Hemingway, World War I, and Agnes von Kurowsky
Hemingway's World War I experiences were the source of much of the legend that later surrounded him. Brave and masculine, he was the writer who really got out there and experienced everything. Wounded in the trenches, decorated for his valour, he then threw himself into a wartime romance with the nurse who was responsible for bringing him back to health, his first love, who later jilted him for an older, aristocratic, man. This report will examine the background to these myths and assess their veracity.
It was not long after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 that 17 year-old Hemingway, not yet finished high ...view middle of the document...
Ernest and his friend Ted Brumback volunteered for the Red Cross in early January and in April they were assigned as second lieutenants in an ambulance unit in Italy. They were issued a regular US Army officer's uniform with full insignia, and Ernest made the most of the fact that real army privates and non-commissioned officers had to salute him, in one instance counting 367 salutes as he walked up and down Broadway. This is echoed in Hemingway's later purchase of a tailored "fancy" uniform and cape in Italy, which, along with his medals and cane, was the cause of his being laughed at by patients of Agnes in an Army hospital at Treviso.2
On arrival in Paris in May, an excited Ernest entreated Ted to take a taxi with him in search of the German shells which they could hear falling on the city, and came close to one at Place de la Madeleine. His arrival in Milan a few days later was on a more sombre note, as his first duty was to remove the victims of a huge explosion in a munitions factory, an experience which was relived in Death in the Afternoon. On 6th June, Hemingway joined his ambulance unit, Section Four, in the town of Schio in the foothills of the Dolomite Alps. Here life was easy - large meals of pasta and wine were interrupted only by occasionally trips up the mountain, far from enemy fire it seems, to take on a load of wounded soldiers and transport them to a distribution point for emergency treatment. It was during this time that the meeting with fellow ambulance driver John Dos Passos, later fondly remembered by both men, was supposed to have happened. However, Dos Passos' diaries and papers show him as leaving his unit a full week before Hemingway arrived.
Later in June, Hemingway got the chance to get a bit closer to the action by volunteering to deliver to front line troops chocolate, cigarettes, and other morale-boosting supplies in the Piave river valley. His letters of the time show his glee at the chance to be close to the most intense fighting in Italy in months.3 Living in a small house about a mile and a half behind the lines, he ate in the officers' mess most nights, and there became close to a young priest from Florence named Don Giuseppe Bianchi.
On the night of 8th June occurred the incident that would determine the course of the rest of Hemingway's war, and be the source of much of his later legend. The following is an extract of his account in a letter to his parents six weeks later:
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 snowball. However it spilled me. But I got up again and got my wounded into the dug out. The Italian I had with me bled all over my coat and my pants looked like somebody had made current jelly in them and punched holes to let the pulp out... Then they said I'd...