A total disregard for his own personal safety, an indomitable fighting spirit, reckless courage, … and the gift of being nearly indestructible. This soldier survived five wars, including World War I and World War II becoming one of the most decorated British officers of all time and sustaining countless injuries. Was he the unluckiest soldier of all time or the quintessential British war hero? Make up your mind as you hear the story of today’s protagonist: Adrian Carton de Wiart, the unbreakable soldier.
Adrian Carton de Wiart was born into an aristocratic family in Brussels, Belgium on 5 May 1880. The father of this quintessential British war hero was actually Belgian, and a lawyer. The mother of this quintessential British war hero, was actually Irish. Adrian was so Belgian in fact that throughout his life he was amused by the rumour that he was an illegitimate child of King Leopold II, he who owned the Congo.
Adrian’s mother sadly passed away when he was just six and his father Léon moved the family to Cairo, Egypt.
During this period Léon married again and Adrian’s stepmother thought it good for the boy’s education to spend some time in a British boarding school. As the family was Catholic, he was sent to a Catholic school, The Oratory, near Birmingham. The founder of the school, Cardinal John Henry Newman, once wrote
“Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning”
Adrian’s life would be on the brink of coming to an end countless times, but he never showed fear. And for sure his life did have one hell of a beginning.
By 1899 Adrian was 19 and attending Balliol College at Oxford. At this stage in his life – as per his father’s desire – he could have easily settled for a law degree and the pleasant existence of a typical ‘toff’, enjoying his family’s wealth.
Except he didn’t.
‘War was in my blood’
On the 11th of October 1899 the 2nd Boer War broke out, pitting the British Empire against the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic in South Africa
This was a revelation for Adrian. In his autobiography “Happy Odyssey”, he wrote
“At that moment, I knew once and for all that war was in my blood. If the British didn’t fancy me, I would offer myself to the Boers.”
It turns out, the Brits, they did fancy him. Adrian enrolled as a volunteer faking his identity as well as his age. He was soon dispatched to South Africa, while his father still believed him to be studying law at Oxford.
This was the start of his real life, a soldier’s life.
Very early on, straight after training in South Africa, De Wiart and his unit were crossing a river in full view of some Boer Kommandos when he was shot twice, in the stomach and groin.
We are going to help you out here and keep count of how many times De Wiart was shot, ‘shrapnell-ed’ or otherwise injured.
After being shot, a superior bluntly asked if there were many Boers about, to which he coolly replied
“No, but the few were very good shots”.
At the military hospital his true identity was discovered and so he wasforced to return to England to recover – and to face his father’s wrath, who by now had discovered what his son was up to. Luckily, Léon consented that his son pursued a military career and after Adrian recovered, he decided to quit Oxford for good and to return to South Africa in 1901 for another round of fighting. This time he did it in style, booking himself in 1st Class and handing generous tips to the bar staff, so that he landed in Cape Town
“with exactly one pound in my pocket”
After joining a cavalry regiment De Wiart was promoted to corporal. This promotion lasted exactly 24 hours, after which was demoted again to simple trooper for threatening to hit a sergeant. But it was clear that De Wiart was destined to greater things and after a few months he had earned – or more probably, bought – a commission as a 2nd lieutenant. During the rest of 1901 and until the end of the 2nd Boer War in 1902, De Wiart greatly suffered for the lack of action: his only opportunity to do anything of military value was to cut some barbed wire in a Boer camp, but even then he was ordered not to do it.
Fretting for action, at the end of the war he applied to be sent to the British Somaliland to join the hunt for Mohammed bin Adbullah, also known as the “Mad Mullah”. Bin Abdullah had started a guerrilla campaign against the British East African colony, he was fighting for independence and was considered by his followers a Sunni holy man, almost a messiah. But to colonial authorities, he wasn’t the messiah – he was just a naughty boy.
Again, De Wiart’s superiors curbed his fighting enthusiasm and he was gazetted to a cavalry regiment in Muttra, India. The Indian stay was peaceful and largely uneventful, except for De Wiart finding a great passion for ‘pig-stcking’- which basically consists in chasing wild boar on horseback through the forest to pierce them with a long spear. I call this “pork skewers” and I can get them from my butcher’s without the faff, but I guess it’s only half the fun.
