War gave the legendary novelist his best stories—and a lifetime of trouble.
Greg Clark didn’t believe the war stories told by the American kid who’d wandered into his cluttered Toronto office looking for work. The tall, beefy lad with a limp showed up at the Star Weekly in January 1920 and started telling tales about fighting with Italy’s famed Arditi commandos in World War I and suffering wounds from mortar explosions and machine-gun fire. The guy must have sensed the features editor’s incredulity, for one day he showed up with a small cardboard box. It contained two medals—the Croce di Guerra and Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare.
Clark lifted the silver medal, Italy’s second highest award for valor, from its box and read the recipient’s name etched along its edge: TENENTE ERNESTO HEMINGWAY.
The editor, himself a veteran of the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge, immediately offered young Ernest Hemingway a job. He would later learn, of course, after Hemingway became one of the world’s most famous authors, that his suspicions had been well founded. Hemingway had not fought with the Arditi in World War I. He had been a Red Cross ambulance driver, and when he was injured on July 8, 1918, he’d been handing out chocolate and cigarettes to the Italian troops. Yet despite serious wounds he had rescued a wounded soldier and been shot while carrying the man to safety.
Hemingway’s 1918 wounding typifies his experiences in war. He visited five battlefronts in his life: the Italian-Austrian front in 1918; the Greco-Turkish War in 1922; the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and 1938; the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1941; and the Allied march through France in 1944. And while anecdotes from each appear in his biography, there is a vagueness about many of them, usually brought on by Hemingway’s tall tales about his own exploits. The need to recite manufactured war stories even appeared in his fiction. “His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities,” Hemingway wrote in “Soldier’s Home,” a short story about a soldier named Krebs returning to the United States after the war. “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie.”
Sometimes the inaccuracy stems from a tendency by Hemingway’s friends, acquaintances or witnesses to exaggerate his feats. These sundry lies and half-truths are pure poison for Hemingway biographers, because often as not the stories are so good the biographer doesn’t want to doublecheck the facts for fear of losing a real gem. And yet these vague stories are indeed illuminating, because quite often they represent pivotal events in his development as a man and as an artist. Along with bullfighting, hunting, drinking and love, war is one of the enduring motifs of Hemingway’s writing and his legendary life.
World War I was the most important war in Hemingway’s development. He had wanted to serve in the Marines or the fledgling Army Air Service but was turned away due to his nearsightedness (in fact, he never served in any of the armed forces). So he joined the American Red Cross ambulance corps in early 1918, when he was not yet 19 years old.
In early June Hemingway arrived in Milan, where he got his first glimpse of war’s carnage. He and fellow drivers helped recover the remains of workers killed in a munitions factory explosion. “We found and carried to an improvised mortuary a good number of these,” he wrote, “and, I must admit, frankly, the shock it was to find that these dead were women rather than men.”
Days later Hemingway was posted to an ambulance unit near Schio, east of Lake Garda, on the border with Austria-Hungary. As well as the practical aspects of the job, there was also a propaganda role—if Italian soldiers saw one American uniform, they might believe others were on their way.
Just after midnight on July 8, Hemingway was dispensing his treats when a round from a muzzle-loaded Austrian trench mortar (described as a five-gallon can filled with explosives and scrap metal) hit near him. “There was a flash, as a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind,” recounts Lieutenant Frederic Henry, Hemingway’s semiautobiographical hero in A Farewell to Arms. “I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself.”
When Hemingway came to, he was buried in dirt. An Italian soldier who’d been between him and the explosion was killed instantly, while another lost both legs. Finding a third, badly wounded soldier nearby, Hemingway hoisted him on his shoulders and, though injured himself, started for an aid station. By some accounts, Austrian spotlights soon tracked the pair, and machine-gun fire caught Hemingway in the right foot and knee. He ran on despite his wounds, covering more than 200 yards to the nearest trench.
Contemporary medical accounts recorded 227 shrapnel wounds in Hemingway’s legs, though all but about 10 were superficial. While some have questioned the extent of his wounds, the fact remains he had been badly injured and shown remarkable courage. Moreover, this injury may have been the most important episode in his life as an artist. The heroes of his two great novels of the 1920s— Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms —were both injured in World War I, and his short story hero Nick Adams left the war shell-shocked. Philip Young, the most influential Hemingway critic of the 1960s, even put forth a “wound theory,” suggesting that the author’s life and art comprised repeated attempts to master the primal horror of his wounding at age 18. From this event, Young delineated the Hemingway “code”—the moral imperatives of courage, stoicism and honor by which all Hemingway heroes live.
