A Farewell to Arms is set in World War I on the Italian front during the height of the violence and destruction. Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an ambulance driver for the Italian army when the novel begins. Ernest Hemingway, the author of the novel, was also an amublance driver for the Red Cross during World War I. It is widely believed that his life and injury during the war inspired his novel. Also, the Battle of Isonzo on the Italian front gave Hemingway his grim impressions of dectruction and bloodshed of war.       -E.M.

Italy flip-flopped into the war. Austria is now the enemy and is now involved in a three-front war: Russia, Serbia, Italy. The Austrian emperor had tried to buy off the Italians with territorial concessions, but this failed. Afraid of what Germany might do, Italy delays for a year the declaration of war against Austria.  It will be a war of agony.

May 24, 1915 – action at sea. Italian fleet keeps the Austrians bottled up in the Adriatic Sea.

In Trentino, where the Alps are cut by two broad valleys, the Austrians have brought four battle-tried divisions from the Russian front for the attack on the Italians. They amass 2,000 heavy guns and zero them in on the Trentino bulge.

The Italians have two of their four armies guarding the 130 mile line. Their army chief, Gen. Luigi Cadorna, fair strategist, poor tactician and reckless with human lives is convinced that the Austrians will not attack – the Alps provide an effective shield.

May 1916 – Austria strikes. In less than a month the Italians are pushed back 10 miles. Then the Austrian attack bogs down. Four divisions have to be pulled out and shipped east to face a new Russian offensive. Behind them the Italians will struggle back to their original positions. Casualties were 145,000 for the Italians and 80,000 for the Austrians.  The net gain: nothing.

Southeast of Trentino is Italy’s other front, the 55 mile Isonzo. Their objective is the town of Gorizia, opening the door to Trieste. A dozen dreadful battles will be fought here:  the 1st battle of the Isonzo, the 2nd, the 3rd, etc. up to the 12th (or the Battle of Capretto). 

The Italians must push upwards to the Carzo plateau, a howling wilderness. Cadorno will throw his army away on the plateau.

August 1916 – the 6th battle. The Italians break through and get to Gorizia. But here Cadorno hesitates and it is fatal. The door shuts. He is forced back.  Stalemate, trench warfare.

November 21, 1916 – Emperor Franz-Joseph dead. The Austrians feel leaderless. The new emperor is Karl, amiable but mediocre. He wants to negotiate for peace and be free from Germany.  Food is in short supply and prices are sky high.

Austria is now a virtual satellite to Germany. The new Austrian emperor turns to Germany for help with the Italians. He needs help for the upcoming 12th battle (the battle of Caparetto).

Oct 24, 1917 – Germans and Austrians have built up a substantial striking force: 6 German, 9 Austrian divisions. The enemy’s jugular vein is the alpine market town of Caparetto. The offensive plan is to hit the town, outflank the Italian army, isolate them, then head for the plains which lead to the Italian heartland.

The battle begins with a long artillery bombardment of the Italian lines. The Germans and Italians then punch a 15 mile long wide hole in the Italian lines. They push the enemy back, who are now in headlong retreat.   It was the greatest single disaster of arms in Italian history. Gen. Cadorno is sacked.

The Austrians surge ahead, but are short on ammunition. Their supply lines cannot keep up with the swift advance.

Nov 10, 1917 – the Austrians reach the Piave River. The Austrians try several attempts to get over it, but fail. Italian soldiers rush to the enemy lines to surrender. In a single day, Italy loses 305,000 men of which 270,000 surrendered.

Wounded while serving with the Italian army as an ambulance driver, 19 year old Ernest Hemingway, will write of it in A Farewell to Arms.

The future German General Rommel distinguishes himself in the battle.

Late 1917 –  in order to save Italy, six French and five British divisions rushed in along with detachments of Americans.

35 year old flyer, Capt. Fiorello LaGuardia sees action here.

After the winter lull and the repulsion of an Austrian spring offensive, the Italians prepare for the next attack. Although the forces are about equal, the Allies sweep to victory. (The German divisions had been pulled back for the western front.) The Austrian empire is splintering.

October , 1917 – the last offensive is little more than the pursuit of a beaten army  –  one ready to sue for peace.


General Overview of World War I 




“A Farewell to Arms.” Vernon Johns. 20 May 2009 <http://www.vernonjohns.org/snuffy1186/farewell.html>.

Piave Front – Trench Warfare. Digital image. Wikimedia. 20 May 2009 <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Piave_Front_1918.JPEG>.

Trench Warfare at the Italian Front. Digital image. Wikimedia. 20 May 2009 <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/Italian_troops_at_Isonzo_river.jpg>.

World War I Trench Warfare. Digital image. Solar Navigator. 20 May 2009 <http://www.solarnavigator.net/images/explorers_history/world_war_australian_infantry_small_box_respirators_ypres_1917.jpg>.