An escaped British prisoner-of-war is sleeping in a grassy hollow by the edge of a cliff. He wakes to find a German soldier standing over him, wearing summer battledress, a pistol at his hip. Realizing he has been caught, he says his name and adds, ‘I’m a lieutenant in the infantry, or rather I was until I was put in the bag.’
In the bag – captured. It is one of the many phrases of the time that add to the resonance of Love and War in the Apennines (1971), a vivid memoir of Eric Newby’s capture, escape and recapture in Italy’s mountainous terrain during the later years of the Second World War. The man standing over him will not, though, take him away. Oberleutnant Frick is an education officer who instead proffers a bottle of beer and talks of his love of butterflies, which he has come to collect in the hills, armed with a net. He says his day job is to give lectures on Italian Renaissance culture ‘to groups of officers and any of the men who are interested. It is scarcely arduous because so few of them are.’ This is a book about love, and a book about pain. In evoking his memories of the war, writing twenty-five years after it had ended, Newby was also evoking his knowledge or recollection at the time of the world he had left behind at home, an era of ‘volunteer ladies dishing out fish and chips to [soldiers], and great squelchy jam sandwiches, and cups of orange-coloured tea’. A Special Boat Section operative, he was on the run in Italy from the fascist milizia. One evening in the depths of winter in 1943, he broke down. The previous few weeks had been passed in a cave, blocked in by snow. Christmas was approaching. He was ill and emaciated, travelling ever higher into the Apennines with a sack of rice and other impromptu supplies:
That night something happened to me on the mountain. The weight of the rice coupled with the awful cough which I had to try and repress broke something in me. It was not physical; it was simply that part of my spirit went out of me, and in the whole of my life since that night it has never been the same again.
The admission brings you up short. It has never been the same again. Newby’s reserve and good humour, the period English tic that runs through the book of making light of disaster, cover a breaking of the human spirit that altered the rest of his life. The physical and emotional pressure of living in constant danger caught up with him. He was, of necessity, homeless, a beggar, a captive of the frozen mountainous landscape, a vagrant dependent on the goodwill of the local Italian farmers who themselves faced possible execution if they helped a captive on the run. An Allied prisoner-of-war such as Newby could earn his pursuer good money, up to eighteen hundred lire in some parts of Italy.
In this region, people made mattresses out of leaf-covered boughs and cheese from ewe’s milk formed into little rounds. They ground chestnuts for flour, dressed in patchwork clothes, whittled new wooden soles to enable shoes to last longer, brewed infusions out of moss to cure an assortment of ailments, and slept beneath sheepskins that still smelt of sheep. Though they had little enough themselves, they were hospitable. One day Newby was given a picnic by a barrel-chested man in a snuff-coloured velveteen suit: nothing, he found, could be more delicious than the ‘polenta, a sort of solidified yellow porridge made from maize, which he sliced with a piece of wire; wonderful hard white bread made from something called pasta dura and with it slices of culatello, a kind of unsmoked ham from part of the pig’s behind that was cut so thinly that it was almost transparent’. The reader is with him now, feeling his excitement at getting fed after months of want.
Newby came from a generation that is today almost extinct, those who remember the war as it was fought. Born a century ago this year, he had an adventurous life sailing from Australia to Europe on a windjammer as a teenager before joining the Black Watch and later the Special Boat Section. After the war, he was a successful travel writer. In August 1942 while on a secret seaborne mission to bomb a German airfield in Sicily, he was captured and sent to Rome, and then to a building in Fontanellato that had been an orfanotrofio or orphanage.
After the Italian government’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943, when their Italian captors fled and the Germans were yet to arrive, the British prisoners-of-war in the orfanotrofio escaped. They thought their own troops would soon arrive, and Eric Newby dressed specially for the occasion in whipcord trousers, a battledress jacket and a silk muffler. But the moment of liberation was several years away. Newby was hampered by a broken foot, but he was helped by locals whose dislike of fascism made them take terrible risks to protect him. As one man tells him later in the book, some of them have sons fighting in Russia who they know may never return: ‘They feel that you are in a similar condition to that of their sons who, they hope, are being given help wherever they are.’
It is this mutual understanding, this symbiosis, that underpins the emotion running alongside the pain in Love and War in the Apennines. People step in to help. They hew wood to build a protective cabin. At great risk to themselves children and adults carry food to the visitor, and they have a loyalty to one another that comes from a devotion to freedom, a sense that they are on the same side. Even when Newby becomes a labourer and, in exchange for food and shelter, takes on the Sisyphean task of clearing a farmer’s fields of endless stones, tipping them each day from a handcart over a cliff, he writes so wittily it seems almost like a story about a pleasurable rural idyll. Coming from a pre-war world where feelings were covered by laughter, he articulates jokes that disguise distress. He quotes an officer in the Grenadiers, for example, who refuses to leave his dog behind during an air raid: ‘I wouldn’t dream of leaving my little girl here. Her nerves are going to pieces.’ When Newby and a fellow British escapee hear King George VI on the wireless at Christmas, ‘the people in the room witnessed the awful spectacle, something which they are unlikely ever to see again, of two Englishmen with tears running down their cheeks’. Emotion is kept at one remove.
This kind of feeling is accompanied by another sensation that runs through the book: love, not an abstract love of freedom or country, but romantic love for a woman named Wanda who helped him to escape and who, the reader knows, will become his wife after the fighting ends. She is, along with her parents, an outsider in Italy, a Slovene whose family were deported from territory ceded to Italy after the previous world war. Without the courage of Wanda and her father in exfiltrating Newby by car past a German Panzer division, he would surely have been captured. She sticks by him, remotely. One of the most beautiful moments in the story is when they manage a momentary rendezvous in the mountains, having previously communicated obliquely via coded letters. In another book, Something Wholesale (Slightly Foxed Edition No. 41), which preceded Love and War in the Apennines and detailed a career diversion into the women’s fashion business, Newby describes how he and Wanda were reunited and married in 1946, against all the odds.
Love and War in the Apennines is a moving reminder of a world gone by, and it shows us how a way of life in the more inaccessible regions of Europe has been replaced by forms of modernity that we now take for granted. For many of the people in the mountainous parts of Italy, a neighbour in another valley was an alien, speaking another dialect and practising different customs. The carbonari, for instance, the charcoal-burners, their skin blackened by the work, could barely be understood: ‘They live their own lives and they speak their own language.’ The characters Newby meets on his journey offer a vivid tableau of mid-twentieth-century resilience and invention. One old man, Aurelio, tells him involved tales that he had learned from a storyteller, and there in the remotest part of the northern Apennines he has built a home-made forge out of beaten tin cans and seasoned timber, that enables him to construct a merry-go-round or the axle of a cart. ‘When he was young he made a bicycle entirely out of wood, the only part he didn’t make was the chain.’ People know little of the world outside: for the women at the farm of stones, England is famous only for its monstrous criminals like Dr Crippen and Jack the Ripper, and the legendary London fog. Love and War in the Apennines is a book of romantic escape, overseen by the suffering of war, which shows how it ripples out across society and into fragile human lives.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © Patrick French 2019
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 47: Love and War in the Apennines
About the contributor
Patrick French is a historian and biographer whose books have won many prizes. He is presently writing the biography of the Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing.