Valor Friday

| January 14, 2022 | 17 Comments

Adrian Carton de Wiart

Sometimes you come across a man’s story that really is so fantastic that it stretches the bonds of credulity. Then you find out that it’s entirely true. You’re left wondering just why this man’s life hasn’t had a movie made about him. Adrian Carton de Wiart is such a man. He wrote about his wartime experiences, having been wounded repeatedly in battle, during the First World War, saying, “Frankly I had enjoyed the war.”

Carton de Wiart is even said to have been the inspiration for the fictional, fire-eating character Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook in the Sword of Honour trilogy by English author Evelyn Waugh.

Adrian Carton de Wiart was born to an aristocratic family in Brussels, Belgium in 1880. After his parent’s divorce and his mother’s death (both in 1886), Adrian moved with his father (a lawyer and magistrate) to Cairo, Egypt. There the elder Carton de Wiart served on the board of directors Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company and enjoyed significant political clout in the city.

In 1891, Adrian’s English step-mother sent him to a boarding school in England. He then attended Balliol College, Oxford but left at the start of the Second Boer War in 1899. The war was fought between the British Empire (who administered most of what is now South Africa) and two independent Boer Republics (the South African Republic and the Orange Free State).

The war was triggered by the discovery of gold and diamonds in the Boer Republics; the Boers experienced early success against the British forces before Imperial reinforcements arrived. The British gained the tactical and strategic upper hand, but then fought against a guerilla insurgency.

Ultimately the British would prevail over the Boers by use of a scorched earth policy. As they destroyed Boer farms, including livestock and crops, the women, children, and non-combatant males were driven out. They would be housed in what came to be known as “concentration camps” (the first use of the phrase). While the purpose of the camps wasn’t genocide as it was in the Nazi death camps, the conditions in the British concentration camps was still brutal and deplorable.

Adrian enlisted into the British Army under the fake name of “Trooper Carton” and claimed to be 25, though he was 19. Minimum age for enlistment was 20. Early in the war, Carton de Wiart was wounded twice, in the stomach and groin, in battle and was invalided back to the UK.

When Carton de Wiart’s father learned of his son’s actions (and wounds) he was furious, but allowed him to remain in the Army. After recovery, Carton de Wiart returned to Oxford for a time (befriending Aubrey Herbert, who would rise to the rank of colonel in the British Army and whose half-brother was George Herbert, discoverer of King Tut’s tomb) before he was commissioned in the Second Imperial Light Horse.

Carton de Wiart returned to South Africa in 1901, with the Second Boer war still going, and again saw combat action. On 14 September 1901 he received a regular Army commission as a second lieutenant in the 4th Dragoon Guards. With the 4th Dragoons being posted in British India, this necessitated his movement there in 1902.

Carton de Wiart was known for his colorful language and pleasant demeanor. Having been seriously wounded in combat, he took the belief that physical fitness was paramount to a soldier’s wellbeing. As such, he participated in numerous activities like running, walking, playing sports, shooting, and pig sticking (wild boar hunting with spears).

When his regiment was moved to South Africa in 1904, Carton de Wiart was given a supernumerary lieutenancy and assigned as aide-de-camp (ADC) to General Sir Henry Hildyard, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of South Africa.

His ADC duties afforded Carton de Wiart ample time for his leisure activities. He even took up polo. He would later write of his time during this period as his “heyday”. In 1907, though serving as a British officer, he was still a Belgian citizen. He took the oath and swore allegiance to King Edward VII, becoming a British subject.

In 1908 Carton de Wiart married an Austrian countess, with whom he had two daughters. In 1910, he was promoted to captain. Prior to the onset of the First World War in 1914, Carton de Wiart used his many connections to the upper crust of European society to travel central Europe extensively. He even participated in the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt, one of the oldest and largest fox hunts in England. There he made the acquaintance of the Duke himself, who was the honorary colonel of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, which Carton de Wiart then served as adjutant for until the start of World War I.

When World War I started, Carton de Wiart was already enroute to British Somaliland. There was a small regional conflict ongoing there. Seconded to the Somaliland Camel Corps, Carton de Wiart was part of the camel-mounted cavalry.

During an attack on an enemy fort at the Somali mountain of Shimber Berris, Carton de Wiart was shot twice in the face and once in the arm. He would lose an eye and an ear. For this, on 15 May 1915, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions. At the time, the DSO was the second-level combat bravery decoration for officers, ranking behind the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest honor. It would thus be comparable to an American Distinguished Service Cross.

