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The Accidental Hero: Ernest Hemingway and Slovenia

From Brick 95

Brick 95

“It’s a silly front,” she said. “But it’s very beautiful. Are they going to have an offensive?”


“Then we’ll have to go work. There’s no work now.”

“Have you done nursing long?”

“Since the end of ’fifteen. I started when he did. I remember having a silly idea he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head. Or shot through the shoulder. Something picturesque.”

“This is the picturesque front.”

—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

When I was a girlish young American reader, I was indifferent to geography and social context to an extent that perhaps only young Americans can be. I devoured books, even the great novels, more for story—or, let’s be frank about it, for romance—than for narrative style or literary and historical significance. I read D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers with hardly a thought to the transformations wrought on Great Britain by the Industrial Revolution, interested only in whether Paul Morel could shake off the influence of his mother and find true love for himself. I ploughed through the thousand pages of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, caring little about the Battle of Borodino or the fall of Moscow to Napoleon’s relentless army, riveted solely by the destiny of the star-crossed lovers Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostova. Likewise, I had no clue what “silly” or “picturesque” front Catherine, the nurse and love interest in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, referred to or what was strategically at stake for the European powers engaged in the First World War. I viewed the various military manoeuvres and retreats as the necessary framework that allowed for passages such as the following:

I loved to take her hair down and she sat on the bed and kept very still, except suddenly she would dip down to kiss me while I was doing it, and I would take out the pins and lay them on the sheet and it would be loose and I would watch her while she kept very still and then take out the last two pins and it would all come down and she would drop her head and we would both be inside of it, and it was the feeling of inside a tent or behind a falls.

As it turns out, the front in question was the Isonzo Front, located in the Soča River valley in what is today the country of Slovenia, the place to which I moved in 1993. (The region is officially bilingual, but I will use mostly the Italian place names because that is how they appear in A Farewell to Arms.) Slovenia was, and still is, a very small and young country. With a population of two million, it became an independent nation-state for the first time in 1991. During the centuries before that, its people and territory found shelter or abuse in a series of European imperial and federal configurations, and so, unlike my adolescent self, Slovenians are keenly sensitive to geography. They know their nation’s borders, both current and past, down to the millimeter, and remember well their privileges and limitations under their territory’s many historical governmental arrangements.

In contrast to the characters in War and Peace, Slovenians recall with a certain sentimental fondness the brief spell occupied by Napoleon’s forces, because that was the first time the Slovenian language was allowed in schools. (The Austrian Habsburgs who governed Slovenian lands for the centuries before and after were staunchly Germano-centric in approach). They view their membership in various versions of Yugoslavia with a combination of nostalgia and shame, resentment and pride. But of all their many governors and occupiers, co-administrators and encroaching neighbours, Slovenians hold Italy in the greatest contempt—a fact that sometimes surprises Western visitors, who tend to view Italy, despite its imprudent alliances and often clownish leadership, in a relatively benign light as the home of Leonardo da Vinci, the espresso machine, and an endless supply of stunning tourist attractions.

In June 1918, Ernest Hemingway, not quite nineteen years old, travelled to the northern part of Italy. His goal was not tourism but adventure—there was a war on, after all. Nevertheless, more than one of his biographers, among them Kenneth S. Lynn, suggest that for all his manly hubris, the young Hemingway yearned to be close, but not too close, to the action. By then the gruesome nature of trench warfare was well known, and Hemingway wanted to be a war writer, not a casualty of war. He would later claim that he had not been accepted into the United States military because of poor eyesight, but according to Lynn, there is no record of him ever having tried to enlist. Instead, he joined up as a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Red Cross, a much less dangerous job than that of an ordinary soldier, and was first stationed in the quiet wool-manufacturing town of Schio. Before long, his commanders transferred him to the Piave River valley, where his assignment was to deliver—by bicycle— cigarettes, chocolate, and other sundries to off-duty soldiers behind front lines.

On July 8, a trench mortar struck a dugout where Hemingway was sheltering, injuring him in both legs and killing or grievously wounding several Italian soldiers. From this incident flowed a murky stream of fact and fiction, contradiction and truth, and in the end a sort of accidental heroism. Above all, the event and its aftermath served as the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms.