The injury led directly to the second major event of the war for Hemingway: his love affair with Agnes von Kurowsky. Nine days after the explosion Hemingway was moved to the Ospedale Maggiore, a 16-room hospital in Milan, and promptly fell head over heels for the 26-year-old American nurse. They had a summer romance—unconsummated, she later insisted—that she ended after Hemingway returned to his hometown of Oak Park, Ill., in January 1919. Though their affair was rather brief in the grand scheme of things, its impact on the literary canon was immense; Agnes became the model for Catherine Barkley, Frederic Henry’s lover in A Farewell to Arms.
World War I shaped Hemingway in many ways. His rapid rise to literary prominence rested in large part on his being a poster boy for the conflict’s multitude of physically and emotionally scarred young men— those Gertrude Stein called “a lost generation.” Most of his great works of the 1920s relied upon and amplified his experiences in the war, and a cornerstone of the Hemingway image was the popular belief he had been wounded in combat in Italy.
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain.…I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.
—A Farewell to Arms, 1929
Hemingway’s first brief fling as a war correspondent came in September 1922 while he was living in Paris, when his editors at The Toronto Star assigned him to Constantinople to cover the Greco-Turkish War. Infuriating his new wife, Hadley Richardson, who already fretted about his World War I nightmares, Hemingway agreed to cover the conflict shortly after the conquering Turks set fire to the Greek and Armenian quarters in Smyrna.
While in Turkey, Hemingway saw neither combat nor the rumored 260,000 refugees fleeing Smyrna. Only after the armistice was signed on October 11 and Hemingway traveled to Greece did he witness the great migration of refugees from Thrace. He filed vivid accounts to the Star, recounting how he marched five miles in the rain with the Thracian peasantry, their possessions strapped to mules and oxcarts. “A husband spreads a blanket over a woman in labor in one of the carts to keep off the driving rain,” he wrote. “She is the only person making a sound. Her daughter looks at her in horror and begins to cry.”
All day I have been passing them, dirty, tired, unshaven, wind-bitten soldiers hiking along the trails across the brown, rolling, barren Thracian countryside. No bands, no relief organizations, no leave areas, nothing but lice, dirty blankets, and mosquitoes at night. They are the last of the glory that was Greece. This is the end of their second siege of Troy.
—The Greek Revolt, 1922
It would be almost two decades before Hemingway experienced combat again, and once again the event was associated with a beautiful woman. His coverage of the Spanish Civil War will always be linked to the glamorous war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Idealistic to a fault and already a published author, Gellhorn was searching for a cause when she met Hemingway in a Key West bar, and the erupting conflict in Spain soon became her obsession. Though Hemingway was then married to his devoted second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, Gellhorn soon became his obsession. In no time they agreed to visit the war zone together.
Before leaving, Hemingway signed a contract with the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) to report on the conflict—his first real assignment as a war correspondent covering a prolonged conflict. Gellhorn agreed to send dispatches to Collier’s, then one of America’s most popular weekly magazines. He arrived in the spring of 1937, by which time the elected Republican government, backed by the Soviet Union, was besieged in and around Madrid by General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist army, allied with Italy and Germany, while battles flared in other parts of the country. Hemingway and Gellhorn reported only what they witnessed, largely because the war was too complicated to describe even in lengthy features. There were at least 40 factions—communists, fascists, anarchists, separatists, unions, youth groups, the Catholic Church—backing one side or the other, and the history of the conflict remains murky, as there were so many versions of each event.
Living in semisecret sin at Madrid’s Hotel Florida, Hemingway and Gellhorn reported on the fascist siege of the city and on fighting in Guadalajara and Brihuega. The shelling of Madrid and resulting widespread civilian casualties featured prominently in their writing. “They killed an old woman returning home from market, dropping her in a huddled black heap of clothing, with one leg, suddenly detached, whirling against the wall of an adjoining house,” Hemingway wrote in an article that ran on April 11. “They killed three people in another square, who lay like so many torn bundles of old clothing in the dust and rubble when the fragments of the ‘155’ had burst against the curbing.”