The Lord Ismay, who had served alongside Carton de Wiart in the Somaliland battle and would become Churchill’s chief military advisor in WWII, said “He didn’t check his stride but I think the bullet stung him up as his language was awful. The doctor could do nothing for his eye, but we had to keep him with us. He must have been in agony.”

Lord Ismay described Carton de Wiart’s attitude towards war: “I honestly believe that he regarded the loss of an eye as a blessing as it allowed him to get out of Somaliland to Europe where he thought the real action was.” Carton de Wiart was so focused on military service that he didn’t even mention his wife and two daughters in his memoirs.

Carton de Wiart returned to the UK for convalescence. He would spend time at a nursing home in Park Land. He would return here every time he was subsequently injured (nearly a dozen times). This became such a frequent occurrence that they kept a pair of his pajamas ready for his next visit.

After recovering, he wore a painfully uncomfortable glass eye long enough to convince a medical board he was fit for duty. Immediately after winning approval, he threw the eye out the window of a taxi and adopted his signature black eyepatch. In February 1915 Carton de Wiart boarded a ship for France. He then served on the Western Front of World War I, commanding a series of three infantry battalions and then a brigade.

During the war, Carton de Wiart was wounded an astounding seven times. In 1915 he was wounded in his left hand. An artillery barrage had struck close enough to blast his wristwatch into his wrist. When the surgeon refused to remove two dangling fingers, Carton de Wiart ripped them off himself to alleviate the pain. He subsequently lost the whole hand.

His wounds are like a road map of the major battles of the war. He was shot through the skull and ankle at the First Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was shot through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 (where some 500,000 men from both sides became casualties in just three months), through the leg at the First Battle of Cambrai in 1917, and through the ear at the Second Battle of Arras, also in 1917.

During the war, Carton de Wiart received numerous promotions. These were of a variety of types due to wartime necessity. Some were temporary, wartime-only appointments while some were by brevet in honor of exceptional service. The promotions were as follows;

  • Temporary Major, March 1916
  • Temporary Lieut. Colonel, July 1916
  • Brevet Major, 1 January 1917
  • Temporary Brigadier General, 12 January 1917
  • Brevet Lieut. Colonel, 3 June 1917
  • Permanent (substantive) Major, 18 July 1917 (in the Dragoon Guards)

Carton de Wiart also received additional accolades and decorations, both from his government and the Allies;

  • Officer of the Order of the Crown (Belgium) – April 1917
  • Croix de Guerre (Belgium) – March 1918
  • Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (UK) – June 1918
  • Companion in the Order of the Bath (UK) – 1919 (the Order of the Bath is limited to 1,925 living companions)

Most notably, he received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest honor, awarded only for combat bravery, for his steadfast leadership and personal gallantry in 1916. As a temporary Lieutenant Colonel, while seconded to the Gloucestershire Regiment, on the 2nd and 3rd of July at La Boiselle, France during the Battle of the Somme.

Victoria Cross

When Carton de Wiart’s three other battalion commanders became casualties, he took charge of them in addition to his own. While controlling these commands, he ensured that the ground they fought for was won. As the battle progressed, he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy and withering enemy fire to move from position to position. Checking fields of fire, checking provisions, and inspiring the men as he went. As he led his men forward into the German battle line, he was seen pulling grenade pins with his teeth and using his one good hand to hurl them.

His portion of the battle happened at a hellscape called Delville Wood, or “Devil Wood” by the English. After years of war, the area looked more like the surface of the moon than continental Europe’s pastoral landscape. During the days fighting he was shot in the back of the head. As with his other harrowing injuries, he recovered and returned to full duty.

However, Carton de Wiart didn’t even mention the VC in his autobiography. He told a friend later, “it had been won by the 8th Glosters, for every man has done as much as I have.”

In the waning days of World War I, Carton de Wiart was assigned to command a brigade. With the temporary rank of brigadier general, one of his soldiers, S. Bullock recalled, “Cold shivers went down the back of everyone in the brigade, for he had an unsurpassed record as a fire eater, missing no chance of throwing the men under his command into whatever fighting happened to be going.”

Bullock recalls how the battalion looked “very much the worse for wear” when they paraded for the brigadier general’s inspection. He arrived “on a lively cob with his cap tilted at a rakish angle, and a shade over the place where one of his eyes had been.” He had an empty sleeve on which rested eleven wound stripes. Bullock, the first man in line for the inspection, notes that Carton de Wiart, despite having only one eye, ordered him to get his bootlace changed.

With the end of the Great War, Carton de Wiart was sent to be second in command of the Britain-Poland Military Mission. The Mission’s goal was to provide support to the nascent Polish Republic, which had just gained independence in the aftermath of the war. He would soon be elevated to command the mission.

