A Farewell to Arms / Ernest Hemingway / Ch-27


I woke when Rinaldi came in but he did not talk and I went back to sleep again. In the morning I was dressed and gone before it was light. Rinaldi did not wake when I left.

I had not seen the Bainsizza before and it was strange to go up the slope where the Austrians had been, beyond the place on the river where I had been wounded. There was a steep new road and many trucks. Beyond, the road flattened out and I saw woods and steep hills in the mist. There were woods that had been taken quickly and not smashed. Then beyond where the road was not protected by the hills it was screened by matting on the sides and over the top. The road ended in a wrecked village. The lines were up beyond. There was much artillery around. The houses were badly smashed but things were very well organized and there were signboards everywhere. We found Gino and he got us some coffee and later I went with him and met various people and saw the posts. Gino said the British cars were working further down the Bainsizza at Ravne. He had great admiration for the British. There was still a certain amount of shelling, he said, but not many wounded. There would be many sick now the rains had started. The Austrians were supposed to attack but he did not believe it. We were supposed to attack too, but they had not brought up any new troops so he thought that was off too. Food was scarce and he would be glad to get a full meal in Gorizia. What kind of supper had I had? I told him and he said that would be wonderful. He was especially impressed by the dolce. I did not describe it in detail, only said it was a dolce, and I think he believed it was something more elaborate than bread pudding.

Did I know where he was going to go? I said I didn’t but that some of the other cars were at Caporetto. He hoped he would go up that way. It was a nice little place and he liked the high mountain hauling up beyond. He was a nice boy and every one seemed to like him. He said where it really had been hell was at San Gabriele and the attack beyond Lom that had gone bad. He said the Austrians had a great amount of artillery in the woods along Ternova ridge beyond and above us, and shelled the roads badly at night. There was a battery of naval guns that had gotten on his nerves. I would recognize them because of their flat trajectory. You heard the report and then the shriek commenced almost instantly. They usually fired two guns at once, one right after the other, and the fragments from the burst were enormous. He showed me one, a smoothly jagged piece of metal over a foot long. It looked like babbiting metal.

“I don’t suppose they are so effective,” Gino said. “But they scare me. They all sound as though they came directly for you. There is the boom, then instantly the shriek and burst. What’s the use of not being wounded if they scare you to death?”

He said there were Croats in the lines opposite us now and some Magyars. Our troops were still in the attacking positions. There was no wire to speak of and no place to fall back to if there should be an Austrian attack. There were fine positions for defense along the low mountains that came up out of the plateau but nothing had been done about organizing them for defense. What did I think about the Bainsizza anyway?

I had expected it to be flatter, more like a plateau. I had not realized it was so broken up.

“Alto piano,” Gino said, “but no piano.”

We went back to the cellar of the house where he lived. I said I thought a ridge that flattened out on top and had a little depth would be easier and more practical to hold than a succession of small mountains. It was no harder to attack up a mountain than on the level, I argued. “That depends on the mountains,” he said. “Look at San Gabriele.”

“Yes,” I said, “but where they had trouble was at the top where it was flat. They got up to the top easy enough.”

“Not so easy,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “but that was a special case because it was a fortress rather than a mountain, anyway. The Austrians had been fortifying it for years.” I meant tactically speaking in a war where there was some movement a succession of mountains were nothing to hold as a line because it was too easy to turn them. You should have possible mobility and a mountain is not very mobile. Also, people always over-shoot down hill. If the flank were turned, the best men would be left on the highest mountains. I did not believe in a war in mountains. I had thought about it a lot, I said. You pinched off one mountain and they pinched off another but when something really started every one had to get down off the mountains.

What were you going to do if you had a mountain frontier? he asked.

I had not worked that out yet, I said, and we both laughed. “But,” I said, “in the old days the Austrians were always whipped in the quadrilateral around Verona. They let them come down onto the plain and whipped them there.”

“Yes,” said Gino. “But those were Frenchmen and you can work out military problems clearly when you are fighting in somebody else’s country.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “when it is your own country you cannot use it so scientifically.”

“The Russians did, to trap Napoleon.”

“Yes, but they had plenty of country. If you tried to retreat to trap Napoleon in Italy you would find yourself in Brindisi.”

“A terrible place,” said Gino. “Have you ever been there?”

“Not to stay.”

“I am a patriot,” Gino said. “But I cannot love Brindisi or Taranto.”

“Do you love the Bainsizza?” I asked.

