March 4, 2011 on 11:58 pm | In Books, History, Literary, Military | Comments Off on HEMINGWAY AND THE BATTLE OF CAPORETTO: “A FAREWELL TO ARMS”



Battle of Caporetto

The Battle of Caporetto (also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Battle of Karfreit as it was known by the Central Powers; Slovene: Čudež pri Kobaridu), took place from 24 October to 19 November 1917, near the town of Kobarid (now in Slovenia), on the Austro-Italian front of World War I. The battle was named after the Italian name of the town of Kobarid (known as Karfreit in German).

Austro-Hungarian forces, reinforced by German units, were able to break into the Italian front line and rout the Italian army, which had practically no mobile reserves. The battle was a demonstration of the effectiveness of the use of stormtroopers and the infiltration tactics developed in part by Oskar von Hutier. The use of poison gas by the Germans played a key role in the collapse of the Italian Second Army.[1]

The battle

The German offensive began at approximately 02:00 on 24 October 1917. Due to the inclement weather that morning, particularly the mist,[2] the Italians were caught by complete surprise. The battle opened with a German artillery barrage, poison gas, and smoke, and was followed by an all-out assault against the Italian lines.[3] The defensive line of the Italian Second Army was breached almost immediately. The German forces made extensive use of flamethrowers and hand grenades as a part of their infiltration tactics, and were able to tear gaping holes in the Italian line, especially in the Italian strongholds on Mount Matajur and the Kolovrat Range. By the end of the first night, von Below’s men had advanced a remarkable 25 km (16 mi). German and Austro-Hungarian attacks from either side of von Below’s central column were less effective, however. The Italian Army had been able to repel the majority of these attacks, but the success of von Below’s central thrust threw the entire Italian Army into disarray. Forces had to be moved along the Italian front in an attempt to stem von Below’s breakout, but this only weakened other points along the line and invited further attacks. At this point, the entire Italian position on the Tagliamento River was under threat.

Realizing his forces were ill-prepared for this attack and were being routed, Capello requested permission to withdraw back to the Tagliamento. He was overruled by Cadorna, however, who believed that the Italian force could regroup and hold out against the attackers. Finally, on 30 October, Cadorna ordered the majority of the Italian force to retreat to the other side of the river. It took the Italians four full days to cross the river, and by this time the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were on their heels. By 2 November, a German division had established a bridgehead on the Tagliamento. About this time, however, the rapid success of the attack caught up with them. The German and Austro-Hungarian supply lines were stretched to breaking point, and as a result, they were not able to launch another concerted attack. Cadorna took advantage of this to retreat further, and by 10 November had established a position on the Piave River.[2]

Failures of German Logistics

Even before the battle, Germany was struggling to feed and supply its armies in the field. Erwin Rommel, who, as a junior officer, won the Pour le Mérite for his exploits in the battle, often bemoaned the demands placed upon his “poorly fed troops”.[4] The Allied blockade of the German Empire, which the Kaiserliche Marine had been unable to break, was responsible for food shortages and widespread malnutrition in Germany and allied countries. When inadequate provisioning was combined with the gruelling night marches preceding the battle of Caporetto (Kobarid), a heavy toll was extracted from the German and Austro-Hungarian forces. Despite these logistical problems, the initial assault was extremely successful. However, as the area controlled by the combined Central Powers forces expanded, an already limited logistical capacity was overstrained. By the time the attack reached the Piave, the soldiers of the Central Powers were running low on supplies and were feeling the physical effects of exhaustion.[4] As the Italians began to counter the pressure put on them by the Central Powers, the German forces lost all momentum and were once again caught up in another round of attrition warfare.


