Young & Reckless: Hemingway in the Great War
How personal tragedy gave birth to a great American novel
It was cold and they were lying in a ditch trying hard not to be spotted by the Austro-Hungarian forces in the pale moonlight. Between the blinding lights of the star shells, three Italians and a lone American were attempting to gather intelligence on the enemy lines ahead. But being in no-mans-land was a dangerous proposition in 1918. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the ditch. Shrapnel tore two of the Italians to pieces, splattering remnants of their bodies all over the two left alive. The American, realizing his remaining Italian comrade was seriously wounded, hauled him on his back and ran for the safety of the Italian trenches. Machine gun fire erupted — burning metal tore through the American’s legs and he fell to the ground. But he quickly got up again and carried the Italian to safety. Upon reaching an aid station, with the wounded man still on his back, Ernest Hemingway fainted from exhaustion. He would wake up to find over twenty pieces of shrapnel and two bullets in his legs. The adventure had begun.
Ernest Hemingway is without a doubt one of the greatest writers in American history. His novels and other works have captured the imaginations of multiple generations the world over, and even won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Hemingway fought in three bloody wars, fell in love five times, and traveled most of the globe. He lived life experiencing more passion, adventure, and tragedy than most on this earth ever will. These experiences were transferred directly into Hemingway’s writing, making his literature some of the most gripping, emotional, and realistic writing of the 20th century. In this article, we will examine exactly how he was launched on this path.
Hemingway’s road to the Great War
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. This event propelled the world into war, and Ernest Hemingway into his first great adventure. After graduating from high school in 1917, Hemingway desired to “…go to war more than anything in the world,” as his brother put it.¹ However, his father forbade him to and encouraged him to attend Oberlin College instead. Because Hemingway was dead set on not attending an institution of higher learning, he set out for Kansas City and used a family connection to land a job writing for the Kansas City Star. At the Star, Hemingway proved himself a capable writer and a daring reporter; he was young, full of energy, and he made a name for himself when he got so close to a burning building (for a story), that his suit caught on fire!²
After four months of Ernest being away from home, his father’s heart warmed to the idea of him serving in the Great War. He told Hemingway he could join up if any branch would take him. Unfortunately for Hemingway, he was soon informed that his eyesight was too poor for military service; the American Expeditionary Force would not accept him.
Hemingway however, would not take no for an answer. He immediately started looking for other ways to get to the front. He soon decided his best bet to get in the thick of the action was to drive an ambulance for the American Red Cross. So, in 1918, at the age of eighteen, Hemingway and four friends signed up and made their way to New York City to await passage to war-torn Europe. Hemingway was ecstatic to be starting his first grand adventure and was equally excited that the Red Cross put him and his friends up in a hotel near 5th Avenue, with all meals paid for.
Soon after arrival in New York Hemingway wrote his family and recounted his exploits in the city. His writing reveals his boyish, idealist attitude towards the war — he brags, in detail, about every piece of equipment he has received from the Army and Red Cross. He is also overjoyed that the War Department has recently decided that the men in his outfit will be considered officers and get to wear regular U.S. Army officers uniforms, which, according to Hemingway, look like a “million dollars.”³ He would subsequently write to a friend about how he paraded around the city in his new uniform and received 367 salutes when he “stalked down Broadway.”⁴
It also appears that Hemingway’s romantic spirit got the better of him as he waited for his ship. He wrote to his family “I’ve always planned to get married if I could ever get to be an officer, you know.”⁵ Five days later, in a letter to his friend Dale Wilson, Hemingway claimed he was engaged to Mae Marsh, the famous actress from the infamous silent film The Birth of a Nation.⁶
Hemingway sees action