Anyhow, when chasing one of these pigs in the jungle, De Wiart fell off the horse. And the horse fell on him. He cracked several ribs and one ankle.
During his convalescence he had an argument with a local servant and pelted him with stones. When the servant got out of range, De Wiart shot him – on the butt. Seriously, this guy was in dire need of a battle. His superiors were not amused by his attack on the servant and jailed him for a time, but he managed to avoid demotion.
War on the horizon
In 1904 De Wiart was transferred back to South Africa. In his memoirs he wrote that he was happy not to see India again. I guess the feeling was mutual.
The ensuing years were blissful: De Wiart spent his time gambling, socialising, racing horses and shooting wildlife. He enjoyed several “Liquid meals” as he called them, but also cultivated his physical fitness. At one point he was so strong that he could rip in half a pack of cards. In 1907 De Wiart swore his oath of Allegiance to the King, formally becoming a British Citizen within the British Army.
In 1908 De Wiart returned to England, where his few regimental duties gave him time to play polo and travel the continent and especially Austria-Hungary to shoot at grouse, pheasants and other game. In the same year his connection to that Empire was strengthened by his marriage to Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen. And no, he had not become a Mormon and married seven different women, this was the full name of the bride, an Austrian Countess. They went on to have two daughters.
In his memoirs De Wiart recalls the atmosphere of mistrust at German border posts whenever he entered the country from France, and how his French sounding surname attracted suspicion: a clear sign that tension was mounting, and war was on the horizon.
When WWI broke out, De Wiart was on his way to British Somaliland to take part in what is now mostly a forgotten conflict, the colonial war against the “Mad Mullah”, whom we have introduced earlier. De Wiart’s desire to go and fight there had been fulfilled, but upon learning that the UK had declared war on Germany De Wiart felt like
“playing in a village cricket match instead of in the Test”.
For our friend in the US: the Test is to cricket what the World Series is to baseball.
De Wiart was assigned to lead a squadron of the Somaliland Camel Corps on the hunt for the Mad Mullah’s followers, the Dervishes. When tasked with storming an enemy fort, De Wiart could not resist going on the attack head first. But the enemy position was well defended and he was shot by the Dervishes. Three times. In the face. One bullet took away part of his left ear, a second bullet got him in the left eye, a third bullet ricocheted and hit him across the very same eye!
Of course, De Wiart lost his eye. But his assessment of the battle?
“It had all been most exhilarating fun!”
De Wiart took the occasion to return to England where he hoped to be reassigned to service on the Western Front. The Army medical commission agreed to it, provided that he use a glass eye. Which he hated. While riding a cab in London and finding the glass eye too uncomfortable, he just yanked it off and threw it from the taxi’s window! That’s what I call Fl-eye tipping.
From then on, he would wear his distinctive eye-patch.
The Western Front
In February 1915 Adrian Carton De Wiart was bound for the Western Front, to join a cavalry regiment, the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards.
His first major engagement was during the Second Battle of Ypres, in April of that year. While on March to relieve an infantry unit, his regiment came under fire from a German artillery position. A combination of shrapnel and splinters from his own wristwatch mangled his left hand, leaving only part of the palm and two dangling fingers.
When the field doctor hesitated to amputate them, De Wiart just tore off the two fingers. What remained of his hand would be amputated later in the year. At this stage Adrian Carton De Wiart could have easily asked to be repatriated and leave a quiet life behind a desk.
Except he didn’t.
De Wiart could not give two hoots about his injuries and he just got on with it, returning to battle undeterred and unimpaired. ‘Tis but a scratch! He probably said to himself before coming back for more.
He went on to fight in the Battle of the Somme, during which his men recall him pulling pins from grenades with his teeth and then flinging them with his one good hand into enemy territory. He distinguished himself during the assault on the village of La Boisselle, France in 1916. Three unit commanders from the 8th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment had been killed. Carton de Wiart then took charge of all three units. With no availability of field radios, field telephones, nor even pigeons to communicate orders, he decided to be his own messenger and ran back and forth among the three units to relay his orders, defying the hail of bullets and artillery shells raining onto no man’s land. He and his men managed to hold back the advancing Germans.