Italian losses were enormous: 11,000 were killed, 20,000 wounded and 265,000 were taken prisoner – morale was so low among the Italian troops, mainly due to Cadorna’s harsh disciplinary regime, that most of these surrendered willingly. Furthermore, roughly 3,000 guns, 3,000 machine guns and 2,000 mortars were captured, along with an untold amount of stores and equipment.[5] In addition, a large number of Italian soldiers deserted the army following the battle. Austro-Hungarian and German forces advanced more than 100 km (62 mi) in the direction of Venice, but they were not able to cross the Piave River. Although to this point the Italians had been left to fight on their own, after Kobarid (Caporetto) they were reinforced by six French infantry divisions and five British infantry divisions as well as sizeable air contingents. The Piave served as a natural barrier where the Italians could establish a new defensive line, which was held during the subsequent Battle of the Piave River and later served as springboard for the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, where the Austro-Hungarian army was finally defeated after 4 days of stiff resistance.

The battle led to the conference at Rapallo and the creation of a Supreme War Council, with the aim of improving Allied military co-operation and developing a unified strategy.[5]

Luigi Cadorna was forced to resign after the defeat. The defeat alone was not the sole cause, but rather the breaking point for an accumulation of failures, as perceived by the Italian Prime Minister, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando. Throughout much of his command, including at Kobarid (Caporetto), Cadorna was known to have maintained poor relations with the other generals on his staff.[6] In addition, he was detested by his troops as being too harsh.[7] He was replaced by Armando Diaz and Pietro Badoglio.

This led governments to the realization that fear alone could not adequately motivate a modern army. After the defeat at Kobarid (Caporetto), Italian propaganda offices were established, promising land and social justice to soldiers. Italy also accepted a more cautious military strategy from this point on. Just one fifth of the total 650,000 Italian casualties during the war occurred after Kobarid (Caporetto), a marked improvement.

After this battle, the term “Caporetto” gained a particular resonance in Italy. It is used to denote a terrible defeat – the failed General Strike of 1922 by the socialists was referred to by Mussolini as the “Caporetto of Italian Socialism”. Many years after the war, Caporetto was still being used to destroy the credibility of the liberal state.[6]

Popular culture

The Battle of Caporetto has been the subject of a number of books. The Swedish author F.J. Nordstedt (e.g. Christian Braw) wrote about the battle in his novel Caporetto.

The bloody aftermath of Caporetto was vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms.


1. Seth, Ronald (1965). Caporetto: The Scapegoat Battle. Macdonald. p. 147

2. a b Stearns, Peter; Langer, William (2001). The Encyclopedia of World History (6th ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 669. ISBN 0395652375.

3. Dupuy & Dupuy (1970), p. 971

4. a b Macksey, Kenneth (1997). Rommel: Battles and Campaigns. Da Capo Press. p. 16–21. ISBN 0306807866.

5. a b Simkins, Peter; Jukes, Geoffrey; Hickey, Michael (2003). The First World War. Osprey Publishing. p. 312–313. ISBN 1841767387.

6. a b Townley, Edward (2002). Collier, Martin. ed. Mussolini and Italy. Heinemann. p. 16. ISBN 0435327259.

7. Morselli, Mario (2001). Caporetto, 1917: Victory Or Defeat?. Routledge. p. 133. ISBN 0714650730.

Further reading

  • Connelly, O. On War and Leadership: The Words of Combat Commanders from Frederick the Great to Norman Schwarzkopf, 2002 ISBN 069103186X
  • Dupuy R. E., & , Dupuy, T. N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, (revised edition), Jane’s Publishing Company, 1970, SBN 356 02998 0
  • Morselli, M. Caporetto 1917: Victory of Defeat?, 2001 ISBN 0714650730
  • Reuth, R. G. Rommel: The End of a Legend, 2005 ISBN 1904950205
  • Seth, Ronald: Caporetto: The Scapegoat Battle. Macdonald, 1965
  • see also – not listed as a source for this article: Wilks, J., Wilks, Eileen “Rommel and Caporetto,” 2001 ISBN: 0850527724 EAN: 9780850527728


Kobarid (Italian: Caporetto, German: Karfreit) is a town and a municipality in the upper Soča (Italian Isonzo) valley, western Slovenia, near the Italian border.