Some years after I moved to Slovenia and became familiar with its geography and history, I reread A Farewell to Arms. During this second reading, I did not swoon and sigh during the love scenes. At long last, I had stumbled upon my geographical slant, my specific place in the world. From this new perspective, I found myself perched high up in the Julian Alps in the narrow crevasse just below the Vršič Pass, where the ice-cold, crystal-clear, pale blue Isonzo River—the Soča as it is called in the Slovenian language—gushes forth from its limestone source.

From this heavenly aerie, the river slices a pathway through a spectacular mountain gorge, cascading from the Upper Trenta Valley down through the sports vacation town of Bovec, dramatically widening just north of Gorizia—a city divided by the present-day Italian–Slovenian border—and emptying itself into the Adriatic Sea below the Italian town of Monfalcone. This itinerary provides the general location for the action in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and if an equivalent in nature exists for resting ecstatically within the tent of a woman’s long hair, then standing in the Soča valley, a silken waterfall between sky and earth, may well be it.

In this perverse world of ours, however, human beings have proved all too adept at transforming ecstasy into agony, heaven into hell. In later strategic analyses, the Isonzo Front would be dismissed as geographically insignificant to the outcome of the war, but it was precisely geography that tempted the combatants into the madness of engaging in trench warfare at an incline of forty-five degrees in the first place. Italy, a member of the Triple Alliance formed with Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1882, entered the war late, in 1915. The British and French lured Italy to break with its allies with the secret promise that, in the event of an Austro-Hungarian defeat, the lands adjacent to Italy that had previously been controlled by the Habsburgs (parts of present-day Slovenia and Croatia: a swath of land long coveted by Italian irredentists) would be ceded to Italy. All the Italian forces needed to do was capture the lower Isonzo River above Gorizia where a narrow corridor known as the Ljubljana Gate opened between Italy and Central Europe. Once that was accomplished, it would be “a stroll to Vienna,” as Italian General Luigi Cadorna blithely put it.

Between 1915 and 1917, more than half a million soldiers met violent deaths on the Isonzo Front; many more perished from disease, hunger, freezing temperatures, and avalanches; hundreds of thousands were taken prisoner; and tens of thousands had the good luck of being merely mutilated for life. It was into this living hell that the young Ernest Hemingway pedalled his bicycle. His fictional counterpart, Frederic Henry—or “Tenente,” as the Italian soldiers affectionately called him—begins his narrative near Gorizia, positioned at the bottom of the Isonzo River valley, gazing up toward the peaks where the Austrians are dug into their defensive forts and crouched in their machine-gun nests; in other words, gazing up toward me perched at the top of the valley, at the source of the pale blue waters. What an odd state of affairs: Ernest Hemingway and I have become enemies.

Fortunately for readers of twentieth-century literature, the injuries sustained by the teenage Hemingway on July 8, 1918, were neither of the mortal nor mutilated-for-life sort. Still, they were serious enough. Both legs were riddled with shrapnel—he reported to his mother that more than two hundred pieces were removed—but none of the fragments were above the hip, none shattered bone, and none impeded his sexual or long-term ambulatory functions. He was able to walk again in two weeks. Hemingway, like Tenente in the novel, was transferred to Milan for treatment, where he embarked on a romantic relationship with one of the nurses who tended him.

Like Tenente, Hemingway received a medal for his bravery (the Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare), but unlike his fictional counterpart, the young writer would go on to boast about the incident, wildly exaggerating his heroism. (As a rule, the Italians handed out medals to any foreigner who was killed or wounded while fighting on their side.) To his family and friends and reporters back home, Hemingway would claim that after being wounded, he hoisted a gravely injured Italian soldier onto his back and carried him more than a hundred and fifty metres to the first-aid dugout. Spurning the terse realism that would later become the stylistic hallmark of his fiction, he further claimed that as he slogged across the battlefield, machine-gun fire strafed his knees, knocking him to the ground. Amazingly, he managed to rise again, still carrying the burden of an unconscious grown man across his broad shoulders.

The stoic Tenente was far more circumspect. In the novel, the following exchange takes place between Tenente and his friend Rinaldi, who comes to visit him in the hospital before he is taken into surgery:

“How are you, baby? How do you feel? I bring you this—” It was a bottle of cognac. The orderly bought a chair and he sat down, “and good news. You will be decorated. They want to get you the medaglia d’argento but perhaps they can get only the bronze.”

“What for?”

