Ernest Hemingway’s Return from the Italian Front Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway, unable to serve in the army because of poor eyesight, volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver and was sent first to France and then to Italy. While serving on the Italian Front, he was struck by a shell, then may have been hit by machine gun fire as he was being evacuated. He was seriously wounded and spent six months recuperating in a hospital in Milan. His experiences in the hospital provided the inspiration for his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. His return home in 1919 was reported in the New York Sun newspaper. The event was considered newsworthy in part because there were far fewer American casualties from the Italian Front than along the Western Front and in part because Hemingway had shown particular bravery when wounded, for which he received the Italian Silver Medal of Valor. Hemingway’s experience–also detailed here in a letter to Hemingway’s parents by his friend Ted Brumback–brought attention to a lesser-known theater of war and to the many men and women who volunteered to risk their lives during the war as service workers, ambulance drivers, nurses, and more.

Summary Overview

Eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway, unable to serve in the army because of poor eyesight, volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver and was sent first to France and then to Italy. While serving on the Italian Front, he was struck by a shell, then may have been hit by machine gun fire as he was being evacuated. He was seriously wounded and spent six months recuperating in a hospital in Milan. His experiences in the hospital provided the inspiration for his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. His return home in 1919 was reported in the New York Sun newspaper. The event was considered newsworthy in part because there were far fewer American casualties from the Italian Front than along the Western Front and in part because Hemingway had shown particular bravery when wounded, for which he received the Italian Silver Medal of Valor. Hemingway’s experience–also detailed here in a letter to Hemingway’s parents by his friend Ted Brumback–brought attention to a lesser-known theater of war and to the many men and women who volunteered to risk their lives during the war as service workers, ambulance drivers, nurses, and more.

Defining Moment

Hemingway was wounded on July 8, 1918, along the Piave Delta. The Piave River, which ranged between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, had been the primary line of defense for the Italian Army since 1917, when the withdrawal of Russia from the war had enabled Austria-Hungary to send significant reinforcements to Italy and had pushed the Italian Army back to the Piave during the Battle of Caporetto. After this loss, the attention of the other Allies was briefly turned to Italy, and though soldiers were not able to be redirected from the front in France, other support personnel, including ambulance drivers and medical workers, were sent.

In the spring of 1918, to coincide with the German Spring Offensive in France, Austria-Hungary began planning a large-scale offensive into Italy, hoping to break Italian lines in the Piave Delta and achieve final victory. The Austro-Hungarian Army planned a full frontal attack for June 15 at 3:00 a.m. The Italians discovered the battle plans, however, and at 2:30 a.m. unleashed a barrage on the men assembled for the attack, killing many Austro-Hungarian troops in their trenches. Fierce fighting ensued, with the Piave River providing excellent defense, claiming the lives of nearly 20,000 Austro-Hungarian troops as they tried to cross to the eastern side. Many more troops were caught along the banks or on bridges as they attempted to cross. By June 23, Austro-Hungarian troops were in retreat. The Battle of the Piave River was a significant loss for the Austro-Hungarian Army, and its last large-scale offensive of the war. The Austro-Hungarian Army lost an estimated 250,000 men.

Hemingway was sent to Italy by the Red Cross at the end of May 1918. After the battle, shelling continued on both sides as Italian troops continued to push back at pockets of resistance in the area. It wasn’t until November that the Austro-Hungarian Army was finally forced to surrender. Hemingway was an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer, but it was in his capacity as morale booster for the troops that he was injured. Many service agencies, including the Red Cross, in addition to providing medical services, also provided mail services, entertainment, coffee, candy, cigarettes, and other pleasant diversions to the soldiers on the front. Hemingway, not satisfied with serving such niceties in the canteen, asked for a bicycle to bring items directly to the trenches. It was while delivering cigarettes and chocolate on this bicycle that Hemingway was struck by a shell and severely injured.

Author Biography

The New York Sun was a daily newspaper published from 1833 until 1950 in New York City. When the paper published this article, it was owned by publisher Frank Munsey and had both a morning and an evening edition.