After this action, De Wiart received the Victoria Cross
“For most conspicuous bravery, coolness, and determination during severe operations of prolonged nature”
After La Boisselle, De Wiart continue to lead from the front battle after battle, exposing himself to further injuries. For example, in the trenches of Delville Wood, nicknamed The Devil’s Wood he was shot in the head.
A clean, straight shot through his skull, at the back of the head. If he had to die, this was the right occasion to do so.
Except he didn’t.
Because De Wiart could not give a damn about being dead, so he just survived and got on with it. During the three subsequent battles, he was shot in the ankle, hip, leg and ear!
But after every stay in hospital he regained full mobility and returned to the front, time after time. De Wiart’s assessment of this gruelling experience, of the meat grinder of the Western front was
“Frankly, I enjoyed the war!”
The Polish Gentleman
The years between the end of WWI and the start of WWII are wrongly labelled “inter-war” years, while this period also saw plenty of conflicts taking place in Europe. And where there was conflict, you’d be sure to find Adrian Carton de Wiart having the time of his life.
In 1919 De Wiart was assigned to Poland as a military advisor to the newly independent Country, which over a period of two years found itself at war with Soviet Russia, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and Lithuania. De Wiart made himself indispensable to Field Marshall Josef Pilsudski and as usual got involved in all types of risky situations. On the same year, 1919, he survived not one, but two plane crashes.
The second of which resulting in a brief period of captivity with the Lithuanians. After his release he increased his efforts to support the Polish military, even organising a gun smuggling operation via Hungary.
In 1920 he got closer to the front as the war with Russia intensified. One day his observation train was attacked by a charge of Cossack cavalry, with the intent of hijacking it. He confronted the attackers single-handedly – quite literally – with his revolver. At one point he even fell off the moving train, but quickly leapt back on it and continued the firefight until the train escaped from the Cossacks.
When the Polish wars finally ended in victory in 1921, De Wiart decided to stay in Poland, as he had grown fond of its people and its wildlife – which he proceeded to shoot at for the next 18 years. The wildlife that is, not the people.
In 1923 he finally decided to retire, having now achieved the rank of Major General. After a life of adventures, this gentleman would go on to enjoy a quiet and wealthy life in his adopted country.
Except he didn’t
We all know what happened on the 1st of September 1939. In a matter of three weeks Germany invaded from the West, the Soviet Union from the East and the UK and France declared war on the Axis. De Wiart’s quiet life in Poland was no more. As a former British military adviser the best course of action was to flee immediately. He abandoned his estate, acquired a fake passport and crossed the border with Romania.
Upon returning to the UK De Wiart re-enlisted in the military. In April 1940 De Wiart was recalled into active service, despite – I should stress again – in case you have forgotten – being sixty, one-eyed, and an amputee. He was given the rank of acting Lieutenant-General and tasked with leading an Anglo-French landing force in Norway to halt the German invasion.
This operation was a complete disaster from the start. While arriving in Norway via seaplane, De Wiart’s aircraft was forced to crash land on a fjord, when it was attacked by a German fighter plane. Rather than boarding a rubber dinghy to reach shore and become a sitting duck, he calmly waited in the wreckage until the enemy plane ran out of ammo and left.
After reaching his forces by the Trondheim Fjord De Wiart realised that they were undersupplied, undergunned, and soon to be encircled by the Germans.
But De Wiart could not give a heck about the odds stacked against him and he just got on with it!
His troops managed to break the encirclement by traversing over the mountains and back to the coast, under a constant barrage of artillery strikes and Luftwaffe attacks. Finally the Royal Navy came to the rescue and managed to ferry De Wiart and his band of brothers out of Norway, landing in Great Britain on his 60th birthday.
In April 1941, Carton de Wiart was appointed by Winston Churchill to lead a British secret mission in Yugoslavia. The objective was to make contact with Tito’s partisans and offer them Allied support. But he never got there.
After a refuelling stop in Malta, the Wellington bomber in which the mission was travelling went into nosedive, straight into the Mediterranean.
Luckily a coastline was on sight. As the fuselage sank, De Wiart – 61, one-handed, one-eyed – swam to shore, while carrying an injured comrade (!!!!!!!)
Alas, the coast they had reached, was the coast of Libya, Axis territory, and Wiart and his friends were immediately seized by the Italians.
Our hero was flown by the Italian Military to the high security POW camp established within the castle of Vincigliata [Veen-chee-llya-tah], near Florence. This prison was specifically dedicated to guarding senior British officers captured in the North Africa campaign. The average age of the prisoners was 52, but these indomitable officers had the energy of young soldiers when it came to be breaking out. De Wiart was part of at least five escape attempts, one of which involved digging a 60-foot tunnel under the castle walls. A complicated endeavour for an amputee.
But De Wiart could not give a damn and he just got on with it!
After seven months the tunnel was complete. De Wiart and five other prisoners succeeded in their Great Escape in March 1943 and hid for some days in the countryside. Their cunning plan was to make themselves inconspicuous by dressing like Italian peasants.
Yeah, about that: considering that
- one of them was a one-handed 63 year old gentleman with an eye patch, covered in scars, and
- none of them could speak Italian
… it was a miracle that they escaped capture for eight days. De Wiart was soon back in captivity at Vincigliata.
Fun fact: this castle nowadays can be hired for weddings!
But freedom was on the horizon. On the 25th of July 1943 Benito Mussolini was ousted by a monarchist coup. King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Field Marshal Badoglio as his successor, and the two conspirators continued honouring the alliance with Germany – but only on the surface. Behind the scenes, they were looking to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. They needed an intermediary and De Wiart seemed to be the perfect choice, as he was due for release from the Castle anyways because of his disability.
De Wiart was taken to a tailor in Rome so that he could get some civilian clothes. As a loyal customer of Savile Row he did not trust Italian tailors and he protested that he didn’t want to “look like a gigolo”. But in the end, he was happy with the suit they fashioned for him and on the 16th of August 1943 he was flown in secret to Lisbon alongside General Castellano, the King’s chief negotiator.
After an agreement was reached, De Wiart returned to the UK on the 28th of August.
But he only had the chance to rest for one month before Churchill personally appointed him as his special representative to the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek.
Rest at last
Compared to the swash and buckle of the previous years, De Wiart’s stay in China was relatively calm, as his was more of diplomatic mission, rather than a military one. During this time, while advising Chiang on his strategies against the Japanese, he befriended him and his wife, but when he got to meet Mao, well, he simply could not stand him.
The Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse Tung were uneasy allies in the war against Japan, but De Wiart was a staunch anti-communist and did not trust the future leader of China. During a formal dinner, Mao delivered a lengthy speech on the qualities of his faction. When he mentioned how hard they were fighting the Japanese, De Wiart cut him short.
“He tried my credulity a little too far … I told him that what they were doing was to keep looking over their shoulder to see what the Generalissimo was doing first!”
To his surprise, Mao took no offence and simply laughed. Another leader asked him why he hadn’t gone to Yenan to see their operations.
“I answered quite frankly that I hated Communism.”
De Wiart stayed in China until 1947, surviving yet another plane crash along the way.
And let’s add another notch, shall we? On the way back to Britain De Wiart paid visit at a friend’s house in Rangoon, Burma. While walking down a flight of stairs he was ambushed by an unpredictable foe. A coconut mat. He slipped on it and went flying down the stairs, breaking a couple of vertebrae along the way.
The good thing is that the doctors treating his back took the occasion to remove quite a bit of old shrapnel from his body. It was now about time to retire for good from active duty. General Carton De Wiart moved to a family estate in Killinardrish, Ireland and spent the next years writing his memoirs, hunting, fishing and polishing his collection of more than 30 military medals.
Eventually even such a legend had to die. After the last few peaceful years Adrian Carton de Wiart’s life came to an end on the 5th of June 1963, in his Irish home.
Frankly, I have enjoyed the story of this gentleman and I hope you did, too. Before leaving, please answer this question in the comments: if you were to shoot a movie about Carton De Wiart, who would you like to see in the lead role?
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