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Crossing a bridge, Henry sees a German staff car crossing another bridge nearby. Aymo soon spots a heavily armed bicycle troop. Fearing capture, Henry and the men decide to avoid the main road, which the retreat follows, and head for the smaller secondary roads. They start down an embankment and are shot at. A bullet hits Aymo and kills him almost instantly. Realizing that their friend has been shot by their own troops—the Italian rear guard, which is afraid of everything—Henry and his men realize that they are in more danger than they would be facing the enemy. They look for a place to hide until dark and come across an abandoned farmhouse.
Henry camps out in the hayloft, while Piani and Bonello search for food. Piani returns alone and reports that Bonello, fearing death, left the farm in hopes of being taken prisoner and thereby escaping death. The men hide in the barn until nightfall and then set out to rejoin the Italians. They come upon a large gathering of soldiers where officers are being separated and interrogated for the “treachery” that led to an Italian defeat. Suddenly, two men from the battle police seize hold of Henry. He watches as a lieutenant colonel is led away, questioned, and shot to death. Sensing the opportunity to escape, Henry runs for the water and dives in. As he swims away he hears shots, but as he gains distance from shore, the sounds of gunfire fade.
After floating in the cold river water for what seems to him a very long time, Henry climbs out, removes from his shirt the stars that identify him as an officer, and counts his money. He crosses the Venetian plain that day and jumps aboard a military train that evening. He freezes when a young soldier with a helmet that is too large for his head spots him, but the boy assumes that Henry belongs on the train and does nothing. Henry then hides in a car stocked with guns. While crawling under a huge canvas tarp, he cuts his head open. He waits for the blood to coagulate so that he can pick the dried blood off of his forehead. He does not want to be conspicuous when he gets out.
Exhausted, lying under the canvas, Henry thinks about how well the knee upon which Dr. Valentini operated has held up under the circumstances. He reflects that his thoughts still belong to him, and thinks about Catherine, though he realizes that thinking about her without promise of seeing her might drive him crazy. Thoughts of loss plague him. Without his men, an army to which to return, or the friends that he remembers, like the priest and Rinaldi, Henry feels that the war is over for him. “It was not my show anymore,” he ruminates. Soon, though, the needs of his body distract him from these thoughts. He needs to eat, drink, and sleep with Catherine, whom he dreams of taking away to a safe place.
In these last chapters of Book Three, the already delicate world of the Italian military falls apart. This unraveling begins in Chapter XXIX with the crumbling of Henry’s normally calm exterior, which leads him to shoot the engineering sergeant. The world descends even further into chaos: the panicky Italian rear guard begins shooting at its own men; Bonello, fearing death, abandons Henry and Piani; and the neat columns that characterized the retreat at its beginning have broken into a terrifying mob. Battle police randomly pull officers from the columns of retreating men and execute them on sight. Hemingway expertly evokes the horror, confusion, and irrationality of war.
Chapter XXX presents two types of characters as a counterpoint to Henry. The zealous patriotism of the moblike battle police stands in contrast to Henry’s distrust of noble ideals. Their rhetoric of God, blood, and soil, in its senselessness and cruelty, makes Henry’s skepticism appear saintly. The character of the officer who is executed is more complex. The grim and sobering tone of his question—“Have you ever been in a retreat?”—resonates with Henry’s realistic outlook. The officer, however, is resigned to his defeat. He neither flees nor protests his execution. Still, he tries to salvage a quiet dignity by asking not to be pestered with stupid questions before he is shot. Henry, however, is neither defeated nor interested in saving face. Because he doesn’t believe in the sacredness of war or victory, he cannot muster a response comparable to the officer’s. He flees not out of cowardice but out of an unwillingness to make a sacrifice for a cause that, to him, seems meaningless. In the context of total irrationality, self-preservation seems to him as valid a choice as any.