Professor Robert Tregay

Escape from Fontanellato

Professor Robert Tregay’s introductory words to article regarding Eric Newby and Love and War in the Apennines.

January 2023

Recovering from an operation six years ago, I was given Eric Newby’s book, Love and War in the Apennines, to read. “It’s my favourite novel,” my friend said, and it became for me the book which triggered one of the most thrilling adventures in detection of my life: unravelling the true story of Newby’s escape into the mountains following his incarceration in the prisoner of war camp, PG49, in Fontanellato.

In the Preface, Newby tells us he was inspired to write the book to record the ordinary Italian people who helped prisoners of war at great personal risk and without thought of personal gain, purely out of kindness of heart. He also says that the book includes certain omissions and additions relative to the true story. There were widespread changes in the names of people and places, and many of the characters are composite.

What became clear from reading the book is that we cannot know what was true, what was invented or who the people were that risked their lives to help keep Newby alive. He doesn’t even tell us where in the Apennines the story unfolds. We are left in the dark: is the account of his time on the run in the mountains fundamentally true with a few disguised names and locations? Or is it essentially a novel, spiced up to create a thriller, only lightly informed by real events?

In September 2017 I set out to find the answer to these and many other questions. For me, still a geographer at heart, I had clear pictures in my mind of the Pian del Sotto, the Colle del Santo, the Hut of Amadeo and other memorable places. I was unable to rest until I found these places, to see what they were really like and whether they really existed. Then, it was just one more step to asking: who were Rita, Zanoni, the Chairman and the many other characters we come to know so well through the book. How could we acknowledge and maintain the memory of these brave people who risked their lives to help Newby survive unless we knew their true identities? If they really existed?

Over the next five years I discovered most of the answers and have recorded it all in my report for the trust, Escape from Fontanellato.