For young people of Hemingway's generation, World War I was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. You simply had to be there. Many of those who did not engage in overseas combat because of age or other circumstances (like Hemingway's colleague F. Scott Fitzgerald) deeply regretted missing their chance. "Not for anything would I have missed the opportunity for a ringside view of the greatest spectacle to unfold in our time," wrote Henry Villard, a journalist and businessman who knew Hemingway during the war. "To many of us the war in Europe resembled a gigantic stage on which the most exciting drama ever produced was being played out."7 Ernest Hemingway, who never turned down a good adventure, couldn't resist. He volunteered first for the Army but failed the vision test, so he applied instead to serve as a driver for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He was posted to Italy. World War I was bloody, often grotesquely so, and the impression that the gruesome scenes left on Hemingway is apparent in short stories like "A Natural History of the Dead." On 8 July 1918, while he was passing out supplies to Italian troops at Fossalta di Piave, Hemingway was hit in the legs by a mortar blast, and then by machine gun fire. Despite his injuries, he managed to drag a wounded Italian soldier off the battlefield, an act for which the Italian government awarded him a medal. It was the first of several serious injuries Hemingway would sustain during his adventures, injuries with physical consequences that dogged his later years.
Surgery to repair his legs was successful and Hemingway recovered well. He developed a reputation among the staff and patients at the Milan hospital where he recuperated as a great storyteller, though no one could tell which of the details in his stories were real and which were exaggerated for dramatic effect. He also fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American nurse from Washington, D.C. who was six years his senior. The war ended and the couple made plans for her to join him back in the United States. Soon after Hemingway returned home in January 1919, he received a letter from Agnes informing him that she had fallen in love with an Italian officer whom she planned to marry. Hemingway was heartbroken. He threw himself into his journalism, working first in Toronto and then in Chicago as a reporter for the Toronto Star. His doomed relationship with Agnes would influence his writing - a fictionalized account of their romance appeared in his first novel, A Farewell to Arms.
Through friends he met Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis native eight years his senior. They married in September 1921 and settled in Chicago—briefly. Hemingway's friend and fellow writer Sherwood Anderson had told him that he really needed to check out Paris. It was cheap (the exchange rate favored the dollar over the franc), the bars were great, and all the really good writers were going there. Hemingway was convinced. In December 1921 the newlywed couple set sail for Paris to become part of one of the greatest literary gatherings of the twentieth century.