Though journalists largely viewed Gellhorn as Hemingway’s elegant girlfriend at this point, her articles in Collier’s soon displayed a gift for restrained and detailed accounts of the suffering war inflicts on common people. Theirs was a rare courtship, an affair intensified by the danger they faced daily, their shared convictions and their association with those celebrities (like writers Virginia Cowles and John Dos Passos) who also roomed at the Florida. And Hemingway, as always, was good company in the war zone—jovial, courageous, ready to share his always-filled hip flask with comrades. The grand hotel itself lay within range of Nationalist shells, charging a dollar a day for rooms up front but considerably more for those facing away from the bombardment.
For the next two years, Hemingway divided his time between Spain, where he recorded the destruction of the Second Spanish Republic, and the United States, where he watched his marriage to Pauline endure a similar fate. In all, he logged three tours of Spain during the war—March to May and September to December 1937, and April to May 1938. During his second sojourn, the Republicans lost Bilbao and the Basque areas and were divided by internal skirmishes. On his third and final journey, the Republicans were retreating to the Mediterranean near Barcelona, and once again Hemingway was reporting on the flight of refugees.
The front had stabilized by the time Hemingway and Gellhorn left Spain, but it was obvious the Republicans had lost. Yet the war brought about a flowering of work by Hemingway. In addition to his NANA articles, he wrote the play The Fifth Column and narrated Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens’ propaganda film The Spanish Earth, which they screened at the White House in July 1937. And in 1940 the Spanish conflict was the subject of his longest novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which critic and biographer Jeffrey Meyers calls “the greatest political novel in American literature.”
Keeping a heavy fire on the hilltop, Lieutenant Berrendo pushed a patrol up to one of the bomb craters from where they could throw grenades onto the crest. He was taking no chances of any one being alive and waiting for them in the mess that was up there and he threw four grenades into the confusion of dead horses, broken and split rocks, and torn yellow-stained explosive-stinking earth before he climbed out of the bomb crater and walked over to have a look.
—For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940
After marrying Hemingway in late 1940, Gellhorn, who had covered the growing crisis in Europe, wanted to cover the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hemingway reluctantly agreed. Their three-month journey was a disappointment: Gellhorn was sick and hated China, and they witnessed no battles, only a mock operation on the dormant front north of Canton. Hemingway was reporting for the New York daily PM, as well as providing intelligence to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. The writer sent Morgenthau a six-page, single-spaced brief on the complicated situation in China, proving himself a deft gatherer and interpreter of political and military data.
His experience in China apparently gave Hemingway a taste for espionage, for when he returned to his home in Cuba, he organized a network of amateur spies who gathered information for the FBI on Axis sympathizers and operatives on the island. After this venture fizzled, Hemingway and his drinking buddies used his fishing boat Pilar to hunt for U-boats operating in the Caribbean, thinking they could surprise one and drop explosives down its conning-tower hatch.
Hemingway also applied to the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1944. But it turned him down, believing—correctly—he was “too much of an individualist to work under military supervision.”
From 1941 to 1944 Gellhorn covered the war in Europe for from London. Upon returning Collier’s to Cuba in March 1944, she pleaded with Hemingway to come to Europe. He finally agreed to cover the war, also for Collier’s. Hemingway received the magazine’s front-line accreditation, and as the military allotted only one per publication, he effectively ensured Gellhorn would not receive it (as a woman, she was unlikely to get it at the time anyway). He also arranged a flight to London for himself, leaving Gellhorn to cross the North Atlantic aboard a munitions ship.
By the time Gellhorn arrived in England in late May 1944, Hemingway was enraptured with Time/Life magazine correspondent Mary Welsh. The following months were marked by his disintegrating relationship with Gellhorn, his blossoming affair with Welsh, and his legendary contribution to the capture of France and Western Germany.
World War II had less impact on Hemingway’s art than his earlier conflicts, as he wrote about the war peripherally only in the mediocre novel Across the River and Into the Trees and in stories published posthumously. But his actions in 1944 greatly amplified the Hemingway mystique. In the presence of soldiers and male journalists (who dutifully recorded his exploits), he was a swashbuckling irregular—jolly, courageous, foolhardy. And while he later claimed to have beaten Free French General Philippe Leclerc into Paris and to have liberated the city’s famed Ritz Hotel, it is extremely difficult to pin down the facts, as Hemingway—and others— again greatly exaggerated his exploits.
We do know that Hemingway’s last war began on the morning of June 6, when he clambered from a troopship into a Higgins boat bound for Normandy’s Omaha Beach. Due to confusion on the beach, his craft had to bob off the French coast until the troops could be put ashore. Correspondents were not yet permitted ashore, so Hemingway returned to England aboard a transport and was outraged when he learned Gellhorn had stowed away on a hospital ship and snuck ashore before him.