By 21 May, Hemingway was aboard the S.S. Chicago of the Compagnie Général Transatlantique steaming his way through U-boat infested waters, and towards war. While aboard, Hemingway placed a sign on the door of his stateroom that read “Chambre de Chance,” and much gambling was done in the ten days it took to reach Bordeaux.⁷ While en route, Hemingway had an awful time during a two-day storm. He claimed the ship was the “rottenest tub in the world,” and that the rolling and pitching was causing a chain reaction of vomiting during meal times.⁸ Always the dramatist, Hemingway writes his family to tell them that he is “…entering the widely known submarine zone,” strongly hinting this might be his last letter.⁹
Upon debarkation, Hemingway and his comrades caught the train to Paris; they arrived as the city was under German bombardment. After a brief stay in the French capital, Hemingway was shipped off to Italy.¹⁰
In Italy, Hemingway soon became extremely bored. Upon arrival, he had the opportunity to see some action at a munitions plant explosion, but for weeks after his unit had nothing to do but swim in a local river. Itching to see war up close, Hemingway schemed to get himself assigned to the Piave front, which was much more lively than his sector. He quickly befriended the commander of the area and was soon assigned the task of passing out cigarettes and chocolate in the trenches. After about a week of this activity, on July 9, 1918, a mortar round exploded extremely close to Hemingway. The explosion instantly killed one man, took the legs of another, seriously wounded a third, and sent flying shards of shrapnel into Ernest Hemingway’s legs. In an act of immense courage, Hemingway picked up the third man, and, under Austro-Hungarian fire, proceeded to carry him back to an aid station. While in the process of carrying this Italian soldier to safety, Hemingway was hit twice in the legs by machine gun fire.¹¹
The two bullets tore into Hemingway’s knee and foot and knocked him to the ground, but he heroically got up and finished carrying the soldier to safety.¹² Hemingway then fainted from exhaustion and his comrades thought him dead.¹³ For his valor, Italy gave Hemingway its second-highest decoration, the medaglia d’argento al valore militare.¹⁴
In love in Milan
It appears that Hemingway was in fact wounded rather seriously. The mortar burst left twenty fragments in his legs, on top of the two lodged bullets.¹⁵ Hemingway however, was in good spirits and was eager to use his experience to gain some celebrity.
Leicester Hemingway, our subject’s brother, claims that “Ernest enjoyed the situation enormously,” and that his “…letters home became classics on how to write comical private material for publication.”¹⁶ Oak Leaves did indeed run one of the letters he sent home. The letter was full of dramatic paragraphs such as the following:
“Shells aren’t bad except direct hits; you just take chances on the fragments and bursts. But when there is a direct hit your pals get spattered all over you; spattered is literal.”¹⁷
“Well I can now hold up my hand and say that I’ve been shelled by high explosives, shrapnel and gas; shot at by trench mortars, snipers, and machine guns, and, as an added attraction, an aeroplane machine gunning the line. I’ve never had a hand grenade throw at me, but a rifle grenade stuck rather close. Maybe I’ll get a hand grenade later.”¹⁸
“My wounds are now hurting like 227 little devils driving nails into the raw. The dressing station had been evacuated during the attack, so I lay for two hours in a stable with its roof shot off, waiting for an ambulance. When it came I ordered it down the road to get the soldiers that had been wounded first. It came back with a load and then they lifted me in.”¹⁹
It seems clear that Hemingway wrote this letter for an audience, and with the intent of expanding his notoriety. He was always careful to portray himself in the best light possible. In one instance he writes that when shot while carrying the soldier he was “advancing towards the rear,” instead of retreating, which was in fact what he was doing.²⁰ However, it seems his flair for the dramatic paid off, by October 23 the Chicago Evening Post had picked up the story, which it ran in a full column.²¹
What Hemingway did not include in this letter was the fact that he had fallen desperately in love for the first time in his life. After being evacuated from the front, Hemingway eventually ended up at the American Hospital in Milan. He soon found himself in the care of Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse from his homeland who had graduated from Bellevue Hospital. Henry Serrano Villard, who occupied the hospital bed next to Hemingway, claimed that Agnes “…scintillated among the nurses. She had a sparkle the others didn’t possess. Fresh and pert and lovely in her long-skirted white uniform, moving lithely as she went about her tasks, wasting no time yet never seeming to hurry, she radiated zest and energy.”²² Clearly, Hemingway was not the only patient to fall for Agnes.
