Hemingway By Pedal Bike
On the afternoon of 7 July 1918, exactly one month after arriving in Italy, Hemingway set off on a bicycle from the farmhouse where he was billeted and rode a mile or so through the village of Fossalta to the Italian front-line trenches where he distributed morale-boosting supplies of chocolates and cigars.
Rumours were rife that an offensive was about to begin and Hemingway, impatient to see some action, returned to the lines that night. He talked the soldiers into letting him move up to a forward listening post beside the river. Half an hour past midnight, just after the offensive had begun, an Austrian mortar shell hit the post. In A Farewell to Arms, written ten years later, Hemingway describes the moment of impact:
There was flash, as a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind.
One of the men with him had his legs blown off and died from loss of blood. Though some biographers dispute exactly what happened next, it seems that Hemingway dragged the second wounded man back to the trenches, and was hit in the legs by machine-gun fire as he did so. He was taken to the town hall and then to a dressing station at the local school, before being moved by Fiat ambulance (so uncomfortably he vomited) to a field hospital in Treviso and finally back to Milan.
Today I’m going to try to recreate his journey to the trenches and back (without the getting blown up bit) to see what, if anything, is as it was.
A good start. The farmhouse at which he was billeted still exists. It’s a long three-storey building standing at right angles to the road on the outskirts of Fossalta. A driveway leads to a pair of mossy stone gate-posts, with no gate, which give onto a friendly overgrown garden. Over a door is a shield embossed with an eagle carrying off a lamb, the coat of arms of the Botter family, who have occupied the house continuously since 1711. It’s not difficult to imagine Hemingway, wheeling his bicycle out into the heat of a high summer afternoon, checking one last time that he has everything he needs for the men in the front line.
My bicycle is not quite the one Hemingway would have used, but not far off. It dates back to the 1920s and has been lovingly looked after by a local doctor. The road runs beside deep ditches with bare and spindly trees on either side, over a frozen canal lined with the shrivelled sinews of winter vines, through the forgettable streets of Fossalta and along the sunken road that runs below the embankment. I have to stand on the pedals to pull myself up to the top.
There below me is the Piave River, about 200 feet wide and the water not blue, as Hemingway remembers it, but a milky green, only a shade darker than turquoise.
I can see the bend in the river that Hemingway talks about, but there is a new bridge being built and much of the far bank has been stripped away. The trees that remain are festooned with plastic bags caught on the branches after the last flood. Today the river flows by without much effort, drifting beneath the rickety old pontoon toll-bridge whose days are numbered.
I park my bicycle against a tall black steel slab with an inscription that marks this as the place where Hemingway was wounded. It displays a much more reverential approach to the past than that adopted by Colonel Cantwell, Hemingway’s hero in Across the River and into the Trees.
The Colonel, no one being in sight, squatted low, and looking across the river from the bank where you could never show your head in daylight, relieved himself in the exact place where he had determined, by triangulation, that he had been badly wounded thirty years before.
‘A poor effort,’ he said aloud to the river and the river bank that were heavy with autumn quiet and wet from the fall rains. ‘But my own.’
He then has his hero bury a ten thousand lire note. The burying of the note is generally considered to be what Hemingway himself did when he came back here in the 1940s. I try a bit of amateur archaeology and see if I can dig around and find it. I get lots of help from the locals, all of it contradictory. The daughter of the man who runs the toll-bridge points me down the slope and nearer the river. The father of the local journalist who has a collection of unexploded First World War shells in his back garden says this is all wrong and it’s actually buried at a site further up-river opposite a small island. As I’m scraping around in the sand, a lean and bearded local computer expert points unequivocally to the island itself. It’s December, and though a smudgy sun is reflected off the water I’m not swimming over there.
Then it occurs to me that if I really want to be true to the precedent set by Hemingway and Colonel Cantwell, I should be burying, not digging.
I look around for something suitable to leave by the banks of the Piave and there in my shoulder bag is the obvious choice.
My contribution to the rich undersoil at Fossalta is the Penguin edition of A Farewell to Arms, which helped me to pass my English Literature ‘A’ Level exam in 1959.