Hemingway returned to France on July 18 and soon joined the Allied advance on Paris. He considered journalism a poor outlet for his talents and filed only six pieces to Collier’s from Europe. Hemingway could read maps, speak French and some German, and had an appreciation for tactics. He also possessed a forceful personality and was a natural leader. Hemingway kept in contact with both the OSS and French Resistance and was reportedly armed and shooting at the enemy. On July 30 he “liberated” a German motorcycle with sidecar. Hemingway and his jeep driver, Private Red Pelkey, also flushed six German soldiers from a farmhouse with hand grenades and took them prisoner. Two days later, near Saint-Pois, he spent an afternoon pinned in a ditch by machine-gun fire after a German shell upended his motorcycle. Though his role in the liberation of Paris was frequently distorted, he did arrive in the city on August 25, the day Leclerc’s Free French took the city, and Hemingway and his entourage did indeed dine at the Ritz that night.
He continued to travel with journalists (many of whom considered him a reckless braggart) and attached himself to the U.S. 22nd Infantry Regiment, whose commander, Col. Charles “Buck” Lanham, became a fast friend. Hemingway traveled with the regiment (returning to Paris occasionally to be with Mary Welsh) right through to the bloody fighting in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest in the winter of 1944–1945. At one point, the inspector general of the Third Army, prompted by complaints from other correspondents, investigated whether Hemingway’s actions in combat violated regulations governing civilian war correspondents. In response, he denied participating in combat.
Hemingway often displayed an almost insane disdain for danger. On one occasion, he and other guests were dining at Lanham’s command post in a farmhouse near the Siegfried Line when a shell crashed through a wall. The others dove into a potato cellar, then peeked out to find Hemingway still at the table, calmly eating his steak. When Lanham ordered him to take cover, the writer replied that a shell would be as likely to hit one place as another, so he would remain where he was. Lanham argued with him as another round came through the wall. The others stayed in the shelter, watching their colonel berate Hemingway as more shells hit.
It’s a great story, but it highlights a darker side of Hemingway’s behavior. Throughout his time with the 22nd Infantry, Hemingway wrote Welsh letters saying he’d once again cheated the “old whore, Death.” Biographer Michael Reynolds concluded that Hemingway—his third marriage a failure and his head still ringing from a concussion sustained in a traffic accident just after his arrival in London—“simply no longer cared if he lived or died.”
The fierce combat in the Hürtgen only intensified Hemingway’s inner gloom. The 22nd Infantry sustained more than 2,800 casualties in the battle, and the writer was almost among them. Lanham later reported seeing Hemingway armed with a rifle and shooting as the regiment advanced near the infamous “Valley of Death.”
On Dec. 3, 1944, Hemingway, Pelkey and Time/Life correspondent Bill Walton were riding down an exposed road when Hemingway ordered Pelkey to stop the jeep. They heard a faint hum, then Hemingway yelled, “Oh, God, jump!” The trio landed in the dirt just as a diving German fighter strafed their vehicle. Hemingway had recognized the engine noise from the Spanish Civil War.
We had reached the cross roads before noon and had shot a French civilian by mistake. He had run across the field on our right beyond the farmhouse when he saw the first jeep come up. Claude had ordered him to halt and when he had kept on running across the field Red shot him. It was the first man he had killed that day and he was very pleased.
—“Black Ass at the Cross Roads”
Ernest Hemingway did not see combat again after late 1944. He once mentioned to Mary, who became his fourth wife, that he might “attend” the Korean War, but nothing ever came of it. The “old whore, Death” never caught up with Hemingway in a war zone, but that’s not to say he escaped war unscathed. He suffered nightmares and insomnia for decades after his wounding in Italy, symptoms representative of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
But while Hemingway suffered from his exposure to war, it inarguably enriched both his life and the body of global literature. Few writers have employed war as a motif so successfully. “After his wounding in World War I, Hemingway viewed armed combat as the most central experience of his century,” Reynolds wrote. “Here a man could see his species stripped down to a primal level; here he could test his own emotional resources.” Hemingway’s own emotional resources were vast, but in the end, they were not infinite.
For further reading, Peter Moreira recommends: Hemingway: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers, and Hemingway: The Final Years, by Michael S. Reynolds.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.