It appears, from studying the diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, and the letters she sent to Hemingway, that their romance blossomed in September and October of 1918. However, it seems Ernest had to coax the older woman into the relationship, as she wrote in her diary on August 26:
“Ernest Hemingway is getting earnest. He was talking last night of what might be if he was 26–28. In some ways — at some times — I wish very much that he was. He is adorable & we are very congenial in every way. I’m getting so confused in my heart & mind I don’t know how I’ll end up. Still, I came over here for work and until the war is over I won’t be able to do anything foolish, which is lucky for me. I used to pride myself on my sense. I wonder if I’m getting foolish or if I can blame the romantic country for it’s [sic] effect on me.”²³
It was not a good sign for Ernest that Agnes began their relationship with such hesitations about his age (he was 8 years her junior). However, by September, 25, Agnes was writing letters to Hemingway calling him “Boy O.M. [of mine], and claiming that she missed him “…most awfully” (he was on a recess from the hospital). Ironically, Agnes signs this letter “Yours till the War Ends.”²⁴ This would turn out to be not far from the truth.
Agnes and Hemingway, it would seem, had a classic wartime romance; the brave wounded soldier, nursed back to health by the youthful and beautiful night nurse. The relationship was, to most, a secret (nurses could not have relationships with patients), and was full of intrigue. However, it seems that Mac, another nurse, began suspecting an affair when she discovered one of Kurowsky’s hairpins under Hemingway’s pillow.²⁵
Over the seven months of their relationship Agnes and Ernest confided in each other, shared long walks in the Tuscan countryside, and reveled in the few moments they could be alone. But most biographers (and even witnesses) assert that Hemingway was more in love with Agnes than she was with him, and this biographer, after reading their correspondence, believes that was the case as well.
However, it cannot be said that Hemingway is completely at fault for his eventual heartbreak. Kurowsky’s letters are full of love and affection:
“Kid, I miss you more & more, & it makes me shiver to think of your going home without me. What if our hearts should change? Both, I mean, & we should lose this beautiful world of us?”²⁶
What’s more is Agnes even hints towards marriage with lines such as “…just remember, I’m looking to you for my future life.”²⁷
By the spring of 1919, Hemingway had returned to the US and was so infatuated with Agnes that he proposed. Agnes hesitated and said she would write him in the approaching weeks.²⁸ The letter he would get in reply would devastate him.
March 7, 1919
Ernie, dear boy,
I am writing this late at night after a long think by myself, & I am afraid it is going to hurt you, but, I’m sure it won’t harm you permanently.
For quite awhile before you left, I was trying to convince myself it was a real love-affair, because, we always seemed to disagree, & then arguments always wore me out so that I finally gave in to keep you from doing something desperate.
Now, after a couple of months away from you, I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart. It’s alright to say I’m a Kid, but, I’m not, & I’m getting less & less so every day.
So, Kid (still Kid to me, & always will be) can you forgive me some day for unwittingly deceiving you? You know I’m not really bad, & don’t mean to do wrong, & now I realize it was my fault in the beginning that you cared for me, & regret it from the bottom of my heart. But, I am now & always will be too old, & that’s the truth, & I can’t get away from the fact that you’re just a boy — a kid.
I somehow feel that some day I’ll have reason to be proud of you, but, dear boy, I can’t wait for that day, & it was wrong to hurry a career.
I tried hard to make you understand a bit of what I was thinking on that trip from Padua to Milan, but, you acted like a spoiled child, & I couldn’t keep on hurting you. Now, I only have the courage because I’m far away.
Then — & believe me when I say this is sudden for me, too — I expect to be married soon. And I hope & pray that after you thought things out, you’ll be able to forgive me & start a wonderful career & show what a man you really are.
Ever admiringly & fondly,
This letter had a terrible effect on Hemingway; an effect so severe that some biographers claim it affected his romantic relationships for the rest of his life. The letter, in effect, delivers five extremely damaging messages: 1) This was not a real love affair, 2) I feel like I am your mother, not your lover, 3) I am too old for you, you are a boy, just a kid, 4) I’m not proud of you, and cannot wait around for the day that I will be, and 5) I’ve found a real man to marry.