“Because you are gravely wounded. They say if you can prove you did anything heroic you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”

“No,’ I said. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

Travelling up through the Isonzo valley from the Italian position toward the Austrians, the next major settlement after Gorizia is Caporetto, or Kobarid as it is called in the Slovenian language. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway describes Caporetto as “a little white town with a campanile in a valley. It was a clean little town and there was a fine fountain in the square.” Today it functions mostly as a jumping-off point for the natural attractions in the region, such as a hike to the Kozjak waterfall, hang-gliding from Mount Stol, or swimming in the Nadiža River to the west. A century ago, the charming little town was the jumping-off point for one of the most comprehensive defeats in modern military history.

After his dalliance with his nurse, a convalescent Hemingway pocketed his medal and spent the fall and early winter months banging around Italy before being shipped home early in the new year. The fictional Tenente, on the other hand, returned to his duties behind the front lines and the main military set piece of A Farewell to Arms, the Italian retreat from Caporetto. The Italian forces were pushed all the way back past Udine, some fifty kilometres from Gorizia and the current Italian border, and sustained horrific casualties: ten thousand soldiers killed, thirty thousand wounded, and an astonishing two hundred and sixty-five thousand taken prisoner. The word caporetto now functions in both Italy and Slovenia as a metaphoric expression for a contest where the defeated party is so thoroughly outplayed, outmanoeuvred, and overpowered that it can do little more than dissolve into confusion and chaos. So, for example, when the American basketball team beat the Slovenian team 101 to 71 last August, Slovenian fans could only shake their heads and sigh, “Ah! Caporetto!”

Regardless of the outcomes of individual battles such as Caporetto, Germany and Austria-Hungary lost the wider war, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which encompassed much of pre-war Central Europe, was dismantled. The job fell to the victors to redraw the national borders and resolve countless territorial issues, not least the secret promise made to Italy when it joined the conflict on the side of France and England in 1915. To keep the promise flew in the face of the principle of self-determination articulated by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson in preparation for post-war negotiations at Versailles, but with a few concessions, it was kept all the same. One-third of Slovenia’s present-day territory and several hundred thousand Slovenians wound up expatriated by the deal. The new Italian border was established just outside of Postojna, at the top of the so-called Ljubljana Gate, practically on the outskirts of Slovenia’s capital city. And so the territory upon which the arrogant and foolhardy Luigi Cadorna set out on his suicidal stroll was won not militarily but at the negotiation table. For the next several decades, Mussolini and his thugs governed lands that the Italians had lost in the most humiliating fashion, holding dominion over the mothers and fathers of the boys killed or maimed securing that land on the battlefield—one of history’s many injustices, but one that Slovenians from the region have difficulty forgiving.

Hemingway does not mention Slovenia or Slovenians once in A Farewell to Arms. In the book, the Italians fight a monolithic and mostly unseen force referred to simply as “the Austrians.” Only at three specific points does the reader get a glimpse of the multi-ethnic nature of the opposing army. During the retreat from Caporetto, the Italian soldier Gino mentions that there are Croats and Magyars in the encroaching front line, and in a conversation about the morality of war and defeat, the priest comments that the Austrians, with the exception of Bosnian soldiers, are as Christian as the Italian side. Tenente and the retreating Italian soldiers often refer to Germans, usually with fear and awe, because it was with the aid of fresh German divisions and reinforcements, which included poison gas, that the Austrians were so successful at Caporetto.

More surprising still, it turns out that the young Hemingway never set foot anywhere near the lands that would one day comprise Slovenia—not in Gorizia, not in Caporetto, not in the Isonzo River valley—neither did the older Hemingway ever visit, despite the fame of the novel. The young Hemingway arrived in Italy in the summer of 1918, some nine months after the retreat from Caporetto. By the time he reported for duty, the Italian forces had already been pushed back from the Isonzo Front to Udine and the Piave River valley, which explains his initially unexciting assignment at Schio, more than two hundred kilometres west of Gorizia.

Casual Slovenian readers may be forgiven for recognizing the finite components—stones, water, trees, mountains—of their precious Soča valley in the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and assuming that its writer had actually been there.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. . . . To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river. There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain.