Carton de Wiart developed a great sympathy for the Polish people, and supported their claims to the eastern Galicia. This put him at odds with his own chain of command and the British Prime Minister. This gained the appreciation of the Poles though.

Carton de Wiart, in his official capacity, had contact with the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to Poland. This included the dean of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps Cardinal Achille Ratti, later Pope Pius XI. He also served as second in a duel between two members of the Polish Mysliwski Club (a hunting club). The second on the opposing side of the duel was Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. Mannerheim would later command all of the Finnish military forces during World War II and later still Finnish President. The name might sound familiar as Mannerheim lent his name to the highest honor of the Finnish government. An honor earned by another subject from a past article, Larry Thorne (Lauri Allan Törni).

Carton de Wiart was breveted to the rank of colonel and appointed an aide-de-camp to the King in July 1920. Before he was able to return to the UK though, he was outside Warsaw when the Red Army was at the gates of the city. He was attacked by some Red cavalry while he was on his observation train. Carton de Wiart fought them off with his revolver, even falling off the train onto the tracks at one point and remounting his moving locomotive.

When the Poles won the war against the Bolsheviks, Carton de Wiart was again given the temporary rank of brigadier general, with local rank of major general, and a few months later the substantive rank of colonel in June 1922. In April 1923 he relinquished his temporary and local ranks, reverting to his permanent rank of colonel and then retired in December.

Adrian’s last Polish aide-de-camp was a nobleman who had inherited an estate containing a wetland area larger than the country of Ireland. Carton de Wiart spent the remaining 15 inter-war years availing himself of that, hunting nearly every day, and living off his pension (half a colonel’s pay).

When war seemed inevitable, in 1939, Carton de Wiart was recalled to active duty, commanding the British mission to Poland once again. Meeting with the Polish commander-in-chief, he did not think him up to the task of defending against the Nazis. He gave advice to the Poles regarding their military strategy. The only one they heeded was to move the bulk of their fleet out of the Baltic Sea. For the rest of the war, the free Polish fleet contributed to the Allied cause.

As the Polish resistance weakened under the onslaught of both the Germans and Soviets, Carton de Wiart and his mission made their way to the Romanian border, with both enemy forces in pursuit. The caravan of cars was even attacked by the Luftwaffe, with one of the men’s wives being killed.

Escaping to Romania, Carton de Wiart used a fake passport to flee by air from that country, only one day before the pro-Allied Romanian Prime Minister Armand Calinescu was assassinated. For much of the war, Romania would take the side of the Axis.

In early 1940, Carton de Wiart was again given temporary rank, again at major general, and was given command of an Anglo-French force that was sent to Norway to take the town of Trondheim.

Arriving in Norway by flying boat, the mission started for Carton de Wiart on a bad foot. They were forced to land in a fjord after being attacked by a German fighter. Now Adrian had previously survived at least one plane crash in 1919 while in Poland, and perhaps a second. So it is with little surprise that I learned he refused to evacuate the downed plane by the rubber lift raft, insisting it would be a sitting duck. Carton de Wiart remained in the wreckage of the plane until the enemy literally ran out of ammo, then casually boarded a boat that had come from ashore to rescue them.

The mission in Norway was doomed to fail. As they moved into position to assault the town the Kriegsmarine started to hit them from offshore. With no artillery support, German naval forces pounded them and devastated the force before they were finally recalled and evacuated by sea.

Carton de Wiart then spent some time in Northern Ireland, as part of the military defense there, before being dispatched to Yugoslavia. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was facing invasion from both the Germans and Italians and were seeking British help.

Flying to Cairo to meet with the Yugoslavs, Carton de Wiart’s aircraft refueled in Malta. Off the coast of Italian-occupied Libya his Vickers Wellington bomber lost both engines and crashed into the sea, a mile from shore. Knocked unconscious from the impact, the rush of cold water woke him up. As the aircraft broke up, he and the other survivors swam to shore. An impressive feat for a man with only one hand. Unfortunately, they were taken prisoner by the Italians upon reaching shore.

For more than two years Carton de Wiart was a prisoner of war in Italy. Despite being one-eyed, one-handed, and in his 60s, he made at least five escape attempts, including one in which he tunneled for seven months. The tunnel was more than 60 feet long through solid bedrock.

His most successful escape saw him evade capture for eight days disguising himself as an Italian peasant (without speaking the language and with his obvious, very telling physical deformities).

In 1943, Italy decided they wanted to leave the war. They selected Carton de Wiart from their prisoners to escort an Italian envoy to negotiate with the Allies. The Italians offered him civilian clothing, and he acquiesced, saying, “[he] had no objection provided [he] did not resemble a gigolo.”

