Ernest Hemingway, America’s greatest novelist of the twentieth century, served as a volunteer in the medical service on the Italian Front in 1918. He used what he learned during his service with the Italian army to write one of his finest novels, Farewellto Arms,which begins with a dramatic account of the disaster of Caporetto, in October 1917, when the Italian army in the Julian Alps was overwhelmed by an Austro-German offensive (in which the young Rommel played a leading part). Hemingway was not at Caporetto but succeeded nevertheless in conveying the atmosphere of a military catastrophe in an unforgettable way. In this letter home he describes how he was wounded in the defensive fighting that followed the Caporetto retreat.
To bis family, Milan, 18August1918
That includes grandma and grandpa and Aunt Grace. Thanks very much for the 40 lire! It was appreciated very much. Gee, Family, but there certainly has been a lot of burbles about my getting shot up!... I have begun to think, Family, that maybe you didn’t appreciate me when I used to reside in the bosom. It’s the next best thing to getting killed and reading your own obituary.
You know they say there isn’t anything funny about this war. And there isn’t. I wouldn’t say it was hell, because that’s been a bit overworked since Gen. Sherman’s time, but there have been about 8 times when I would have welcomed Hell. Just on a chance that it couldn’t come up to the phase of war I was experiencing. For example. In the trenches during an attack when a shell makes a direct hit in a group where you’re standing. Shells aren’t bad except direct hits. You must take chances on the fragments of the bursts. But when there is a direct hit your pals get spattered all over you. Spattered is literal. During the six days I was up in the Front line trenches, only 50 yds from the Austrians, I got the rep. of having a charmed life. The rep of having one doesn’t mean much but having one does! I hope I have one. That knocking sound is my knuckles striking the wooden bed tray.
It’s too hard to write on two sides of the paper so I’ll skip.
Well I can now hold up my hand and say I’ve been shelled by high explosive, shrapnel and gas. Shot at by trench mortars, snipers and machine guns, and as an added attraction an aeroplane machine gunning the lines. I’ve never had a hand grenade thrown at me, but a rifle grenade struck rather close. Maybe I’ll get a hand grenade later. Now out of all that mess to only be struck by a trench mortar and a machine gun bullet while advancing toward the rear, as the Irish say, was fairly lucky. What, Family?
The 227 wounds I got from the trench mortar didn’t hurt a bit at the time, only my feet felt like I had rubber boots full of water on. Hot water. And my knee cap was acting queer. The machine gun bullet just felt like a sharp smack on my leg with an icy snow ball. However it spilled me. But I got up again and got my wounded [man he was helping back] into the dug out. I kind of collapsed at the dug out. The Italian I had with me had bled all over my coat and my pants looked like somebody had made current jelly in them and then punched holes to let the pulp out. Well the Captain who was a great pal of mine, It was his dug out said ‘Poor Hem he’ll be R.I.P. soon.’ Rest In Peace, that is. You see they thought I was shot through the chest on account of my bloody coat. But I made them take my coat and shirt off. I wasn’t wearing any undershirt, and the old torso was intact. Then they said I’d probably live. That cheered me up any amount. I told him in Italian that I wanted to see my legs, though I was afraid to look at them. So we took off mytrousers and the old limbs were still there but gee they were a mess. They couldn’t figure out how I had walked 150 yards with a load with both knees shot through and my right shoe punctured two big places. Also over 200 flesh wounds. ‘Oh,’ says I, ‘My Captain, it is of nothing. In America they all do it! It is thought well not to allow the enemy to perceive that they have captured our goats!’
The goat speech required some masterful lingual ability but I got it across and then went to sleep for a couple of minutes. After I came to they carried me on a stretcher three kilometers to a dressing station. The stretcher bearers had to go over lots because the road was having the ‘entrails’ shelled out of it. Whenever a big one would come, Whee - whoosh - Boom - they’d lay me down and get flat. My wounds were now hurting like 227 little devils were driving nails into the raw. The dressing station had been evacuated during the attack so I lay for two hours in a stable, with the roof shot off, waiting for an ambulance. When it came I ordered it down the road to get the soldiers that had been wounded first. It came back with a load and then they lifted me in. The shelling was still pretty thick and our batteries were going off all the time way back of us and the big 2508 and 3508 [howitzer shells] going over head for Austria with a noise like a railway train. Then we’d hear the bursts back of the lines. Then there would come a big Austrian shell and then the crash of the burst. But we were giving them more and bigger stuff than they sent. Then a battery of field guns would go off, just back of the shed - boom, boom, boom, boom, and the Seventy-Fives or 149s would go whipping over to the Austrian lines, and the star shells going up all the time and the machines going like rivetters, tat-a-tat, tat-atat.
After a ride of a couple of kilometers in an Italian ambulance, they unloaded me at the dressing station where I had a lot of pals among the medical officers. They gave me a shot of morphine and an anti-tetanus injection and shaved my legs and took out about Twenty X shell fragments varying from [drawing of fragment] to about [drawing of fragment] in size out of my legs. They did a fine job of bandaging and all shook hands with me and would have kissed me but I kidded them along. Then I stayed 5 days in a field hospital and was then evacuated to the base Hospital here.
I sent you that cable so you wouldn’t worry. I’ve been in the Hospital a month and 12 days and hope to be out in another month. The Italian Surgeon did a peach of a job on my right knee joint and right foot. Took 28 stitches and assures me that I will be able to walk as well as ever. The wounds all healed up clean and there was no infection. He has my right leg in a plaster splint now so that the joint will be all right. I have some snappy souvenirs that he took out at the last operation.
I wouldn’t really be comfortable now unless I had some pain. The Surgeon is going to cut the plaster off in a week now and will allow me on crutches in 10 days.
I’ll have to learn to walk again.
You ask about Art Newburn. He was in our section but has been transferred to II. Brummy is in our section now. Don’t weep if I tell you that back in my youth I learned to play poker. Art Newburn held some delusions that he was a poker player. I won’t go into the sad details but I convinced him otherwise. Without holding anything I stood pat. Doubled his openers and bluffed him out of a 50 lire pot. He held three aces and was afraid to call. Tell that to somebody that knows the game Pop. I think Art said in a letter home to the Oak Parkers that he was going to take care of me. Now Pop as man to man was that taking care of me? Nay not so. So you see that while war isn’t funny a lot of funny things happen in war. But Art won the championship of Italy pitching horse shoes.
This is the longest letter I’ve ever written to anybody and it says the least. Give my love to everybody that asked about me and as Ma Pettingill says, ‘Leave us keep the home fires burning!’
Good night and love to all.
P. s. I got a letter today from the Helmles addressed Private Ernest H — what I am is S. Ten. or Soto Tenente Ernest Hemingway. That is my rank in the Italian Army and it means 2nd Lieut. I hope to be a Tenente or I st Lieut. soon.