Thanks to an invitation from Adriano Ossola and his annual event, éStoria, I was finally able to visit Gorizia and Caporetto and many of the other towns that are featured so prominently in my grandfather’s novel “A Farewell To Arms”. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and Ernest Hemingway and his brilliant, anti-militarist, portrait of the Italian defeat at Caporetto have not been forgotten.
As anyone who has read his book knows the young protagonist Frederic Henry gives a very detailed description of Gorizia and of the Austrian front and most people assumed when it was first published that like “The Sun Also Rises” here was yet another autobiographical novel from the young American author. But Ernest never visited Gorizia or Caporetto, nor did he ever set foot in the town of Plava where Frederic Henry is wounded in the knee from a bomb blast. Nor did my grandfather stagger away from that blast with a bleeding Italian soldier over his shoulder, at least not on that front. He was wounded near Fossalta di Piave almost a year after the battle of Caporetto.
Still, even today there are many people who are convinced that Hemingway was there. In Gorizia a volunteer at the event told me that he had proof that Ernest had been in town and that there was a photograph of him standing next to his ambulance with a group of friends. “Era qui! Proprio qui!” He said excitedly, “right here”, forgetting as many admirers of my grandfather often do that Ernest was as good a journalist as he was a writer. He researched his books extensively and in this case he interviewed people who had fought in the battle of Caporetto and he read whatever accounts of it he could find.
The battle represented a turning point for the Italian army, its nadir, which would then be followed by a renaissance in terms of tactics, leaders and general good fortune. Over a hundred thousand soldiers would be killed or wounded on both sides. The destruction was immense, with whole towns and forests pounded to the ground by non-stop shelling, the dead bodies of men and animals littering the roadsides and mountains and the river Isonzo. To go there today it’s hard to imagine the kind of insanity that had gripped this part of Europe for so many months. The trees have grown back, the towns have been rebuilt, the Isonzo is as clean as it ever was with its emerald blue waters that are the delight of fly-fishermen the world over, myself included. But traces of the war remain. In the woods and by the riverside you can still find pieces of shrapnel and bullets and occasionally, if you have to dig, the odd unexploded shell.
Fishing on the Isonzo
On the morning that I went fishing it was a beautiful day with a few clouds that were covering the highest peaks in a white mist. The water was ice cold with the snow-melt from the mountains and as I cast my line out into the stream I thought of the scene from my grandfather’s novel where the Carabinieri (the military police) are interrogating and summarily executing all the ufficiali or officers who had somehow lost their units, whether it was through desertion or just the chaos of battle, it didn’t matter to them. Frederic Henry hearing the gunshots understands that if he doesn’t move he’ll die and he runs as fast as he can towards the river, diving in and staying under water for as long as he can hold his breath to avoid the bullets above him. This is not his war he tells himself and all the things they say to get you to join up about honor and bravery, king and country are obscenities.
He had made his separate peace.
John Hemingway Copyright 2014