He reached England on 28 August, 1943. Not a month later, he was summoned to Prime Minister Churchill’s private estate. Carton de Wiart had made Churchill’s acquaintance when he was Secretary of War and Carton de Wiart was heading the mission to Poland in the early 1920s.

Churchill informed Carton de Wiart that he was to be the Prime Minister’s personal representative to China. He now headed off to the Far East theaters.

Adrian Carton de Wiart (far right, standing) at the Cairo Conference 1943 with a bevy of World War II Allied power players.

Before arriving in China, he attended the 1943 Cairo Conference, at which Churchill, American President Franklin Roosevelt, and Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek attended. He then stopped in India before his accommodations were ready in China, so while there he got the lay of the land in the China-India-Burma theater of the war.

Once in his new role, Carton de Wiart was known to be one of the few men who could work successfully with notoriously grumpy American general Joseph Stillwell. Of the Chinese people, he wrote, “Two things struck me forcibly: the first was the amount of sheer hard work the people were doing, and the second their cheerfulness in doing it.”

In late 1944 he was promoted to temporary lieutenant general, and in the New Year’s Honors 1945 was knighted by the King with an appointment to Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). He remained in China through the rest of the war, participated in the formal Japanese surrender at the end of the war, and retired in 1947 with the honorary rank of lieutenant general. Somewhere along the way in China, he survived yet another plane crash.

Carton de Wiart’s wife passed away in 1949. In 1951 he married again to a woman 23 years his junior. They settled in County Cork, Ireland. He died at age 83 in June 1963.

In addition to the awards I’ve mentioned above, Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was also a recipient of nine service medals, was mentioned in dispatches (analogous to an American Bronze Star) once in World War I and once in World War II, the Silver Cross (Knight) of the Order of Military Virtue of Poland in 1920, the Polish Cross of Valour (twice, 1920 and 1941), and was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour of France. France also awarded him their World War II Croix de Guerre with a bronze palm, signifying an army-level mention in dispatches.

Category: Historical, Real Soldiers, UK and Commonwealth Awards, Valor, We Remember

guest
17 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
samoore

His autobiography is a quite enjoyable read.

The title, “Happy Odyssey”, tells you something about him.

KoB

Damn! A True Warrior. Not so much amazed at swimming with one hand as I am him swimming without them big brass ones causing him to sink.

SALUTE! Great story Mason…Thanks!

Thunderstixx

I’m certain that they float, they wouldn’t dare sink him as he would no doubt cut them off and send them to Davey Jones’ locker !!!

Old tanker

What a life. Even as a fictional movie his real exploits would be so very hard to believe.

Badass doesn’t even come close to describing him.

USAFRetired

Thanks. I was totally unfamiliar with this gentleman warrior. I’ll have to see if his Bio is available for my Kindle

Jeff LPH 3, 63-66

WOW, what a story and as a side note, My Uncle studied medicine in Egypt and became a Cairo Practor.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neanderthal B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist SuperStraight

(GROOOOOOOAN……….)

5JC

Rasputin has nothing on this warrior. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neanderthal B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist SuperStraight

I salute his awesomeness!

Graybeard

::speechless::

SgtBob

Some people never learn. Four wars, five? One eye and one ear shot out and off, one hand, multiple other wounds. Four or five plane crashes. And he kept going back. He was lucky that he lived in a time when loss of limb did not mean loss of job to a man determined and capable of continuing. He was a soldier’s soldier.

Green Thumb

God Damn.

Hardcore.

ninja

What Mason wrote: “You’re left wondering just why this man’s life hasn’t had a movie made about him.” After reading Mason’s post, we agree 100%… Another Unsung Hero. The Title and Subtitle of the article at the link says it all! “Meet Adrian Carton de Wiart, The Soldier Who Could Not Be Killed..Over The Course Of Four Wars In Six Decades, Adrian Carton de Wiart Proved Himself To Be The Most Badass Soldier Of All… Read more »

AW1Ed

Thanks again, Mason. Amazing story.

Messkit

This one time, at FOB Delta Camp, we ran out of Rip-Its.

So, yeah. Living life just like the LTC!

MustangCryppie

Wow! Talk about not ducking fast enough!

Seriously, what incredible bravery. Total respect.

Skivvy Stacker

When I read the part where the bomb blast had forced his watch into his wrist, and that he had pulled two dangling fingers off of his own hand to ease the pain…all I could think was; “this is the only man in the world that Chuck Norris checks under his bed for before he goes to sleep at night”.