Contributed by Richard Galli
Ernest Hemingway was barely 18 when he went over to the Great War. Unable to pass the exam for the US Army, he volunteered to drive ambulances for the International Red Cross with his pal Ted Brumback [who had already served in France as an ambulance driver.] He was assigned to the Alpine Front and attached to the Italian Army Medical Corps.
The Young Ambulance Driver
On the night of July 8, 1918, the young Hemingway was wounded. His legs were riddled with shrapnel from an Austrian mortar round, near the village of Fossalta, on the Piave River. Evacuated to a hospital in Milano, he was unable to walk for two months. Ernest underwent several operations on his legs during these days. While hospitalized he fell in love with one of his nurses, Agnes von Kurowsky. The affair is best described as a wartime romance and did not last.
In October he return to the front he had been promoted to First Lieutenant and awarded Italy's silver medal for bravery for action and wounds suffered during July. In December of 1918 he left the service and was soon back in America. In 1921 Hemingway joined the "young bohemians," the expatriate literary community in Paris and helped give voice to his generation.
These poems are simply a veteran of the "lost generation" coming to terms with his experiences, what is often called "closure," over his lost innocence and friendships. As the introductory section from his classic war novel, A Farewell to Arms, indicates, Hemingway identified with the interpretation of the Great War as a vast cock-up which was shared by most of the artists and intelligentsia of the period. Click here to learn more about competing views about the War.
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…. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you.
From A Farewell to Arms published by Chas. Scribner's Sons 1929
Some came in chains
Unrepentant but tired.
Too tired but to stumble.
Thinking and hating were finished
Thinking and fighting were finished.
Cures thus a long campaign,
Making death easy.
Soldiers never do die well;
Crosses mark the places,
Wooden crosses where they fell;
Stuck above their faces.
Soldiers pitch and cough and twitch;
All the world roars red and black,
Soldiers smother in a ditch;
Choking through the whole attack.
Half a million dead wops
And he got a kick out of it
The son of a bitch.
Killed Piave-July 8-1918
All the sweet pulsing aches
And gentle hurtings
That were you,
Are gone into the sullen dark.
Now in the night you come unsmiling
To lie with me
A dull, cold, rigid bayonet
On my hot-swollen, throbbing soul
[All armies are the same…]
All armies are the same
Publicity is fame
Artillery makes the same old noise
Valor is an attribute of boys
Old soldiers all have tired eyes
All soldiers hear the same old lies
Dead bodies have always drawn flies
Men went happily to death
But they were not the men
Up to the line.
These rode a few times
And were gone
Leaving a heritage of obscene song.
Drummed their boots on the camion floor,
Hob-nailed boots on the camion floor.
Lieutenants thought of a Mestre whore-
Warm and soft and sleepy whore,
Cozy, warm and lovely whore:
Damned cold, bitter rotten ride,
Winding road up the Grappa side.
Arditi on benches stiff and cold,
Bristly faces, dirty hides-
Infantry marches, Arditi rides.
Grey, cold, bitter, sullen ride-
To splintered pines on the Grappa side
At Asalone, where the truck-load died.
To Good Guys Dead
They sucked us in;
King and country,
And the rest.
Words and phrases,
They either bitched or killed us.
Half a hundred more,
Little border villages,
Back before the war,
Monte Grappa, Monte Corno,
Twice a dozen such,
In the piping times of peace
Didn't come to much.
The Age Demanded
The age demanded that we sing
and cut away our tongue.
The age demanded that we flow
and hammered in the bung.
The age demanded that we dance
and jammed us into iron pants.
And in the end the age was handed
the sort of shit it demanded.
Credits and Thanks. All poems from Ernest Hemingway Complete Poems Edited, with an introduction and notes by Nicholas Gerogiannis University of Nebraska Press Lincoln and London 1979