure even at the time, responsible for restoring discipline among the troops retreating from Caporetto. He had 19 men shot in the back for sundry offences on the morning of 16 November. Another man was shot for saluting without taking his pipe out of his mouth. Two more, for hiding a couple of kilos of flour in their knapsacks. But, as I say, there are no overall numbers. Hemingway was correct that the worst abuses occurred near the bridges over the river Tagliamento, where senior officers who had abandoned their men days earlier saw a chance to redeem themselves by using the harshest measures against the retreating infantry.

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Reading this is very interesting ... especially Mr Lembke whose usual entries on all things Flamethrowers ... I wonder, however, if the family tale is a REAL historical fact ... sounds very un-german. But, somewhere I read that in the US army of WWII, 12K officers were killed by "friendly fire" ... but that could have been a Fussell book so it would be suspect.

My real point in posting is to remind people that myth is both based on fact and sometimes, especially when transmitted by powerful writers - Hemingway and The Sardinian Brigade - becomes precieved as fact. Killings off the book are, indeed, off the book and therefore there can be no statistics. WWII SS morale killings can be documented. There, I am sure there were records kept and if not, the pictures don't lie. But here, as with crucified Canadians, we tread upon the truth lightly.

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In an earlier thread I suggested that Cadorna's conduct suggested derangement, and received some interesting replies.

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Reading this is very interesting ... especially Mr Lembke whose usual entries on all things Flamethrowers ... I wonder, however, if the family tale is a REAL historical fact ... sounds very un-german. But, somewhere I read that in the US army of WWII, 12K officers were killed by "friendly fire" ... but that could have been a Fussell book so it would be suspect.

I at first was very suspicious of my father's oral history. But over 6+ years one thing after another was proven correct from my research using various sources, and the help of some great Pals, including stories that at first seemed quite unlikely. So after several years of doubt I generally accept the broad sweep of his oral history, which I carefully wrote down before starting my serious study of WW I. He had a phenominal memory, but occasionally enjoyed the odd hoax, which were very funny. One was carried on for 60 years. Immediately after the war he began collecting material about his war service, including going about to his friends and collecting the letters that he had written them from the front, plus a number of documents from the flame warfare effort.

However, the story of shooting the company CO will be hard to confirm. However, in the histories of the flame regiment there is a tantalizing anomality in the casualty statistics that may corroborate the story. The story of my father's "war" with the corrupt and cowardly command structure of his company is interesting, and fits with his odd career there. (I am not going to be very specific. I have become aware of someone using a false name who is vacumning up my flame thrower material, and I will be posting less in the future.)

12,000 US officers killed by Yank ORs? Remarkable. Fussell is a neighbor of mine, but I have only spoken to him a few times. I do not study WW II at all.

Bob Lembke

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  • 13 years later...
Moonraker

The 1932 film of the book is on BBC2 at 2015 on Saturday, May 8.  Starring a young Gary Cooper.

 

IMBD

 

If you can't wait, there are a number of versions on YouTube, the length varying between 75 and 88 minutes. (IMDB gives a length of 80 minutes.)

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Moonraker

Oh no it isn't. It's on at 1015 tomorrow morning.

 

Apologies. I blame the bizarre listings in the Sunday Times "Culture" supplement. Those for Saturday, May 8 start with a programme at 0620 this morning and finish with one at 1130 tomorrow morning (half way through Sunday the 9th).

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