Countless others make the same mistake, conflating the figures of the fictional Tenente and the young Hemingway, believing that the two walked the same patch of earth. Certainly, the Kobarid Museum, which is dedicated to the war on the Isonzo Front and where a huge photograph of the author hangs in the entry hall, doesn’t mind perpetuating the false impression; nor do other touristic offerings in the Soča valley, such as the Hemingway House Bed & Breakfast. It is good for business, and in the internet age such misconceptions happily multiply. Yet even when the dates so clearly refute the possibility, many semi-scholarly accounts published in Slovenia refer to Hemingway actually fighting and being wounded on the Isonzo Front. And though a Slovenian book published in 2009 clarifies the misunderstanding, its title, In the Tracks of Ernest Hemingway (Po Sledeh Ernesta Hemingwaya, by Branko Drekonja and Aleksander Jankovič Potočnik), only serves to solidify the myth for the many who won’t bother to look inside its covers. In their introduction, the two authors explain that because Ernest Hemingway was never in Slovenia, they will instead follow in the footsteps of his fictional hero, Tenente.

And then there are those who know their history, know the geography and the dates of the battles, and some who also know of Hemingway’s exaggeration of the action he saw in the war and how he got wounded. These readers often make an equally egregious misjudgment. They believe that Hemingway, in placing Tenente in the thick of the battle and subsequent retreat from Caporetto, commits a sin similar to crowing to his mother about the two-hundred-plus pieces of shrapnel in his legs: that, when it comes to Ernest Hemingway, it is all machismo, braggadocio, and lies.

It may be fair game to censure Hemingway the man for lying when recounting his actual wartime experience, although then again it may not. He was a mere eighteen years old, playing at the burning-hot rim of the First World War, a conflagration that consumed so many of his generation before they had a chance to really grow up. But regardless of how you judge the man, it is entirely unreasonable to censure Hemingway the writer for placing his fictional characters wherever he liked. Indeed, we might instead admire the young and untried author for collecting the material he did and using it to such excellent purpose. In my view, Hemingway was a hero on the page because in the end it doesn’t matter that he is positioned, through Tenente’s perspective, at the bottom of the Isonzo River valley and I, and all other Slovenians, at the top. Hemingway offers a perspective on war that is not a strategic bird’s-eye view but the view from the mud, from the eye of the frightened soldier, the fleeing peasant, the millions of dead and wounded. All the action in A Farewell to Arms is seen from behind front lines, where it appears neither grand nor heroic but as a gruesome and pointless industry. A skirmish or offensive takes place. The ambulance drivers and medics and Red Cross volunteers wait at the margins, smoking cigarettes, talking about women, eating cheese. The mortars fall. The machine guns flare. The dead and wounded are toted back behind the lines, loaded into the ambulances, driven along the narrow mountain roads to a way station where corpses are slid into bags to be sent home or buried locally (though at Caporetto and the other battlefields of the First World War, countless dead were also left to rot where they fell), and the living are patched up and prepared for transfer to a proper hospital or, worse still, the dreaded return to the front. Likewise the retreat from Caporetto: ambulances and horse-drawn carts are stuck in the mire; soldiers and peasants slog through the wet autumn meadows, avoiding the bridges that are probably mined and the roads where they may be struck by enemy or, more likely, friendly fire; morale spent, deserters rampant.

In the case of Hemingway and Slovenia, the writer proves to be superior to the man. Hemingway, in his great anti-war novel, not only corrects his youthful lies but also tells the truth about the terrible banality of what happened not only to him but also to millions of others. His fictional creation, Tenente, shrugs off the medal he receives and the suggestion that he did anything to deserve it and, what’s more, rejects the very notion of heroism, believing that abstractions only serve to obscure the slaughterhouse that is war.

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice. . . .We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by the billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and 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 beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Thus it is perfectly suitable that the Kobarid Museum, which won a European award for best museum in 1993, adopted Hemingway as its mascot: the author famously espoused the same pacifistic and non-nationalistic views that the local organizers and founders do. It is also suitable that Slovenians themselves have adopted Ernest Hemingway as their own, despite the fact that he joined forces with their enemy and that he was never in Slovenia, may have never even known its name, nor the names of its villages. Because this young, brash American, who had no great notion of the painful complexities of European geography, nonetheless understood and paid tribute to what was important to the Slovenian people and the millions of Europeans who suffered the war that blighted this continent a century ago.

Trenta, Bovec, Kobarid, Gorica, Kanal, Tolmin.

These are the concrete names of the villages in the Soča valley.

Erica Johnson Debeljak’s memoir Forbidden Bread was published in 2009 by North Atlantic Books. Her new novel, The Bicycle Factory, will be released by the Modrijan Publishing House in 2015. She lives and works in Ljubljana with her husband and three children.

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