Kobarid is known for the famous Battle of Caporetto, where the Italian retreat was documented by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. The battle is well documented in the museum in the centre of Kobarid. The museum won a Council of Europe award in 1993. The adjacent Tonocov Grad archaeological site has remains of 5th century Roman buildings.[2]


Kobarid has been inhabited since pre-historical times. Archeological remains from the Hallstatt period have been found in the area. In the 6th century, it was settled by Slavic tribes, ancestors of modern Slovenes. During the Middle Ages, it was first part of the Patriarchate of Aquileia, and later of the Tolmin County, before being included in the Habsburg Monarchy in the 15th century, like the majority of Slovene-speaking territories.

With the exception of a brief period between 1809 and 1813, when it was included under the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, it remained under the Austrian rule until 1918.

In the mid 19th century, it became an important center of the Slovene national revival. During World War One, the whole area was the theatre of the Battles of the Isonzo, fought between Italy and Austria-Hungary. The town was almost completely destroyed between 1915 and 1917. After the end of the war in 1918, it was occupied by the Italian Army, and in 1920 it was officially annexed to Italy, and included in the Julian March region. Kobarid was a comune of the Province of Gorizia (as Caporetto), except during the period between 1924 and 1927, when the Province of Gorizia was abolished and annexed to the Province of Udine. Between 1922 and 1943, Kobarid and the neighbouring villages, which had an exclusively Slovene-speaking population, was submitted to a policy of violent Fascist Italianization. Many locals emigrated to the neighbouring Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The town became one of the crucial centres of recruitment and activity of the militant anti-fascist organization TIGR, which carried out an underground fight against the Italian Fascist regime. During the Italian administration, Kobarid also became an important symbolic place of the Fascist regime because of its role in World War I. An Italian military sanctuary was built on the hill above the town, and Benito Mussolini visited Kobarid in 1938. Several military memorials were built in the area.

Immediately after the Italian armistice in September 1943, Kobarid was liberated by a Partisan uprising, and became the center of large liberated area of around 2,500 square kilometers, known as the Kobarid Republic, administered by the Liberation Front of the Slovenian People. During this period, almost all Italian families that settled in Kobarid during the twenty five years of Italian administration left the town. In early November 1943, Nazi German forces took over the town and established their rule until May 1945, when the town was finally liberated by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

In early June 1945, Kobarid came under joined British-U.S. occupation and placed under Allied temporary military administration until the establishment of a final border between Italy and Yugoslavia. The so-called Morgan Line, which divided the Allied military occupation zone from the Yugoslav one, ran just eastwards of the town, along the Soča river.

In September 1947, the Paris Peace Treaties gave the town to Yugoslavia, namely to the Socialist Republic of Slovenia. Several hundred inhabitants, especially from the Breginj area, chose emigration to Italy rather than becoming citizens of a Communist state.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Kobarid emerged as an important tourist center. Light industry also developed.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Kobarid became part of the independent Slovenian state.

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Ernest Hemingway concerning events during the Italian campaigns during the First World War. The book, which was first published in 1929, is a first-person account of American Frederic Henry, serving as an Lieutenant (“Tenente”) in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. The title is taken from a poem by 16th-century English dramatist George Peele.[1]

A Farewell to Arms works on two literary levels. Firstly it is a story concerning the drama and passion of a doomed romance between Henry and British nurse, Catherine Barkley. But secondly, it also skilfully contrasts the meaning of personal tragedy against the impersonal destruction wrought by the Great War. Hemingway deftly captures the cynicism of soldiers, the futility of war, and the displacement of populations. Although this was Hemingway’s bleakest novel, its publication cemented his stature as a modern American writer.[2]

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked A Farewell to Arms #74 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It was first adapted to film in 1932, with further versions in the following decades.[3]

