Commentary November 21, 2017
“Caporetto” by François Flameng, 1917
© Fototeca Gilardi/akg-images

A farewell to glory


Just over a hundred years ago, Austrian and German forces massed secretly in the Alps. Using immense firepower and new tactics of infiltration, they attacked the badly led and poorly equipped Italians in the mountains north of Trieste. A breakthrough near the little town of Caporetto (now Kobarid) shattered the Italian lines; from this point, the Second Army – Italy’s biggest, with some 670,000 men – disintegrated in centrifugal waves. The flanking armies had to withdraw or be trapped. Britain and France rushed divisions to bolster their failing ally, who stabilized a new line some 90 miles west – almost at Venice. Half of Italy’s battalions were lost or disbanded; half the artillery was gone. Churchill called it “this astounding disaster”.

Despite Italy’s victory twelve months later, Caporetto still casts a shadow over the national psyche. John Buchan found a vivid phrase: “For three days – from 28 October to 30 October – a curtain of darkness seemed to descend on the Italian stage”. Something about the collapse remains inexplicable. The precise sequence, when defeat tipped into rout, cannot be fully reconstructed; causes may be inferred, not quite deduced. The story has been told a hundred ways, by veterans and scholars, but in English only one telling counts: that in A Farewell to Arms (1929).

Criticism of Ernest Hemingway’s novel came of age in 1976, when Michael S. Reynolds in Hemingway’s First War: The making of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ confirmed its meticulous accuracy. Hemingway never mentioned sources, but Reynolds identified them, including two British witnesses of the Caporetto disaster. The historian G. M. Trevelyan led the First British Red Cross Unit in Italy; Scenes from Italy’s War appeared in March 1919. Hugh Dalton was a junior officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery who served in Italy before and after Caporetto; With British Guns in Italy, published in May 1919, furnished details that are not in Trevelyan, helping Hemingway to visualize a front that he never saw. The zig-zag roads, the red fez worn by bersaglieri soldiers, the observation balloons above the front, the play of summer lightning, and the flash of exploding shells: all these found their places in A Farewell to Arms.

Later scholars have accepted Reynolds’s case. Robert W. Lewis (in his essay “Hemingway in Italy: Making it up”, 1982) agreed that Trevelyan was Hemingway’s “main secondary source”, offering “parallels” not found elsewhere. One of these involves Hemingway’s unforgettable first paragraphs:

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. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.

Here is Lewis’s “parallel” from Trevelyan: “the clear blue stream rushes out into the little plain, girt by fruit-bearing hills”. Well, perhaps.

The main influence on that first page has always been thought to be a newspaper article from 1922 by Hemingway himself, about revisiting the places where he had lived as an ambulance driver in 1918. His description of Schio features mountains and plains, white dust, and a battalion marching past until it becomes “just a cloud way up the road”. But a case seems not to have been made for Dalton’s book as a source that helped to shape both the first chapter and the other most discussed passage in A Farewell to Arms. Dalton was passionately committed to Italy. Along with many of his generation, he was inspired by the vision that Trevelyan the historian did so much to foster, of united Italy as a beacon of youthful liberty against the dynastic empires of Europe. In his unpublished diary, Dalton named Trevelyan and George Meredith as “the two Englishmen” whose writing had “made” modern Italy.

Yet Dalton – the future Labour politician, prominent anti-fascist, and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1945–7) – was also a democrat and a rationalist, dedicated to the eradication of war: a lofty goal that was not much shared by his hosts. For Italian politics and culture were saturated with violent militarism. The incongruity of Dalton’s loyalties created a tension that surfaces at one remarkable moment in his book. It is mid-July 1917, and Dalton is out of the line, driving “from Palmanova to Gradisca on a motor lorry”:

What a country! The white houses, the white roads, the masses of fresh green foliage, chiefly acacias, the tall dark cypresses, the cool blue water of the Isonzo, the blue-grey mountains in the distance, and on their summits the sunshine on the snow, which is hardly distinguishable from the low-lying cloud banks in an otherwise cloudless sky.

Italian troops, dusty columns marching along the road, throw up at me an occasional greeting as the lorry goes by. Long lines of transport pass continually. “Sempre Avanti Savoia!” “Sempre Avanti Italia!” I find my eyes wet with tears, for the beauty and the glory and the insidious danger of that intoxicating war-cry; for the blindness and the wickedness and the selfish greed that lurk behind it, exploiting the generous emotions of the young and brave; for the irony and bitter fatuity of any war-cry in a world that should be purged of war.

More components of Hemingway’s panorama are here than in his article of 1922, let alone Trevelyan. Yet Dalton provides more than physical detail, and a fervid commitment that could help to forge the affectless detachment of Hemingway’s narrator, Frederic Henry. His sense of beauty and glory, stirred by the soldiers’ cries, sparks a contrasting emotion: outrage at the manipulative power of appeals to patriotism. Liberty is a noble aspiration, which creates leverage for unscrupulous leaders. The marching men are heroes and victims, both Italian champions and universal cannon fodder.

This foreshadows the much-anthologized passage in Hemingway’s novel in which Henry reflects on “abstract words”:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. 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 . . . . I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago . . . . There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity . . . . 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.

The personal roots of this embarrassment would include Hemingway’s regret at having lied about his feats in war to American audi­ences. The story “Soldier’s Home” (1925) tells of a veteran who finds that a “distaste for everything that had happened in the war set in because of the lies he had told”. The narrator of “In Another Country” (1926), recovering from a wound in Italy, is ambivalent about his medal: “we all knew that being wounded, after all, was really an accident”. He is uneasy about the citation, “in very beautiful language and full of fratellanza and abnegazione”’. Hemingway’s own citation contains these words. Then there was his disillusion with post-war Italy, aired in journalism and stories; Henry’s reaction to “abstract words” reflected Hemingway’s aversion to Fascist rhetoric. And there was the disaffection that, by 1929, was a settled attitude in literary circles. A sardonic or tragic rejection of idealism about the Great War marked the work that appeared in 1928 and 1929, from Robert Graves’s memoir to novels by Richard Aldington, Frederic Manning and Erich Maria Remarque, to R. C. Sherriff’s play. Projected back to 1917, Henry’s response to “glory, honor, courage”, “sacred, glorious, and sacrifice” looked prescient. In 1919, after all, Trevelyan apostrophized a mountain as “the smoking altar of sacrifice”, and described Italy’s victory as “the barbarian fleeing from the soil sacred through the centuries to the Latin race”.

But this response was not prescient in relation to Dalton. Uniquely among Hemingway’s sources, he had warned from the front against the “insidious danger” of patriotic “glory”. Late in life, Dalton belittled his first book. He was unfair, for it showed rare independence of mind – a quality he showed again when he laid the budgetary foundations of social democracy, as Clement Attlee’s Chancellor.