“The soil is sacred,” he said. “But I wish it grew more potatoes. You know when we came here we found fields of potatoes the Austrians had planted.”

“Has the food really been short?”

“I myself have never had enough to eat but I am a big eater and I have not starved. The mess is average. The regiments in the line get pretty good food but those in support don’t get so much. Something is wrong somewhere. There should be plenty of food.”

“The dogfish are selling it somewhere else.”

“Yes, they give the battalions in the front line as much as they can but the ones in back are very short. They have eaten all the Austrians’ potatoes and chestnuts from the woods. They ought to feed them better. We are big eaters. I am sure there is plenty of food. It is very bad for the soldiers to be short of food. Have you ever noticed the difference it makes in the way you think?”

“Yes,” I said. “It can’t win a war but it can lose one.”

“We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.”

I did not say anything. 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 that were slapped up by 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. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. 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. Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us sometimes, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot. He was born one. He left with Peduzzi in the car to go back to Gorizia.

It stormed all that day. The wind drove down the rain and everywhere there was standing water and mud. The plaster of the broken houses was gray and wet. Late in the afternoon the rain stopped and from out number two post I saw the bare wet autumn country with clouds over the tops of the hills and the straw screening over the roads wet and dripping. The sun came out once before it went down and shone on the bare woods beyond the ridge. There were many Austrian guns in the woods on that ridge but only a few fired. I watched the sudden round puffs of shrapnel smoke in the sky above a broken farmhouse near where the line was; soft puffs with a yellow white flash in the centre. You saw the flash, then heard the crack, then saw the smoke ball distort and thin in the wind. There were many iron shrapnel balls in the rubble of the houses and on the road beside the broken house where the post was, but they did not shell near the post that afternoon. We loaded two cars and drove down the road that was screened with wet mats and the last of the sun came through in the breaks between the strips of mattings. Before we were out on the clear road behind the hill the sun was down. We went on down the clear road and as it turned a corner into the open and went into the square arched tunnel of matting the rain started again.

The wind rose in the night and at three o’clock in the morning with the rain coming in sheets there was a bombardment and the Croatians came over across the mountain meadows and through patches of woods and into the front line. They fought in the dark in the rain and a counter-attack of scared men from the second line drove them back. There was much shelling and many rockets in the rain and machine-gun and rifle fire all along the line. They did not come again and it was quieter and between the gusts of wind and rain we could hear the sound of a great bombardment far to the north.

The wounded were coming into the post, some were carried on stretchers, some walking and some were brought on the backs of men that came across the field. They were wet to the skin and all were scared. We filled two cars with stretcher cases as they came up from the cellar of the post and as I shut the door of the second car and fastened it I felt the rain on my face turn to snow. The flakes were coming heavy and fast in the rain.

When daylight came the storm was still blowing but the snow had stopped. It had melted as it fell on the wet ground and now it was raining again. There was another attack just after daylight but it was unsuccessful. We expected an attack all day but it did not come until the sun was going down. The bombardment started to the south below the long wooded ridge where the Austrian guns were concentrated. We expected a bombardment but it did not come. It was getting dark. Guns were firing from the field behind the village and the shells, going away, had a comfortable sound.

We heard that the attack to the south had been unsuccessful. They did not attack that night but we heard that they had broken through to the north. In the night word came that we were to prepare to retreat. The captain at the post told me this. He had it from the Brigade. A little while later he came from the telephone and said it was a lie. The Brigade had received orders that the line of the Bainsizza should be held no matter what happened. I asked about the break through and he said that he had heard at the Brigade that the Austrians had broken through the twenty-seventh army corps up toward Caporetto. There had been a great battle in the north all day.

“If those bastards let them through we are cooked,” he said.

“It’s Germans that are attacking,” one of the medical officers said. The word Germans was something to be frightened of. We did not want to have anything to do with the Germans.

“There are fifteen divisions of Germans,” the medical officer said. “They have broken through and we will be cut off.”

“At the Brigade, they say this line is to be held. They say they have not broken through badly and that we will hold a line across the mountains from Monte Maggiore.”

“Where do they hear this?”

“From the Division.”

“The word that we were to retreat came from the Division.”

“We work under the Army Corps,” I said. “But here I work under you. Naturally when you tell me to go I will go. But get the orders straight.”

“The orders are that we stay here. You clear the wounded from here to the clearing station.”

