13 February 2013
The Reality of World War I
World War I, which lasted from summer of 1917 to the summer of 1918, was known as the Great War and was the most epic conflict the world had ever seen at that point. It was said to be the war to end all wars. Young men from every social class and way of life were quick to take up arms and defend their nations. They sought to be immortalized in the glory and romanticism of the conflict; however, they soon faced the grim realities of war. “Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin” (“Dreamers”). This excerpt from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Dreamers” shows the naiveté of the men who served before realizing the travesties of war. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, paints a great illustration of the grim realities of war, explored through the eyes of the soldiers and civilians affected by it and through the very own eyes of Fredric Henry, the story’s protagonist.
Ernest Hemingway, the author of the novel A Farwell to Arms, was born in 1899 in Illinois. He enjoyed outdoor activities like hunting, fishing and baseball. While in high school he worked on his school’s newspaper. After graduation he immediately went into a career in sports writing for the Kansas City Star. In 1918, Hemingway went overseas to fight in World War I. (Ernest Hemingway Biography)
Hemingway constructed the plot of this novel from his very own personal experience during the Great War. In the year 1918, later on in World War I, Hemingway went overseas to serve as an ambulance driver for the Italian army. He was decorated with the Silver Medal of Bravery during his service. Shortly after receiving this honor, Hemingway was injured and taken from the front to recuperate at a hospital in Milan. While at the hospital, Hemingway met and fell in love with a nurse by the name of Agnes von Kurowsky, who accepted his proposal of marriage. It was, however, not meant to be, and she later left him for another man. This was especially hard on Hemingway, dealing with both the brutality of war, personal injury, and now a broken heart. These personal experiences would provide the back drop for one of his most famous works, A Farwell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway Biography).
He returned home after the war and moved to Michigan where he got a job with the Toronto Star. While in Chicago he met his future wife, Hadley Richardson. After the two wed they moved to Paris. Here he became what Gertrude Stein famously called the Lost Generation. While in Paris he also met influential figures such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. It was also in Paris where him and his wife had their son, John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway.
Throughout the rest of his life, Hemingway went through several divorces and marriages. Some of the more famous works he produced were The Sun Also Rises, Men Without Women, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway also was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In his free time, Hemingway enjoyed hunting big game all around the globe. He suffered many injuries and illnesses during this time and his body and mind began to fail him eventually leading to his suicide in 1961 (Ernest Hemingway Biography).
In June of 1914, the Archduke of Austria and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Serbian Nationalist Gavarilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Finger pointing and conspiracies soon followed. Mobilization of armies and threats of war caused mass chaos in Europe. Entangling alliances caused nations to go to the aid of other nations, which caused sides and battle lines to be drawn. The tension could be cut with a knife. The war began with Germany’s two front invasion of Belgium and Russia. The Great War was a battle between the Central Powers, made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire against the Allied Powers consisting of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan later being joined by the United States in 1917 (World War 1).
The Great War was the first war in which more modern weapons like a modern style machine gun and chemical warfare in the form of toxic gas were used. This caused many horrendous sights never seen by any till this time. This war also saw the use of massive railway artillery cannons which could hit targets from miles away making no one, not even civilians safe from the destruction of war. This war also saw the first uses of the airplane for both reconnaissance and combative roles. It was a contradicting war with new technologies and old style tactics. Both sides constructed impregnable trench systems miles long defended by networks of machine gun nests and another new invention of the time, barbed wire, which halted the enemy from traversing the war torn area between the opposing lines rightfully dubbed “No Man’s Land”(World War 1).
The wars eventually reached a point where it was a total stalemate. Neither side could achieve the upper hand which leads to a race by both sides to come up with a way to break the stalemate. This brought about the invention of the tank and the use of artillery shells filled with toxic Mustard Gas. These particular methods ended up being unreliable which made desperate commanders resort to old wave tactics which essentially meant throwing waves of troops, sometimes even on horseback, at the enemy line in a hope to break through. Sadly this was mostly unsuccessful due to the efficiency of machine guns and caused many on both sides to lose morale. It would appear at one point that the loser of the stalemate would be the first to run out of young men to fight the war(World War 1).
The novel A Farwell to Arms takes place mainly on the Italian Front. Italy had long been an ally to the “Triple Alliance”. However at the beginning of the war, Italy declared neutrality. In 1915 it shocked the world and joined the side of the Allies by declaring war on Austria. It then claimed the regions of the South Tirol (Alto Adige) and an area on the Isonzo River and the town of Trieste. These were part of the territories promised to the Italians in the event of allied victory. A lot like the war throughout Europe, the fight specifically in Italy was also a total stalemate. Instead of a battle between entrenched forces on a field, the majority of battles took place in the mountainous Alps. They would fight from mountain to mountain at the cost of thousands of lives in week long battles which sometimes resulted in just a couple hundred meters gained. The Italian army was an extreme benefit to the allies. With the Italians in the fight, it made the Triple Alliance have to fight surrounded by allied forces. It also meant the Germans could not do a combined assault with the Austro-Hungarian’s on the western Belgian front and the eastern Russian front (World War 1)
The war began to wear away at both the Austrians and Italians. The allies saw that if they could force Austria to surrender then the war would be a lot easier to win and could possibly cause Germany to surrender. The fighting escalated with the influx of British, French, and American troops. The Austrians began talks of peace and eventually the Italians entered the city of Trent resulting in the capture of 300,000 Austrians ending the fight on the Italian front. 615,000 Italians died during World War I they did however gain their promised territories in Europe but were not granted the land they desired in Africa.
