On this day in 1918, Ernest Hemingway, an 18-year-old ambulance driver for the American Red Cross, is struck by a mortar shell while serving on the Italian front, along the Piave delta, in World War I.
A native of Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway was working as a reporter for the Kansas City Star when war broke out in Europe in 1914. He volunteered for the Red Cross in France before the American entrance into the war in April 1917 and was later transferred to the Italian front, where he was on hand for a string of Italian successes along the Piave delta in the first days of July 1918, during which 3,000 Austrians were taken prisoner.
On the night of July 8, 1918, Hemingway was struck by an Austrian mortar shell while handing out chocolate to Italian soldiers in a dugout. The blow knocked him unconscious and buried him in the earth of the dugout; fragments of shell entered his right foot and his knee and struck his thighs, scalp and hand. Two Italian soldiers standing between Hemingway and the shell’s point of impact were not so lucky, however: one was killed instantly and another had both his legs blown off and died soon afterwards. Hemingway’s friend Ted Brumbach, who visited him in the hospital, wrote to Hemingway’s parents that: A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dugout. He says he did not remember how he got there, nor that he carried the man, until the next day, when an Italian officer told him all about it and said that it had been voted to give him a valor medal for the act. As Brumbach reported, Hemingway was awarded an Italian medal of valor, the Croce de Guerra, for his service. As he wrote in his own letter home after the incident: Everything is fine and I am very comfortable and one of the best surgeons in Milan is looking after my wounds.
Hemingway’s experiences in Italy during World War I would become an integral part of his larger-than-life persona, as well as the material for one of his best-loved novels, A Farewell to Arms, which chronicles the love of a young American ambulance driver for a beautiful English nurse on the Italian front during the Great War.