“Sometimes we clear from the clearing station to the field hospitals too,” I said. “Tell me, I have never seen a retreat—if there is a retreat how are all the wounded evacuated?”

“They are not. They take as many as they can and leave the rest.”

“What will I take in the cars?”

“Hospital equipment.”

“All right,” I said.

The next night the retreat started. We heard that Germans and Austrians had broken through in the north and were coming down the mountain valleys toward Cividale and Udine. The retreat was orderly, wet and sullen. In the night, going slowly along the crowded roads we passed troops marching under the rain, guns, horses pulling wagons, mules, motor trucks, all moving away from the front. There was no more disorder than in an advance.

That night we helped empty the field hospitals that had been set up in the least ruined villages of the plateau, taking the wounded down to Plava on the river-bed: and the next day hauled all day in the rain to evacuate the hospitals and clearing station at Plava. It rained steadily and the army of the Bainsizza moved down off the plateau in the October rain and across the river where the great victories had commenced in the spring of that year. We came into Gorizia in the middle of the next day. The rain had stopped and the town was nearly empty. As we came up the street they were loading the girls from the soldiers’ whorehouse into a truck. There were seven girls and they had on their hats and coats and carried small suitcases. Two of them were crying. Of the others one smiled at us and put out her tongue and fluttered it up and down. She had thick full lips and black eyes.

I stopped the car and went over and spoke to the matron. The girls from the officers’ house had left early that morning, she said. Where were they going? To Conegliano, she said. The truck started. The girl with thick lips put out her tongue again at us. The matron waved. The two girls kept on crying. The others looked interestedly out at the town. I got back in the car.

“We ought to go with them,” Bonello said. “That would be a good trip.”

“We’ll have a good trip,” I said.

“We’ll have a hell of a trip.”

“That’s what I mean,” I said. We came up the drive to the villa.

“I’d like to be there when some of those tough babies climb in and try and hop them.”

“You think they will?”

“Sure. Everybody in the Second Army knows that matron.”

We were outside the villa.

“They call her the Mother Superior,” Bonello said. “The girls are new but everybody knows her. They must have brought them up just before the retreat.”

“They’ll have a time.”

“I’ll say they’ll have a time. I’d like to have a crack at them for nothing. They charge too much at that house anyway. The government gyps us.”

“Take the car out and have the mechanics go over it,” I said. “Change the oil and check the differential. Fill it up and then get some sleep.”

“Yes, Signor Tenente.”

The villa was empty. Rinaldi was gone with the hospital. The major was gone taking hospital personnel in the staff car. There was a note on the window for me to fill the cars with the material piled in the hall and to proceed to Pordenone. The mechanics were gone already. I went out back to the garage. The other two cars came in while I was there and their drivers got down. It was starting to rain again.

“I’m so —— sleepy I went to sleep three times coming here from Plava,” Piani said. “What are we going to do, Tenente?”

“We’ll change the oil, grease them, fill them up, then take them around in front and load up the junk they’ve left.”

“Then do we start?”

“No, we’ll sleep for three hours.”

“Christ I’m glad to sleep,” Bonello said. “I couldn’t keep awake driving.”

“How’s your car, Aymo?” I asked.

“It’s all right.”

“Get me a monkey suit and I’ll help you with the oil.”

“Don’t you do that, Tenente,” Aymo said. “It’s nothing to do. You go and pack your things.”

“My things are all packed,” I said. “I’ll go and carry out the stuff that they left for us. Bring the cars around as soon as they’re ready.”

They brought the cars around to the front of the villa and we loaded them with the hospital equipment which was piled in the hallway. When it was all in, the three cars stood in line down the driveway under the trees in the rain. We went inside.

“Make a fire in the kitchen and dry your things,” I said.

“I don’t care about dry clothes,” Piani said. “I want to sleep.”

“I’m going to sleep on the major’s bed,” Bonello said. “I’m going to sleep where the old man corks off.”

“I don’t care where I sleep,” Piani said.

“There are two beds in here.” I opened the door.

“I never knew what was in that room,” Bonello said.

“That was old fish-face’s room,” Piani said.

“You two sleep in there,” I said. “I’ll wake you.”

“The Austrians will wake us if you sleep too long, Tenente,” Bonello said.

“I won’t oversleep,” I said. “Where’s Aymo?”

“He went out in the kitchen.”

“Get to sleep,” I said.

“I’ll sleep,” Piani said. “I’ve been asleep sitting up all day. The whole top of my head kept coming down over my eyes.”