Remember that in Milan Hemingway had literally been bed-ridden for months, and Agnes had become his world. He was a young kid, wounded in a foreign war with no family around and she had loved him and brought him back to life. Now, he wasn’t good enough for her, and she was marrying someone else. Hemingway then, according to his brother, tried to “…burn out the memory of her with booze,” and entered a rather self-destructive pattern for a time.³⁰
‘A Farewell to Arms’ (spoiler alert!)
Hemingway’s time in Italy, and his love affair with Agnes Von Kurowsky, would be one of the most important experiences of his life. It would mature him, disillusion him, and perhaps even set his life down its ultimately tragic course. It would also inspire one of his greatest works, A Farewell to Arms. The similarities between the above factual account of Hemingway’s time in Europe and the book itself are undeniable. The novel follows the story of Frederic Henry, an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI. This driver is wounded on the front and eventually winds up in a hospital where he begins an affair with a nurse’s aide, Catherine Barkley, who becomes pregnant. The two spend months together, enjoy an extremely romantic clandestine relationship, and eventually elope together when Henry deserts the army after the front collapses.
The two then hide from the army in a mountain resort where they wait for Catherine to give birth. Catherine has an extremely difficult childbirth which results in her death. Obviously, this ending is different from Hemingway’s reality, but it is important to note that Henry and Catherine, like Ernest and Agnes, do not end up together.
This novel proved to be one of the greatest of the century and it solidified Hemingway’s reputation as one of America’s great writers. Thus, although Agnes broke Hemingway’s heart, the experiences she gave him ultimately became a deciding factor in making his career.
Have you taken any time lately to think about life’s fundamental questions? Where does humanity come from? Do our lives matter? How can we feel whole? How can we feel complete? Check out Your Life Matters, to read more.
- Hemingway, Leicester. My Brother, Ernest Hemingway. 1st ed. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1961. 44.
- Hemingway, Ernest. Letter to his family. New York, New York. 14 May 1918. From Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters, 1917–1961. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981. All subsequent cited letters sent by Hemingway in this biography, unless otherwise noted, are taken from this source. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.182139/2015.182139.Ernest-Hemingway-Selected-Letters_djvu.txt
- Hemingway, Ernest. Letter to Dale Wilson. New York, New York. 19  May 1918. From Selected Letters.
- Hemingway, Ernest. Letter to his family. New York, New York. 14 May 1918. From Selected Letters.
- Hemingway, Ernest. Letter to Dale Wilson. New York, New York. 19  May 1918. From Selected Letters.
- Hemingway, L., My Brother, 46.
- Hemingway, Ernest. Letter to His Family. At Sea. 27 May 1918. From Selected Letters. 9–10.
- Hemingway, L., My Brother, 46.
- Hemingway, L., My Brother, 47.
- Hemingway, Ernest. Letter to His Family. Milan, Italy. 21 July 1918. From Selected Letters.
- Hemingway, L., My Brother, 47–48.
- “Hemingway’s Prize-Winning Works Reflected Preoccupation With Life and Death.” New York Times. 3 July 1961. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/04/specials/hemingway-obit2.html.
- Hemingway, L., My Brother, 47–50.
- Villard, Henry S., and James Nagel. Hemingway in Love and War: The lost diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, her letters, and correspondence of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989. 28.
- Kurowsky, Agnes. “Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky,” 26 August 1918. Diary published in Villard and Nagel. 72–73.
- Kurowsky, Agnes. Letter to Ernest Hemingway. Milan, Italy. 25 September 1918. From Villard and Nagel. 92–93.
- Kurowsky, Agnes. Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, 7 September 1918. Diary published in Villard and Nagel. 77.
- Kurowsky, Agnes. Letter to Ernest Hemingway. Italy. 20 December 1918. FromVillard and Nagel. 145.
- Kurowsky, Agnes. Letter to Ernest Hemingway. Milan, Italy. 1 January 1919. From Villard and Nagel. 148–149.
- Hemingway, L., My Brother, 52.
- Kurowsky, Agnes. Letter to Ernest Hemingway. Italy. March 7, 1919. From Villard and Nagel. 163.
- Hemingway, L., My Brother, 52.