Plot summary

The novel is divided into five books. In the first book, Rinaldi introduces Henry to Catherine Barkley; Henry attempts to seduce her, and their relationship begins. While on the Italian front, Henry is wounded in the knee by a mortar shell and sent to a hospital in Milan. The second book shows the growth of Henry and Catherine’s relationship as they spend time together in Milan over the summer. Henry falls in love with Catherine and by the time he is healed, Catherine is three months pregnant. In the third book, Henry returns to his unit, but not long after, the AustroGermans break through the Italian lines in the Battle of Caporetto, and the Italians retreat. Henry kills an engineering sergeant for insubordination. After falling behind and catching up again, Henry is taken to a place by the “battle police” where officers are being interrogated and executed for the “treachery” that supposedly led to the Italian defeat. However, after hearing the execution of a Lt.Colonel, Henry escapes by jumping into a river. In the fourth book, Catherine and Henry reunite and flee to Switzerland in a rowing boat. In the final book, Henry and Catherine live a quiet life in the mountains until she goes into labour. After a long and painful labour, their son is stillborn. Catherine begins to hemorrhage and soon dies, leaving Henry to return to their hotel in the rain.


  • Frederic Henry, often simply called “Tenente” (“Lieutenant”), is the narrator of the story. Henry is a volunteer ambulance driver from the United States. In Henry, we see the beginnings of what comes to be called Hemingway’s “Code Hero”: Henry is stoic under duress or pain; he modestly deflects praise for his contributions to the war; he is unflappable under fire; he does his work. He is a “man’s man,” in that his thoughts revolve on women (“girls”) and drink. He participates in and seems to enjoy the banal, everyday conversation between the soldiers. He is attracted to the simple goodness of the priest, who, like Henry (who is not religious), sticks to his beliefs despite the war’s constant presence. Henry is most characterized throughout the novel by his passionate love and dedication to Catherine Barkley.
  • Catherine Barkley is a British Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse. She loves the males so much that she started to write a short story about her love affairs with her fiance, who since has passed away. She volunteered in the war at the same time her fiance of eight years joined the army. He was killed in the Battle of the Somme. She is originally from Scotland, emotional, and dependent upon Henry’s love for her. Her sexual desires and her simple desire for companionship are sometimes at odds with her needs to tend to the ill. Like the code hero, she handles conflicting needs with grace, giving to both, but shorting none. Feminist thinkers will see in Catherine, Hemingway’s perfect woman: wise and cynical in many ways, her wisdom cannot contain her desire. As Henry gives his health and youth to the war effort, Catherine’s chief heroism is to accept the pain and death of childbirth stoically. Barkley has been “consistently ignored” as a code hero, probably because she is a woman[4]
  • Rinaldi is a physician through whom Hemingway draws his idea of an Italian male. Sketched somewhat jingoistically, Rinaldi is unfailingly exuberant, ignoring small details that would stop his large and giving gestures. He loves women and alcohol, bearing a bottle of the latter and tales of the former to his friend Henry as Henry recovers from his wounds. He enjoys performing surgery, seeing it as an enjoyable challenge; he greets his friend Frederic Henry with a formal European-style kiss. He usually refers to Henry as “baby”. Rinaldi is a form of the code hero as well. He allows Hemingway to explore another, non-Anglo-American, way of being male, of facing even a difficult world, an injured Italy, with joie de vivre, ignoring all danger, giving himself. Henry reunites with a tired and syphilitic Rinaldi in the middle of the novel, illustrating the flaws of this approach to the war and to life.
  • The Priest The chaplain in Henry’s unit. Baited by the other officers, he is befriended by Henry, to whom he offers spiritual advice. The last time we see this character, his faith is wavering. Can also be interpreted as a “Code Hero”.
  • Helen Ferguson Catherine’s friend and fellow nurse, who expresses a strong distaste for Henry, because he impregnated her outside of marriage and during wartime. Hemingway based her on Kitty Cannell (1891 – 1974), an acquaintance of his who was a Paris-based American dance and fashion correspondent for major U.S. papers and periodicals.
  • Passini and Bonello Ambulance drivers serving under Henry.
  • Manera, Gavuzzi, Gordini, Piani and Aymo Other ambulance drivers.
  • Mrs. Walker An American nurse at the American hospital in Milan.
  • Miss Gage Another American nurse, sympathetic to Henry and Catherine’s affair.
  • Miss Van Campen The unsympathetic nursing superintendent at American Hospital in Milan.
  • Dr. Valentini A surgeon who is highly competent and full of joie de vivre.
  • Meyers A gloomy American expatriate.
  • Ettore Moretti An Italian-American Officer from San Francisco serving in the Italian army.
  • Ralph Simmons An American student of opera and Henry’s friend.
  • Count Greffi An old but vigorous Italian whom Henry knows from Stresa and who serves as a mentor to Henry.