“Take your boots off,” Bonello said. “That’s old fish-face’s bed.”

“Fish-face is nothing to me.” Piani lay on the bed, his muddy boots straight out, his head on his arm. I went out to the kitchen. Aymo had a fire in the stove and a kettle of water on.

“I thought I’d start some pasta asciutta,” he said. “We’ll be hungry when we wake up.”

“Aren’t you sleepy, Bartolomeo?”

“Not so sleepy. When the water boils I’ll leave it. The fire will go down.”

“You’d better get some sleep,” I said. “We can eat cheese and monkey meat.”

“This is better,” he said. “Something hot will be good for those two anarchists. You go to sleep, Tenente.”

“There’s a bed in the major’s room.”

“You sleep there.”

“No, I’m going up to my old room. Do you want a drink, Bartolomeo?”

“When we go, Tenente. Now it wouldn’t do me any good.”

“If you wake in three hours and I haven’t called you, wake me, will you?”

“I haven’t any watch, Tenente.”

“There’s a clock on the wall in the major’s room.”

“All right.”

I went out then through the dining-room and the hall and up the marble stairs to the room where I had lived with Rinaldi. It was raining outside. I went to the window and looked out. It was getting dark and I saw the three cars standing in line under the trees. The trees were dripping in the rain. It was cold and the drops hung to the branches. I went back to Rinaldi’s bed and lay down and let sleep take me.

We ate in the kitchen before we started. Aymo had a basin of spaghetti with onions and tinned meat chopped up in it. We sat around the table and drank two bottles of the wine that had been left in the cellar of the villa. It was dark outside and still raining. Piani sat at the table very sleepy.

“I like a retreat better than an advance,” Bonello said. “On a retreat we drink barbera.”

“We drink it now. To-morrow maybe we drink rain-water,” Aymo said.

“To-morrow we’ll be in Udine. We’ll drink champagne. That’s where the slackers live. Wake up, Piani! We’ll drink champagne to-morrow in Udine!”

“I’m awake,” Piani said. He filled his plate with the spaghetti and meat. “Couldn’t you find tomato sauce, Barto?”

“There wasn’t any,” Aymo said.

“We’ll drink champagne in Udine,” Bonello said. He filled his glass with the clear red barbera.

“We may drink —— before Udine,” Piani said.

“Have you eaten enough, Tenente?” Aymo asked.

“I’ve got plenty. Give me the bottle, Bartolomeo.”

“I have a bottle apiece to take in the cars,” Aymo said.

“Did you sleep at all?”

“I don’t need much sleep. I slept a little.”

“To-morrow we’ll sleep in the king’s bed,” Bonello said. He was feeling very good.

“To-morrow maybe we’ll sleep in ——,” Piani said.

“I’ll sleep with the queen,” Bonello said. He looked to see how I took the joke.

“You’ll sleep with ——,” Piani said sleepily.

“That’s treason, Tenente,” Bonello said. “Isn’t that treason?”

“Shut up,” I said. “You get too funny with a little wine.” Outside it was raining hard. I looked at my watch. It was half-past nine.

“It’s time to roll,” I said and stood up.

“Who are you going to ride with, Tenente?” Bonello asked.

“With Aymo. Then you come. Then Piani. We’ll start out on the road for Cormons.”

“I’m afraid I’ll go to sleep,” Piani said.

“All right. I’ll ride with you. Then Bonello. Then Aymo.”

“That’s the best way,” Piani said. “Because I’m so sleepy.”

“I’ll drive and you sleep awhile.”

“No. I can drive just so long as I know somebody will wake me up if I go to sleep.”

“I’ll wake you up. Put out the lights, Barto.”

“You might as well leave them,” Bonello said. “We’ve got no more use for this place.”

“I have a small locker trunk in my room,” I said. “Will you help take it down, Piani?”

“We’ll take it,” Piani said. “Come on, Aldo.” He went off into the hall with Bonello. I heard them going upstairs.

“This was a fine place,” Bartolomeo Aymo said. He put two bottles of wine and half a cheese into his haversack. “There won’t be a place like this again. Where will they retreat to, Tenente?”

“Beyond the Tagliamento, they say. The hospital and the sector are to be at Pordenone.”

“This is a better town than Pordenone.”

“I don’t know Pordenone,” I said. “I’ve just been through there.”

“It’s not much of a place,” Aymo said.

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