The majority of common foot soldiers during World War I were simple peasants or people of the lower class. Many of the soldiers in the novel are very enthusiastic at first about the war(Markley). These feelings last until they get to the front were they see the sheer terror of it. It was not uncommon for soldiers to give themselves self-inflicted wounds so they could be taken off the front. One specific soldier who was suffering from a rupture purposely loses his truss, which is a padded belt used to support a hernia. His commander, however, knows he most likely purposely displaced it in order to be evacuated from the front; he then bashes his own head so he can be taken to a hospital where they would see both his rupture and head wound so he would not have to fight. Many of the doctors and nurses were quite suspicious of wounds and would be on the lookout for those who brought the wounds upon themselves.
While a couple of mechanics are sitting in their dugout waiting for an offensive to start, they begin discussing an upcoming battle. They learn it would start with a full-on frontal assault by the Italian light infantry called the Bersaglieri. They are however out gunned and out-manned and are to be used as a distraction for the “real” attack. The rest of the men wonder if the Bersaglieri know they will soon be running straight into their deaths. Some say they are fools; however, many believe they are brave and the commanders are the fools. They then talk about a group of soldiers who refuse to attack. These men are lined up after the attack and every tenth man is shot. This shows the extreme distrust the soldiers have for their commanders and the way
they see bravery as just plain foolishness. “If everybody would not attack the war would be over” (Hemingway 42).
‘We think. We read. We are not peasants. We are mechanics. But even the peasants know
better than to believe in war. Everybody hates this war. There is a class that controls a
country that is stupid and does not realize anything and never can. This is why we have
In the beginning of the book, there is sharp contrast between the officers and enlisted men of the Italian army. The enlisted feel as if the war is taking up their lives and time they can spend doing other things. The officers like Rinaldi see it as an opportunity to better their professional careers, in his case as a surgeon. The officers are a lot more honorable with very little of them refusing to attack and sometimes charging by themselves when their men would not. They are proud of their medals and commendations and proudly wear them on their uniforms. However the struggle between social classes still exists between the enlisted and the officers. The officers just view the soldiers under them as cattle for slaughter rather than men. ‘They thought only in divisions and man power’(Hemingway 117).
Optimistic as their attitudes may have been in the early parts of the war, their feelings change drastically later on after a long and bloody summer(Corbett). The hearts of the officers have been torn by the constant fighting and death that is around them day after day. This is apparent in the Maggiore who tells Fredric, who has just returned from leave, that if he had been away from the front he would not have returned. When Fredric asks if it is so bad he responds, ‘Yes. It is so bad and worse’ (Hemingway 155). Not only the Maggiore is suffering; even Rinaldi, Fredric’s closest friend, is suffering from the repetition of his work and horrendousness of some of the patients he treats. He has stopped thinking and has just begun to react on impulses.
The soldiers and officers are not the only ones who suffer during a time of war. Civilians, too must face hardships. Specifically, in A Farwell to Arms, the people of Italy are forced to leave their homes only to return to them war torn and in rubble. They are also hurt economically, sacrificing everything they have for the war effort. Little shops and restaurants are forced to close and activities once used as past-times like horse racing and soccer, are postponed. The loved ones of soldiers especially have it hard, worrying day after day about their son or husband who is out fighting possibly never to return. Life for a civilian can also be harsh if you are a relative of a deserter. A soldier tells about one of the men who did not attack.
‘He was a big smart tall boy to be in the granatieri. Always in Rome. Always with the
girls. Always with the carabinieri. Now they have a guard outside his home with a
bayonet and nobody can come to see his mother and father and sisters and his father loses
his civil rights and cannot even vote. They are all without law to protect them. Anybody
can take their property.’ (Hemingway 42)
The Italian civilians also had several riots protesting the war due to vast number of soldiers killed. Over one hundred and fifty thousand men were killed in just two separated engagements.
This novel is essentially a biography about Fredric Henry, an American serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian army. He was a lieutenant in rank and seemed to be quite likable amongst his men most likely because he was very indifferent about the war at first and allowed them to speak freely about it. He, like all other soldiers, did not really know the true horrors of war until he got a taste of it.
‘Well, I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with
me. It seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies. I wished to god
it was over though. Maybe it would finish this summer. Maybe the Austrians would
crack. They had always cracked in other wars.’(Hemingway 31)
Many times, Fredric mocked the Italian army saying that it was not a real army like the French, British and even the Austrian and German armies, mostly because of its theatrical leaders whom he describes as being fat and incompetent. He also was very embarrassed by the silly looking uniforms and especially the Italian salute. “It was impossible to salute foreigners as an Italian, without embarrassment. The Italian salute never seemed made for export” (Hemingway 20). Fredric, like a lot of the Italian soldiers did not really take this war seriously (Simpson).
