NVMM Reads: “A Farewell to Arms”

Our reading recommendation this month is Ernest Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms. Written by one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, this novel is set during WWI and weaves an incredible story of love and war while creating a historically accurate depiction of the Battle of Caporetto and fighting on the Italian front against German attacks. In this month’s #NVMMREADS, Brianna Jones, Guest Experience Associate, shares with us more about Hemingway’s contributions to American war efforts:

This month we’re reading Ernest Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms – an emotionally complex novel set in the later stages of World War I, which paints an incredible picture of the moral conflicts of war.

What makes this novel so interesting is that a prominent portion of A Farewell to Arms was written autobiographically. Hemingway himself volunteered to be an ambulance driver on the Italian front during the First World War and served for 10 months in Europe. He experienced the harsh realities of war without serving as a soldier and even sustained injuries due to a mortar shelling on July 8, 1918. Hemingway was the first American awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Valor for carrying a wounded Italian soldier to safety, though badly wounded himself. Due to his own injuries, Hemingway was transferred to a hospital in Milan and was rendered incapable of continuing his duties as an ambulance driver, which ultimately ended his tenure with the Red Cross.  

Though Hemingway played a more limited role in the war than his protagonist, Frederic Henry, the similarities between them are notable. Like Hemingway, Henry served on the Italian front, suffered a severe injury, and fell in love with a combat nurse. By including many of his own life experiences into this novel, Hemingway captivates readers with an authentic representation of life and his own philosophical thoughts on war.

When a Farewell to Arms was published in 1929, there were many controversies that surrounded the release of this book. The indifferent attitude with which Henry reacted to adverse judgements on leadership and the decisions made by those in positions of authority is a central theme in this novel. Hemingway’s journalistic and prose style of writing embodies the unspoken thoughts of those who questioned their reason to serve – whether it was for glory, honor, or the sense of debt that one feels to their country that inspired them to join the service. As our view of war and conflict has changed over time, these ideas are now widely accepted while even still, other issues present themselves in Hemingway’s writing, such as the author’s representation of women and minorities which is not indicative of today’s standards and values.

In addition to the question of reasoning and loyalty, there are two major themes that oppose each other, yet are instrumental to the story’s development – love and war. Throughout the novel, the numbing emptiness war creates is made apparent from the very beginning of this book. It is a consummation; the intensity is so overpowering that any emotion other than pain seems illegitimate and impossible. The only alternative to this consummation is love. Based largely on his personal experiences with heartbreak, Hemingway’s story demonstrates that whether genuine or artificial, love is simply a distraction from war and a valid motivation for continuing to fight.

This novel is truly a testament to the concept of service as a whole and the sacrifices that are made by those who join the military. It offers a dynamic perspective on the strength and character that it takes to devote one’s time, energy, and life to a cause. For this reason, our Guest Experience team highly recommends A Farewell to Arms as this month’s #NVMMREADS. Be sure to share with us what you’re reading this summer!

The U.S. Enters The Great War

“Gentlemen of the Congress: I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.”

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

This speech by President Woodrow Wilson on April 2nd to Congress would be put to vote two days later, and the United States would officially enter the war on April 6th. Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare initially pushed the United States towards the Entente when 148 Americans died when HMS Lusitania was torpedoed, a violation of American rights as seen by those in the United States. But the scaling back of its use pacified U.S. entrance for the time being. The Zimmerman letter to Mexico, the move back to unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany, and Wilson’s want to shape the postwar world led to this special convening of Congress and the declaration of war against Germany.

To say the United States military was not ready for war on this scale would be an understatement. Within the Army alone, there was only a total of 308,771 troops between the Active Duty and National Guard components in a conflict that ended up averaging 6,000 casualties a day. The armies located in Europe numbered in the millions and were battle hardened after three years of bloody fighting. Vast and rapid mobilization was needed for the United States, with the first troops landing in Europe in June 1917.

It is very difficult to find veteran perspectives of this event. Indeed, what has been digitized seems to have a massive gap between January and September of 1917, with most of the letters that are available coming from those conscripted into the military. Those that have written about April do not mention the declaration of war, which could also have something to do with the passing of the Espionage Act of 1917.

With that in mind, Corporal Edgar D. Andrews enlisted into the Army National Guard before the United States declared war, sometime either late 1916 or very early 1917, where he was placed into a machine gun battalion. His letters begin in January and seem to indicate a good sense of morale by Edgar and the others serving alongside him. There is a gap in correspondence between the end of January and October where his next available letter is about his safe arrival in France, with a note about the censors that will now be combing through their letters. Edgar would survive through the entirety of the US’s involvement in World War I, with a common theme in his letters being that family was his motivation to endure.

Corporal Edgar D. Andrews WWI Veteran
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Resources

Edgar D. Andrews. Veterans History Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Accessed from https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.103623/.

Hirschfeld, Gerhard, Gerd Krumeich, and Irina Renz. Brill’s Encyclopedia of the First World War. Leiden, Boston: Brill. 2012.

Jackson, Galen. “The Offshore Balancing Thesis Reconsidered: Realism, the Balance of Power in Europe, and America’s Decision for War in 1917.” Security Studies, vol 21 (3). August 2012. doi: https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/10.1080/09636412.2012.706502. Accessed from https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/doi/full/10.1080/09636412.2012.706502.

President Wilson’s Declaration of War Message to Congress, April 2, 1917; Records of the United States Senate; Record Group 46; National Archives. Accessed from https://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/?dod-date=402.

“U.S. Entry into World War I, 1917.” Office of the Historian. Accessed from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/wwi#:~:text=On%20April%204%2C%201917%2C%20the,Hungary%20on%20December%207%2C%201917.

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