Love And War In The Apennines
Eric Newby Slightly Foxed Editions £18.50
When I was a boy in the Sixties, one of the jokes that did the rounds was ‘What’s the shortest book in the world?’ The answer was ‘Italian War Heroes’.
Reading this reissue of Eric Newby’s classic account of his time as an escaped prisoner- of-war on the run in northern Italy, I remembered this silly joke with embarrassment.
Newby was hidden and helped by a great many Italian peasants, who put their own lives at risk by doing so. In fact, the very first words in Love And War In The Apennines are these: ‘To all those Italians who helped me, and thousands like me, at the risk of their lives, I dedicate this book.’
In the hospital, Eric Newby had encountered a beautiful Slovenian girl called Wanda, who started teaching him Italian… They’re pictured above after the war as man and wife
In August 1942, Newby had been captured by the Germans after a failed bombing raid in Sicily. At one point, he was obliged to walk across a possible minefield, which he describes as ‘a disagreeable sensation’.
Later, stranded in a canoe that was filling with water, he confesses: ‘I was frightened, more frightened than I had ever been. What upset me more than anything, quite irrationally, was the thought that if we drowned – which seemed more than probable – none of our people would ever know what had happened to us and why.’
As these two early passages indicate, Newby makes no pretence of being an iron-jawed Alistair MacLean war hero. He writes with a mixture of understatement and humour, and is happy to admit to untoward emotions like fear.
After being captured, he and his comrades are told that they will be shot at dawn as saboteurs. This follows ‘a long, inexpert interrogation by unpleasant men in civilian clothes’.
It is his use of that mild adjective ‘unpleasant’ that is so characteristic of Newby’s writing, and lies at the heart of its quiet charm: more self-serving authors would have tried to boost their derring-do by turning up the volume.
Newby and the others have their death sentences reprieved, or at least postponed. Instead, they are told that they will be sent to Rome for further interrogation. ‘Perhaps they never meant to shoot us, but, all the same, we thought ourselves lucky.’
To cut a long story short, Newby is held prisoner for a year, and is in a prison hospital with a broken ankle when the Italian government surrenders to the Allies in September 1943.
Italy is in turmoil, with the Germans and the Allies both advancing. He is being held by the Germans when he escapes in his pyjamas through a loo window, but with his broken ankle he cannot go far.
In the hospital, he had encountered a beautiful Slovenian girl called Wanda, who started teaching him Italian. ‘I had begun by thinking her a very good-looking girl and being flattered that she should take any notice of me. Then I had begun to admire her courage and determination; now I was in love with her.’
In August 1942, Newby had been captured by the Germans after a failed bombing raid in Sicily. At one point, he was obliged to walk across a possible minefield
It will be his memory of Wanda – and the occasional notes she smuggles through to him, that sustain him through the months ahead.
She and her father assist in his escape, give him a change of clothes, and then take him to the first of a number of peasant dwellings in the Apennines, in which he is allowed to hide.
His first hiding place is probably also the most unpleasant: he is buried in a hole ‘the size and shape of a grave’.
Everyone he encounters is, quite understandably, scared to death. A friendly doctor drops him off at a safe house, but, the moment the doctor has gone, the owner tells Newby that he will have to go.
‘I am afraid of the Germans. I am afraid of the Fascists. I am afraid of spies. I am afraid of my neighbours, and I am afraid of having my house burned over my head and of being shot if you are found here. My wife is also afraid. Now go!’
For the next three months, he is on the run, helped and sheltered by extremely poor anti-Fascist Italian peasants whose material lives would have been greatly improved by the sums of money the Germans paid to informers.
Why did they risk their lives in this way? One man tells him that some of them have sons forced to fight in Russia. ‘They feel that you are in a similar condition to that of their sons who, they hope, are being given help wherever they are.’
As a narrative, it has the picaresque quality of The 39 Steps, or Rogue Male, with a fugitive darting from place to place, at the mercy of strangers. For a long time, he is given board and lodging in a hidey hole in the eaves of a farmhouse roof, in return for back-breaking work clearing fields of heavy stones.
One of his many endearing qualities is his lack of self-pity: even in the toughest conditions, he is able to experience sudden shafts of joy, particularly in the beauty of nature.
There are descriptions of starlings and cuckoos, of wind blowing through trees, and the sun shining red through dark clouds, ‘as if someone had opened the door of a furnace’, that are wonderfully evocative, and made all the more poignant by jeopardy, which is always to hand.
At one point, he has taken himself off on a walk on a sunny day. ‘The air was filled with the humming of bees and the buzzing of insects and from somewhere further up the mountain there came the clanking of sheep bells, carried on a gentle breeze that was blowing from that direction.’
He lies down, falls asleep and wakes to find a German soldier standing over him. At first, the soldier assumes he is Italian, and bids him ‘Buon giorno’. He knows that his own Italian will not pass muster.
So what should he do? He thinks of pushing the soldier over the cliff; ‘after all, he was standing with his back to it; but I knew that I wouldn’t. It seemed awful even to think of murdering someone who had simply wished me good day.’
He had always planned to pretend to be a deaf-mute, by making strangled noises, but ‘I couldn’t do this either. It seemed too ridiculous’.
Before he can decide what to do, the German sits down next to him, and tells him that he thinks he is English. ‘You must be a prisoner-of-war. That is so, is it not?’
Newby doesn’t reply. The German tells him not to be afraid. ‘I will not tell anyone that I have met you. I have no intention of spoiling such a splendid day either for you or for myself.’
Instead, he wishes to carry on with what he was doing: catching butterflies in the sun. The two men shake hands, and introduce themselves. The German offers him a beer, and, together on that Italian hillside, they sit and chat.
His job, he says, is to give lectures on Renaissance painting and architecture to soldiers who are, he says, mournfully, ‘engaged in destroying them’.
He believes that the Germans are in the wrong and, because of this, they will lose the war. ‘We must. We have to.’ He advises Newby to pass the winter in the Apennines, and to wait for the spring before moving on.
And then he bids Newby farewell, setting off with his butterfly net. ‘I was sorry to see him go.’
The book ends, movingly, in 1956 with Newby and Wanda, who is now his wife, returning to the Apennines with their two little children, to look up and give thanks to all those who gave him shelter.
‘Large men whom I remembered as small boys came forward and pumped my hand, enveloping it in their great fists.’
In an earlier preface that, for some reason, is not included in this handsome little reprint, Newby said that he didn’t write his book until 1971 because, compared to the flood of many more heroic tales of wartime escapes, his ‘did not seem exciting enough to write about’.
But eventually he decided to write about it because so little had been published about ordinary Italians who helped prisoners of war ‘at great personal risk and without thought of personal gain, purely out of kindness of heart’.
Love And War In The Apennines is exciting, illuminating, funny, touching, and charming. If you haven’t already read it, it’s high time you did.