In July of 1918, whilst serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, Ernest Hemingway was seriously wounded in a mortar attack that resulted in both legs being “riddled” with shrapnel and a six month stay in a Milan hospital. Three months after the incident, as he recuperated, 19-year-old Hemingway wrote the following letter to his family and reflected on his situation.
18 October 1918
Your letter of September 24 with the pictures came today, and, family, I did admire to hear from you. And the pictures were awfully good. I guess everybody in Italy knows that I have a kid brother. If you only realized how much we appreciate pictures, pop, you would send ’em often. Of yourselves and the kids and the place and the bay—they are the greatest cheer producers of all, and everybody likes to see everybody else’s pictures.
You, dad, spoke about coming home. I wouldn’t come home till the war was ended if I could make fifteen thousand a year in the States—nix. Here is the place. All of us Red Cross men here were ordered not to register. It would be foolish for us to come home because the Red Cross is a necessary organization and they would just have to get more men from the States to keep it going. Besides we never came over here until we were all disqualified for military service, you know. It would be criminal for me to come back to the States now. I was disqualified before I left the States because of my eye. I now have a bum leg and foot and there isn’t any army in the world that would take me. But I can be of service over here and I will stay her just as long as I can hobble and there is a war to hobble to. And the ambulance is no slacker’s job. We lost one man, killed, and one wounded in the last two weeks. And when you are holding down a front line canteen job, you know you have just the same chances as the other men in the trenches and so my conscience doesn’t bother me about staying.
I would like to come home and see you all, of course. But I can’t until after the war is finished. And that isn’t going to be such an awful length of time. There is nothing for you to worry about, because it has been fairly conclusively proved that I can’t be bumped off. And wounds don’t matter. I wouldn’t mind being wounded again so much because I know just what it is like. And you can only suffer so much, you know, and it does give you an awfully satisfactory feeling to be wounded. It’s getting beaten up in a good cause. There are no heroes in this war. We all offer our bodies and only a few are chosen, but it shouldn’t reflect any special credit on those that are chosen. They are just the lucky ones. I am very proud and happy that mine was chosen, but it shouldn’t give me any extra credit. Think of all the thousands of other boys that offered. All the heroes are dead. And the real heroes are the parents. Dying is a very simple thing. I’ve looked at death and really I know. If I should have died it would have been very easy for me. Quite the easiest thing I ever did. But the people at home do not realize that. They suffer a thousand times more. When a mother brings a son into the world she must know that some day the son will die, and the mother of a man that has died for his country should be the proudest woman in the world, and the happiest. And how much better to die in all the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light, than to have your body worn out and old and illusions shattered.
So, dear old family, don’t ever worry about me! It isn’t bad to be wounded: I know, because I’ve experienced it. And if I die, I’m lucky.
Does all that sound like the crazy, wild kid you sent out to learn about the world a year ago? It is a great old world, though, and I’ve always had a good time and the odds are all in favor of coming back to the old place. But I thought I’d tell you how I felt about it. Now I’ll write you a nice, cheery, bunky letter in about a week, so don’t get low over this one. I love you all.