On the eve of battle, Fredric, accompanied by several mechanics, sit in the dugout waiting to be fed before the army goes on the attack. They sit their discussing the war and patriotism. In the middle of eating, their position begins to get shelled by the Austrians. They decide not to worry thinking they are back from the line enough when suddenly they suffer a direct hit by a massive mortar. In the blast, two men are lost and Fredric’s leg is seriously mangled. He was completely shocked by the chaos and confusion. “Oh god, get me out of here” (Hemingway 48). This is his first realization that this war is, in fact real (A Farewell to Arms Metaphor Analysis).
Fredric is hospitalized in Milan where he will attempt to rehabilitate his leg after surgery. While in the hospital he reunites with Catherine Barkley, a nurse he had met earlier, and they fall madly in love. During his rehabilitation, he lives the life, going out to shows and restaurants in Milan with Catherine. Here he is as far away from the war as he can be and has everything he could want. During his time off from the front, Fredric took to very heavy drinking as a coping mechanism. This ended up causing him to contract jaundice. When the head nurse discovered all of his empty liquor bottles she promptly reported it canceling his leave. This meant he would soon return to the front and have to leave his beloved Catherine. His love with Catherine is the only intimate relationship he has ever had. Now that he is leaving for the front he realizes just how hard it is to leave behind loved ones and go to war. He also sees the pain in Catherine and all the other wives seeing their husbands off to war which is sometimes just as painful as leaving (A Farewell to Arms).
When Fredric returns to the front he can notice how different everyone is. Those around him who are usually cheery and high spirited have now been hardened and battle scarred. The men, especially his war brother, Rinaldi(Takeuchi), have him tell stories of his time spent away from the front in a hope to have the warm feeling of home again. A lot of the men, Fredric included, turn to alcohol. Even the priest who is another close friend of Fredric’s, who usually gives Fredric hope, feels the war is lost and it is only a matter of time before one side just stops fighting.
Not long after being sent back to the front, Fredric finds himself preparing for an assault. However, before the Italians begin to attack, they receive word that a German and Austrian contingent has broken through the front line and is heading right for them. They receive word to retreat. This is Fredric’s first experience of the true chaos of war, men losing their units, equipment being broken, all the yelling and vehicles being stuck. Fredric who has never been in a retreat asks what will be done about the wounded. He is told they will take as many as they can and leave the rest. Horrified he does not argue and takes the men and vehicles under his command and falls back toward the assembly area.
While on the retreat the troops are joined by many peasants who are falling back from the front as well. They have with them all the valuables they could carry. It is rainy and muddy and the stop-and-go vehicle traffic is very repetitive. Fredric and his men also pick up two sergeants who grew tired of walking in the mud. In an attempt to make it to their checkpoint quicker, they decide to take a shortcut and go on a back road. The vehicles end up getting bogged down in the mud. Stuck out in the middle of nowhere with an advancing army on their tail, they frantically try to push the cars out. The two sergeants get out and start walking the other way. Fredric who outranks them orders them to help them push. They refuse and keep walking. Fredric then pulls his side arm and fires on them wounding one and sending the other running. One of the men under Fredric’s command finishes the wounded soldier off. This is Fredric’s first time ever shooting someone. It shows just how much a war can do to someone’s character and morals.
Now on foot they fear the Germans would catch up with them. While crossing a field, the group begins to hear gun fire and realizes they are being shot at. They begin to run for cover when one of the men is shot in the neck and killed. They infer that it could not have been the Germans that shot at them because the shots came from the south. It is the Italians who are shooting at them. The rear guard of the line was probably on high alert shooting at anything that moves. They now had to worry about both Germans and Italians. One of Fredric’s men, a close friend of the man who was killed, decides to go off and be taken prisoner instead of go on to the objective for fear of being shot by the Italians. It makes one wonder how bad things could be for one to rather be taken prisoner than reunite with his countrymen.
They finally reach their objective which is a little town along a river. It has now been turned into a massive assembly area with soldiers clustering in from all over the front. While in a massive crowd of troops, Fredric notices that the Carabinieri, the Italian battle police, are plucking officers from the crowd, questioning and executing them. Fredric who is an officer is taken. He witnesses the battle police questioning the officers.
‘So far they had shot everyone they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it. They were now questioning a full colonel of a line regiment.’ (Hemingway 194)
Fredric had had enough of this questioning and the entire war. He pushed his way through the crowd towards the river where he jumped in. He was deserting this war to find his love Catherine and live the life he wanted. He wanted to leave before it was too late, he was afraid he would lose his true self.
‘I was not against them. I was through. I swished them all the luck. There were the good
ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones,, and they deserved it.
But it was not my show any more.’ (Hemingway 200)
A Farwell to Arms not only depicts the reality of World War I, but its lessons and experiences can hold true to any conflict of any time and age. Hemingway shows that war affects everyone. He also shows that one must not be so quick to take up arms and go to war before they know the grim realities of it. War, above all else, tests the strength of human morals. The grimmest reality of war, however, is as long as humans walk this earth; they will continue to make war upon one another.
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