In print, the words “shit“, “fuck” and “cocksucker” were replaced with dashes (“—-“).[5] There are at least two copies of the first edition in which Hemingway re-inserted the censored text by hand, so as to provide a corrected text. One of these copies was presented to Maurice Coindreau; the other, to James Joyce.[5] Hemingway’s corrected text has not been incorporated into any published edition of the novel.

Autobiographical details

The novel was based on Hemingway’s own experiences serving in the Italian campaigns during the First World War. The inspiration for Catherine Barkley was Agnes von Kurowsky, a real nurse who cared for Hemingway in a hospital in Milan after he had been wounded. He had planned to marry her but she spurned his love when he returned to America.[6] Kitty Cannell, a Paris-based fashion correspondent, became Helen Ferguson. The unnamed priest was based on Don Giuseppe Bianchi, the priest of the 69th and 70th regiments of the Brigata Ancona. Although the sources for Rinaldi are unknown, the character had already appeared in In Our Time.

Publication history

The novel is believed to have been written at the home of Hemingway’s in-laws in Piggott, Arkansas[7] and at the home of friends of Hemingway’s wife Pauline Pfeiffer W. Malcolm and Ruth Lowry home at 6435 Indian Lane, Mission Hills, Kansas while she was awaiting delivery of their baby.[8] His wife Pauline underwent a caesarean section as Hemingway was writing about Catherine Barkley’s childbirth.[9]

The book was published at a time when many other World War I books were also appearing on the market. These included Frederic Manning‘s Her Privates We, Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front, Richard Aldington‘s Death of a Hero and Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. It was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine from May 1929 to October 1929. The book was published in September 1929 with a first edition print-run of approximately 31,000 copies.[10]

The success of A Farewell to Arms made Hemingway financially independent.


  • A Farewell to Arms was presented in five radio productions: December 1938 for CBS; during World War II for NBC; August 1948 for NBC; June 1949 for CBS; and October 1950 for NBC.


1. “George Peele: A Farewell to Arms (To Queen Elizabeth)”. The Day Poems Poetry Collection. http://www.daypoems.net/poems/104.html. Retrieved 2008-05-19.

2. Mellow 1992, p. 378

3. a b A Farewell to Arms (1957) at the Internet Movie Database

4. Catherine Barkley and the Hemingway Code: Ritual and Survival in “A Farewell to Arms.” Spanier, Sandra Whipple and Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: A Farewell to Arms; 1987, p131-148, 18p.

5. a b Hemingway, Ernest. “A Farewell to Arms.” (New York: Scribner, 1929). James Joyce Collection, the Poetry Collection (State University of New York at Buffalo), item J69.23.8 TC141 H45 F37 1929

6. Villard, Henry Serrano & Nagel, James. Hemingway in Love and War: The Lost Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky: Her letters, and Correspondence of Ernest Hemingway (ISBN 1-55553-057-5 H/B/ISBN 0-340-68898-X P/B)

7. “Hemingway-Pfeiffer Home Page”. Arkansas State University. http://hemingway.astate.edu/. Retrieved 2007-01-30.

8. “A Writer’s Haunts: Where He Worked and Where He Lived”

9. Meyers 1985, pp. 216–217

10. Oliver, p. 91

11. Oliver, p. 92

12. A Farewell to Arms (1932) at the Internet Movie Database

13. A Farewell to Arms (1966) at the Internet Movie Database



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