From the archives: ‘Wounded 227 Times,’ a letter from Ernest Hemingway

Originally published in the Oak Leaves, Oct. 5, 1918:

Ernest M. Hemingway Describes His Emotions at Supreme Moment — Letter from American Consul

Dr. C. E. Hemingway, whose son, Ernest M. Hemingway, was the hero of a fine Red Cross exploit in Italy, as told in a recent issue of Oak Leaves, has received a letter from North Winship, American consul at Milan, Italy, praising the courage of the doctor’s son and announcing his intention of keeping an eye on him. And from Ernest, in the hospital, comes the following letter:

Dear Folks: Gee, Family, but there must have been a great burble about my getting shot up. Oak Leaves and the opposition came today and I have begun to think, Family, that maybe you didn’t appreciate me when I used to reside in the bosom. It’s the next best thing to getting killed and reading your own obituary.

You know they say there isn’t anything funny about this war, and there isn’t. I wouldn’t say that it was hell, because that’s been a bit over-worked since General Sherman’s time, but there have been about eight times when I would have welcomed hell, just on a chance that it couldn’t come up to the phase of war I was experiencing.

For example, in the trenches, during an attack, when a shell makes a direct hit in a group where you’re standing. Shells aren’t bad except direct hits; you just take chances on the fragments of the bursts. But when there is a direct hit, your pals get spattered all over you; spattered is literal.

During the six days I was up in the front line trenches only fifty yards from the Austrians I got the “rep” of having a charmed life. The “rep” of having one doesn’t mean much, but having one does. I hope I have one. That knocking sound is my knuckles striking the wooden bed-tray.

Well I can now hold up my hand and say that I’ve been shelled by high explosives, shrapnel and gas; shot at by trench mortars, snipers and machine guns, and as an added attraction, an aeroplane machine gunning the line. I’ve never had a hand grenade thrown at me, but a rifle grenade struck rather close. Maybe I’ll get a hand grenade later.

Now out of all that mess to only get struck by a trench mortar and a machine gun bullet while advancing toward the rear, as the Irish say, was fairly lucky. What, Family?

The 227 wounds I got from the trench mortar didn’t hurt a bit at the time, only my feet felt like I had rubber boots full of water on (hot water), and my knee cap was acting queer. The machine gun bullet just felt like a sharp smack on the leg with an icy snow ball. However it spilled me. But I got up again and got my wounded into the dugout. I kind of collapsed at the dugout.

The Italian I had with me had bled all over me and my coat and pants looked like someone had made currant jelly in them and then punched holes to let the pulp out. Well, my captain who was a great pal of mine (it was his dugout) said, “Poor Hem., he’ll be R.I.P. soon.” Rest in peace, that is.

You see, they thought I was shot thru my chest, because of my bloody coat. But made them take my coat and shirt off (I wasn’t wearing any undershirt) and the old torso was intact. Then they said that I would probably live. That cheered me up any amount.

I told them in Italian that I wanted to see my legs, tho I was afraid to look at them. So they took off my trousers and the old limbs were still there, but gee, they were a mess. They couldn’t figure out how I had walked a hundred and fifty yards with such a load, with both knees shot thru and my right shoe punctured in two big places; also over 200 flesh wounds.

“Oh,” says I, in Italian, “my captain, it is of nothing. In America they all do it. It is thought well not to allow the enemy to perceive that they have captured our goats.” The goat speech required some masterful lingual ability, but I got it across and then went to sleep for a couple of minutes.

After I came to they carried me on a stretcher three kilometers back to a dressing station. The stretcher bearers had to go over lots, as the road was having the entrails shelled out of it. Whenever a big one would come, whe-e-ee-eeee-whoo-oosh — boom, they would lay me down and get flat.

My wounds were now hurting like 227 little devils driving nails into the raw. The dressing station had been evacuated during the attack, so I lay for two hours in a stable with its roof shot off, waiting for an ambulance. When it came I ordered it down the road to get the soldiers that had been wounded first. It came back with a load and then they lifted me in.

The shelling was still pretty thick and our batteries were going off all the time ‘way back of us, and the big 350’s and 250’s going overhead for Austria with a noise like a railway train. Then, we’d hear the burst back of the lines. Then, shriek would come a big Austrian shell and then the crack of the burst. But we were giving them more and bigger stuff than they sent.

Then a battery of field guns would go off just back of the shed — boom — boom! Boom — boom! and the 75’s and 149’s would go whimpering over to the Austrian lines. And the star shells going up all the time and the machine guns going like riveters — tat-a-tat-tat.

After a ride of a couple of kilometers in an Italian ambulance they unloaded me at a dressing station, where I had a lot of pals among the medical officers. They gave me a shot of morphine and anti-tetanus serum an shaved my legs and took twenty-eight shell fragments varying in size… out of my legs.

Then they did a fine job in bandaging and all shook hands with me and would have kissed me, but I kidded them along. Then I stayed five days at a field hospital and was evacuated to the base hospital here.

I sent you that cable so you wouldn’t worry. I have been in the hospital a month and twelve days and hope to be out in another month. The Italian surgeon did a peach of an operation on my right knee joint and my right foot; took twenty-eight stitches, and assures me that I will be able to walk as well as ever. The wounds all healed up clean and there was no infection. He has my right leg in a plaster splint now, so that will be all right.

I have some snappy souvenirs that he took out at the last operation. I wouldn’t really be comfortable now unless I had some pain. The surgeon is going to take the plaster off in a week now and will allow me on crutches in ten days. I will have to learn to walk again.

This is the longest letter I have ever written to anyone and it says the least. Give my love to everybody that asks about me and as Ma Pettingill says, “Leave us keep the home fires burning.”

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