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Hemingway and Fiat: Saving Lives during World War I

Hemingway and Fiat: Saving Lives during World War I

Thursday, 15 de March de 2018

At age 18, the future writer was a driver for the Red Cross in Italy. His companion was an ambulance Fiat 15 ter

At the age of 18, a young American who had been discharged from his country’s military due to vision problems insisted and volunteered to drive United States Red Cross ambulances on Italian soil during World War I. The young man was the future writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ernest Hemingway, and the ambulances he drove were manufactured by Fiat.

“I had been driving and I sat in the car and the driver took the papers in. It was a hot day and the sky was very bright and blue and the road was white and dusty. I sat in the high seat of the Fiat and thought about nothing”. The passage was written by Hemingway himself in the introduction of one of his most famous books: A Farewell to Arms (1929). It is a novel that has as its central theme the experience of a young ambulance driver on Italian soil during the First World War. Sounds familiar? The character’s name is Frederic Henry and the story is fiction, but the inspiration is undoubtedly the author’s own life experience. Both he and his character were, for example, wounded in combat, taken to a hospital in Milan and fell in love with a nurse. The real nurse, the American Agnes von Kurowsky, refused Hemingway’s request for marriage. Henry’s love, however, is reciprocated by the fictitious Englishwoman, Catherine Barkley, yielding one of the most acclaimed romantic scenes in world literature.

The Fiat ambulances driven by Hemingway were like those in the photos, built on the chassis of the “Fiat 15 ter”. These ambulances also served as X-ray stations when needed. Hemingway described them with enthusiasm. For example, in his posthumous book, Paris is a Moveable Feast, Hemingway says that the previous ambulances suffered on the mountainous roads and their brakes frequently collapsed until they were replaced by Fiat models, which had better brakes and gears. “I remember how they [the former ambulances] used to lose their brakes as they came down the mountainside, crowded with the wounded, braking down and finally using the reverse gear, and how the last ones were driven empty down the mountain so they could be replaced by large Fiat models with a good H-shift and metal brakes”, wrote Hemingway in the book. The modern Italian ambulances are still produced by Fiat.

The Red Cross ambulance drivers, although they did not command troops, were officers, receiving the title of second lieutenant. According to American literature professor Alex Vernon of Hendrix College, United States, in an article published in the book “Ernest Hemingway in Context” published by the University of Cambridge, UK, Hemingway was sent to Italy because of the decision of the American Red Cross to collaborate with the country’s overburdened medical efforts until American troops, who were still mobilizing, arrived in European territory (the Americans only fought at the end of the war). The decision was also “proof of the [American] commitment to encourage the Italians to resist”, says Vernon.

“Lieutenant Hemingway arrived in Paris the first week of June 1918, when the Germans began bombing the city with their long-range Big Bertha artillery. During his first day in Milan, he was sent to help the wounded and collect the dead from an exploded ammunition factory. The horrible scene was especially shocking to the young man, because the dead were women, as he tells us in “Natural History of the Dead”, according to Vernon, who also clarifies the episode in which Hemingway was injured. Vernon explains that, after driving the ambulances, “Hemingway volunteered for a temporary assignment in the field kitchen service at Fossalta di Piave, a modest and war-torn village on the river near the action taking place above in the mountains.” He supplied troops with food, hot coffee, chocolate, cigarettes and other provisions. “Because of the location near the Front and the roads (often at intersections), these operations were quite dangerous.” The first Americans killed in Italy were such station operators in Piave”, explains Vernon. Hemingway was injured by an Austrian shrapnel mortar that exploded at his side, killing one Italian soldier and wounding another. Even with 227 fragments of shrapnel in his legs, Hemingway was able to carry the injured colleague until he was hit in the right knee from a machine-gun shot. He still managed to crawl and drag his colleague for about 100 yards before fainting. He was later rescued and taken to the hospital in Milan, where he underwent surgery and remained in recovery. It was there that he met and fell in love with the nurse. Because of his bravery, Hemingway was the first American to receive the respective Italian silver medal.

The Nobel Prize for Literature was for The Old Man and the Sea (1952), but Farewell to Arms is considered one of his masterpieces, along with For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Hemingway also wrote short stories and articles. For a writer, he had a rather hectic life. After the experience in Italy, he was a war correspondent, suffering at least three accidents (one in a car as he arrived in London to cover the Second War, and two in a plane, on the same day, which surprisingly did not kill him but left him with three fractures and wounds in his kidney and liver), had books burned by Nazis and even had an asteroid named after him. He suffered from alcoholism and it is said that no one could drink like him. He would drink a bottle of whiskey and not seem to be affected. The writer, who today has a society of look-alikes, took his own life, at the age of 61, with a gun.

 

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