Cervantes had a useless left hand—a war wound. Nowadays we would call him a disabled veteran.
His enemy Avellaneda called him an “old one-armed guy.” That really burned him. “If my wounds don’t shine so brightly in the eyes of one [Avellaneda] who sees them, at least they are esteemed in the eyes of those who know where they came from.”
They came from the Battle of Lepanto. He was hit twice in the chest and once in the left hand by arquebus bullets.
Compared to many, he got off easy. Forty of the soldiers packed into his little skiff died, including the captain, and a hundred were wounded. Cervantes fought heroically. And he had insisted on going into battle though he had a high fever and had been vomiting all night and might have retired honorably behind the lines.
There are many accounts of that famous battle by soldiers who took part, writers many of them. They had all marched to war with romantic visions of glory.
The Battle of Lepanto was no parade. You wonder how any of the soldier-sailors survived at all—on either side. Nearly 600 ships and 180,000 men clashed in a hellish confusion of cannon-fire and desperate no-quarter fighting. Cannon, arquebus, and musket fire came from all sides, the boats had no room to manuever, there was constant ramming and hand-to-hand combats after boarding. Everywhere ships were on fire. In the middle of the battle the Turks’ slave-oarsmen revolted (understandably). There was no way to stop the slaughter. No one could hear above the cannons and the shouting or breathe in the gunsmoke. The sea was full of dead and dying men, and red with their blood. Thousands drowned or were scorched by the flames.
Cervantes’ chest wounds were serious and he was taken back to a hospital in Italy. His younger brother, who had also fought at Lepanto, probably helped care for him until he was out of danger. His hand never did become normal. Yet the disability was not serious enough for him to give up soldiering. He took part in another expedition and stayed in the army for another year before calling it quits. He finally decided to go home and become a writer.