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Remembered Today:

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


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Officially about 700 were shot at dawn (decimazione) but many others never recorded. In one case for a cigar a soldier was executed


Brigata Catanzaro was one of the well known cases of decimazione i n1917

Emilio Lussu in his book writes that on Asiago Plateau a Major ordered an execution... but they refused so he begun shooting some "death candidates" killing two or three, but the firing squad (plotone d'esecuzione) shot the Major


By the way, for curiosity, do you know an Italian soldier saved Hemingway's life on the Piave. That man lost his life and the American writer, sad about that event, never returned in his life on that Italian battlefield

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10 hours ago, deutscherinfanteriest said:

By the way, for curiosity, do you know an Italian soldier saved Hemingway's life on the Piave.

Technically correct, but really more an accident of geography than an act of valour. When the Austrian trench mortar round landed, he was standing between it and Hemingway. The same round took off both the legs of a second Italian, and badly wounded a third. It was the latter who was carried to the first aid dug-out by Hemingway.

Hemingway was in hospital for months and had operations on his knee and foot, followed by a further spell of convalescence. He left hospital on 28th October 1918 to continue his work for the Red Cross during the battle of Vittorio Veneto, however he was back in hospital again on 1st November with jaundice. He was still in hospital when the war ended a few days later

[details from The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1907-1922 Vol.I, edited by Sandra Spanier & Robert W. Trogdon, CUP]

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This thread started with referencec to Hemmingway askin how truthful was Hemimgway. I have long thoughts he was true only himself and his own beliefs in his journalism and authourship 

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Well I read 4000 executed, it seems an high number. By the way there were hurry shooting during the retreat. Great book, undoubtedly, but as journalist he made obviously an emotional drama, also because in a battle where Italian Royal Army lost 1.000.000 men, you couldn't record every event


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  • 11 months later...

Hemingway liked nothing better than sitting in a bar and soaking up war stories. One such encounter with George Macauley Trevelyan (who led a British Red Cross ambulance unit on the Austro-Italian lsonzo Front) provided Hemingway with the genesis for his A Farwell to Arms novel, in which the author made liberal use of Trevelyan’s accounts of the attack at Plava and the rout of the Italian army in the aftermath of Caporetto. Also, the hospital where the ‘love interest’ (a British VAD nurse) worked was almost certainly the Villa Trento Field Hospital.

Edit - Trevelyan wrote about his own wartime experiences in his autobiographical book ‘Scenes from Italy’s War’.
Hemingway, on the other hand, only arrived in Italy with the American Red Cross in June 1818, so he wouldn’t have had any first hand experience of many of the things vividly written about in A Farewell to Arms.

Edited by KizmeRD
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I cannot comment on Hemingway's contacts with, or any inspiration which he may have drawn from, GMT as I do not have that information.

I can however offer the comments made by Spanier & Trogdon  in their 'The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1907-1922' [2011, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978 0 521 89733 4]

The nurse whom EH met while in the A.R.C. Hospital, Milan, and who became the model for the character Catherine Barkley in FTA was Agnes von Kurowsky, one of several American nurses working there. 

Another person whom EH met while in Milan was the British officer, Eric Edward Dorman-Smith [later Maj-Gen. E. E. Dorman O'Gowan]. They stayed in-touch and met again in Europe, post WWI.

In his introduction to 'The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1907-1922', Robert Trogdon draws comparisons between EH's service and that of the character Frederic Henry [see p.lxiv]
“His letters during this period reveal many similarities between the novel's protagonist, Frederic Henry, and Hemingway himself, including a prolonged hospitalization in Milan, a trip to Stresa, a friendship with an elderly diplomat, and a desire to visit the Abruzzi to hunt. Hemingway also returned to the front after recuperating from his wounds, as did the invented Frederic Henry; in a letter to his family of 1 November 1918 he reported that he was at the front for the final Italian offensive and assisted in the evacuation of the wounded before succumbing (like his character) to jaundice.” 

Below is part of the Chronology given on pages lxxi-lxxvii and which may also be of interest



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Spanier & Trogdon also comment that Hemingway’s letters underscore how little he saw of actual battle, and how he was inclined to romanticize his wartime feats.

In June 1918 was dispatched to the Italian Front, just as Austro-Hungarian troops launched an attack on the Italian army near Lake Maggiore. However, things were relatively quiet in the area where Hemingway was assigned to work as an ambulance driver. He soon got bored and volunteered for the rolling canteen service that dispensed drinks, cigarettes, and chocolate to soldiers along the front line. He was transferred to the canteen at Fossalta, a village by the Piave River.  Hemingway had been there just six days when on July 8 a trench mortar exploded right next to him.

He was taken to a nearby field hospital and spent five days there being treated for injuries to his knee and leg before being transferred to the American Red Cross Hospital at 10 Via Alessandro Manzoni, Milan. It was here he came in contact with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who stole the young Hemingway’s heart. She was 7 years his senior and probably wasn’t under any illusions as to the true nature of their relationship (granted she showed tenderness towards him, and they spent time together visiting the sites in Milan and drinking Campari's, but there us no evidence that they were ever lovers). That said, he (at least) believed they would both return to the States and be married - but not long after, she transferred to Treviso and thereafter to Torro di Mosto (near Venice) from where she wrote a letter asking Hemingway not to contact her any more because she was engaged to be married to an Italian noble (although no such marriage ever transpired). Hemingway was heart-broken!

A Farewell to Arms was a fictional story written ten years later, but given Hemingway’s meagre first-hand war experience (in 1918) it seems improbable that he would have be able to write so vividly about Caporetto and his ambulance driver’s flight therefrom without having first read Trevelyan’s factual account in  ‘Scenes from Italy’s War’ pub. 1919 (as research material for his novel) - Chapter VII in particular simply has too much in common with FTA for it to be purely coincidental.


Edited by KizmeRD
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