Theodore “Ted” Brumback was born in 1895 in Kansas City. He attended Cornell University for three years, but dropped out after a golfing accident cost him an eye. Unfit for regular army service because of his injury, Brumback went to France anyway in July 1917 as an ambulance driver with the American Field Service (AFS). When the US Army took over the AFS in the fall of 1917, Brumbeck’s damaged eyesight disqualified him from service, and he transferred to the Red Cross, which had looser restrictions. After the war, Brumback worked as a journalist and in real estate before dying in Kansas City in 1955.

Document Analysis

The January 22, 1919, New York Sun article is a fairly bombastic piece of journalism, and it celebrates the return of one of the first wounded Americans from the Italian Front. Hemingway, who had been in Italy recuperating from his wounds since July 1918, is described as having “probably more scars than any other man in or out of uniform,” and being the man who “defied the shrapnel of the Central Powers.” Hemingway’s size certainly magnified the extent of his wounds, in the paper’s opinion, since he was “constructed by nature on generous proportion.” The article describes Hemingway as being hit by “a peculiar kind of Austrian shrapnel” in 227 places, with over a hundred pieces still embedded in his body after many operations.

Shrapnel shells, in wide use in all theaters of war at that time, were hollow shells containing numerous bullets or other projectiles, like the inch-long cylinders described in the article. These were released when the shell exploded and caused extensive damage to the human body. The article describes the shell that hit Hemingway as being from a “trench mortar,” a type of cylindrical cannon developed during the war that was able to lob projectiles or bombs so that they dropped straight down into a trench, rendering them more effective than guns that sent shells at a much lower angle. They were known during the war as “neutralizing fire,” since they were so effective at stopping an attack. The article describes the moment of impact as feeling like “the stings of wasps as they bore into him.” The article does not mention that there were at least three Italian soldiers hit by the same blast–as Brumback mentions in his letter–but does say that two Italian stretcher-bearers attempting to evacuate him from the trench were spotted by enemy machine-gunners and attacked. The article says Hemingway was hit twice by machine gun fire–in the shoulder and the leg.

Ted Brumback met Hemingway while they both worked at the Kansas City Star. He was on leave from driving ambulances in France, and convinced Hemingway to join up. While Hemingway was convalescing in Milan, Brumback visited him and sent several letters to his parents describing his condition, as Hemingway’s hands were too injured for him to write. In this passage, he describes an Italian soldier who was killed in the blast, a second whose legs were blown off, and a third whom Hemingway apparently carried to the first aid station, despite his injuries, after he regained consciousness. This record is at odds with the newspaper report, which has Italian stretcher-bearers taking Hemingway to a first aid station. Hemingway claimed to have no memory of how he got to the first aid station, but was told by others that he had carried a man to safety. Later biographers and historians would debate what really happened that day, and it is widely accepted that Hemingway embellished the story of his injuries, as he was unlikely to have been able to carry a man to a first aid station with the extent of his injuries at the time. In any event, he was awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Valor for his bravery on that day, though no mention was made in the award of his having carried a man to safety.

Essential Themes

Hemingway’s experiences as an ambulance driver and Red Cross worker on the Italian Front were the first of many daring adventures that he undertook throughout his life. Several of his novels were based on his experiences during this time, and tales of his bravery at such a young age fed into his larger-than-life persona. Despite being elevated to the status of legend, Hemingway’s experience on the Italian Front was not unique. Volunteer ambulance drivers and service workers, many of whom did not qualify for military service, put themselves in danger constantly for the safety and comfort of the soldiers at the front. Hemingway’s determination to be at the very front line may have placed him in particular danger, but stretcher bearers, nurses, and drivers were killed and wounded in significant numbers. Over 200 US nurses were killed–many by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic–while serving in the war. Over 150 American Field Service ambulance drivers were killed out of 2,500. There were only 135 drivers serving in Italy at the time of Hemingway’s injury, but overall, 127 American Red Cross ambulance drivers were killed out of 4,800 who served during the war. Hemingway’s actions in Italy were certainly courageous, but acts of valor were performed daily by volunteers on the front lines.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.
  • Paul, Steve. “‘Drive,’ He Said: How Ted Brumback Helped Steer Ernest Hemingway into War and Writing.” Hemingway Rev. 27.1 (2007): 21–38. Print.
  • Sanderson, Rena. Hemingway’s Italy: New Perspectives. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2006. Print.
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