Sunday, July 19, 2020

A Veteran Visits the Old Front—Wishes He Had Stayed Away

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
From Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises & Other Writings 1918–1926

Ernest Hemingway on crutches at an American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, during World War I, 1918. (Photo by American Red Cross/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Toward the end of 1917, five months after graduating from high school, Ernest Hemingway enlisted in the Missouri Home Guard, which was formed during the war to keep the peace at home, and he went through training exercises at Swope Park in Kansas City. Despite his father’s steadfast opposition, he really wanted to join the American war effort in Europe. Most biographers accept Hemingway’s claim (as the Kansas City Star reported the following year) that he “tried eleven times to get into service since the war started, but the physical tests ruled him out each time,” or (as his sister Marcelline remembered) that “the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps had all turned him down” because of his poor eyesight. Some recent scholars have expressed skepticism, pointing out that there seems to be no official record of any of Hemingway’s repeated efforts to sign up with various branches of the military. Yet, even if the story of his attempted enlistments was embellished, his intent was clear. “I’ll make it to Europe some way in spite of this optic,” he wrote to Marcelline. “I can’t let a show like this go on without getting into it. There hasn’t been a real war to go to since Grandfather Hemingway’s shooting at the battle of Bull Run.”

That fall, Hemingway was working as a reporter for the Kansas City Star—a job his father secured for him in lieu of military service. At the paper, he met and interviewed Theodore Brumback, who had just returned from a five-month stint as an ambulance driver in northern France and whose story presented Hemingway with a possible path to the war. Brumback ended up writing a riveting account of his service, and its appearance in the Star in February coincided with the American Red Cross call for volunteers in Italy. Soon thereafter, both young men enlisted with the Ambulance Corps, went to New York for two weeks of training, and reached Milan in early June. They separated shortly after their arrival when the Red Cross sent Hemingway to Schio, a town 150 miles to the east.

A little bored by his new posting, Hemingway volunteered for canteen service on the front lines, outside the town of Fossalta on the Piave River, “to get a little action down here,” as he wrote to a friend back home. “Don’t publish this to the family who fondly picture me chaufing a Ford through Sylvan glens. . . . The big Italian guns are all back of us and they roar all night. What I am supposed to be doing is running a posto Di ricovero. That is I dispense chocolate and cigarettes to the wounded and the soldiers in the front line.” On the night of July 8, 1918, he was hit by an Austrian trench mortar, followed almost immediately by a machine gun bullet. The Italian soldier standing next to him took the brunt of the explosion and was killed instantly. Hemingway was transported to the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, where he spent the next ten weeks recovering from mortar fragment wounds (“227 little devils”) in his legs and feet.

Although he would have rather sent a reassuring letter conveying the news to his family, he instead wired as soon as he could, out of concern that they might read about it first in the newspapers. “I hope that the cable didnt worry you very much,” he wrote in his first letter home from the hospital. “You see I’m the first American wounded in Italy,” which made his story of interest to reporters; there had been previous American casualties in Italy, but Hemingway was the first to survive his battlefield injuries. His follow-up letter in late August sounded a sober note:
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.
Four years later, Hemingway was living in France with his wife, Hadley, and working for the Toronto Star as a European correspondent. The couple met up with Eric Edward Dorman-Smith, a British officer Ernest had met during his convalescence, and they all went on a hiking trip for several weeks through Switzerland and Italy and ended up in Milan, an excursion memorably recorded by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. On June 11, 1922, Ernest and Hadley took a car up to the areas where he had been stationed, an outing that led him to write “A Veteran Visits His Old Front—Wishes He Had Stayed Away.” Although the article describes his return to Fossalta di Piave, it doesn’t mention that he had been wounded there. But in a letter to William D. Horne, another friend who served with him in the Ambulance Corps, Hemingway wrote, “I found where I’d been wounded, it was a smooth green slope down to the river bank—reminded me of contemporary pictures of the battle of Gettysburg.”

“A Veteran Visits His Old Front” is one of thirty-one pieces of journalism included in the new LOA volume, Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises & Other Writings 1918–1926, and we present it below as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Hemingway’s opening sentences refer both to the battle of Passchendaele, a costly Allied victory fought in Flanders under extremely muddy conditions from July to November 1917, and the battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9–12, 1917), a successful attack by four Canadian divisions (and one British division) that captured a German-controlled escarpment on the Arras front. The leading role played by Canadian forces in both battles would have been familiar to his Toronto Star readers. Midway through the article, Hemingway mentions the Italian counterattack to the surprise offensive by the Austro-Hungarians during the battle of Asiago on May 15, 1916, two years before his Red Cross service. He then describes the Austrian army’s last offensive in Italy across the Piave River on June 15, shortly after he arrived in Schio. The better-supplied Italian army was able to defend itself and drive the Austrians back across the river by June 23.

Many of the details in this introduction have been incorporated from the Chronology and Notes in Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises & Other Writings, edited by Robert W. Trogdon.

*   *   *
PARIS. — Don’t go back to visit the old front. If you have pictures in your head of something that happened in the night in the mud at Paschendaele or of the first wave working up the slope of Vimy, do not try and go back to verify them. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.