In a military career spanning 1899-1947, Adrian Carton de Wiart fought in 4 wars, and survived being shot in the stomach, groin, head, hand, ankle, hip and leg; as surviving well as two plane crashes and five escape attempts from a POW camp. He lost an eye and a hand in 1915, but still won the Victoria Cross in 1916.
It is a war story that sounds far-fetched even by Hollywood standards, but Adrian Carton de Wiart really existed.
Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart was born in Belgium in 1880 to an Irish mother and a Belgian aristocratic father (although it was widely rumoured he was the illegitimate son of the King of the Belgians, Leopold II)
When his mother died and his father remarried to an Englishwoman, his new stepmother sent Carton de Wiart to boarding school in England. From there he went to Oxford University in 1899, but dropped out after one term to join the British Army.
The Boer War had just started at the time and, after enlisting under the false identity of ‘Trooper Carton’, Carton de Wiart was sent to South Africa. However, he was seriously wounded in the stomach and groin early in the war and invalided home. As soon as he had recovered, he returned to action in South Africa in 1901 as a commissioned officer under his true identity.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Carton de Wiart was en route to British Somaliland in the Horn of Africa, where the British were engaged in a low level war against the “Mad Mullah“. In an attack on an enemy fort, Carton de Wiart was shot twice in the face, losing his left eye.
He wore a glass eye for a short time after but, whilst travelling in a taxi, threw it out of the window and put on a black eye patch, which he wore for the rest of his life.
In 1915 he embarked on a steamer for France. As an infantry commander on the Western Front, he was wounded seven more times. Soon after his arrival he lost his left hand (biting his mangled fingers off when a doctor declined to remove them). He was later shot through the skull and ankle at the Battle of the Somme, through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele, through the leg at Cambrai, and through the ear at Arras.
It was during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 that he won the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award for gallantry in combat. His citation read:
“For most conspicuous bravery, coolness and determination during severe operations of a prolonged nature. It was owing in a great measure to his dauntless courage and inspiring example that a serious reverse was averted. He displayed the utmost energy and courage in forcing our attack home. After three other battalion Commanders had become casualties, he controlled their commands, and ensured that the ground won was maintained at all costs. He frequently exposed himself in the organisation of positions and of supplies, passing unflinchingly through fire barrage of the most intense nature. His gallantry was inspiring to all.”
In his later autobiography, Happy Odyssey, he made no mention of his VC. Of the First World War itself, and despite the loss of various body parts, he said: “Frankly I enjoyed the war.”
From 1919-1921, Carton de Wiart saw further front line action in Poland against the Red Army in the Polish-Soviet War. On one occasion, while out on his observation train, he was attacked by a group of Red cavalry. He fought them off with his revolver from the running board of the train, at one point falling on the track and quickly jumping back on. He even survived an aircraft crash which led to a brief period in Lithuanian captivity.
He retired from the Army in 1923 with the honorary rank of major-general, and spent the next 15 years shooting waterfowl on a friend’s 500,000 acre marshland estate in eastern Poland – his home a converted hunting lodge on an island, only a few miles from the Soviet border.
His peaceful life was rudely interrupted by the Second World War in 1939, when he was recalled as head of the British Military Mission to Poland. When Poland was attacked by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in September 1939, the estate was overrun and all Carton de Wiart’s possessions were confiscated by the Soviets, then destroyed by the Germans in later fighting. He never saw the area again.
Carton de Wiart and his mission team escaped Poland by road convoy, with the Germans and the Russians in hot pursuit. Despite being attacked from the air by the Luftwaffe, the convoy made it across the Romanian border. Carton de Wiart then made it back to England by aircraft, travelling under a false passport.
In 1940 he was dispatched to Norway, where he took charge of an Anglo-French force with orders to take the city of Trondheim. With few supplies and little support, he managed to move his forces over the mountains and down to Trondheim Fjord, despite coming under frequent attack from the Luftwaffe, being shelled by German naval destroyers and machine gunned by German ski troops. Unable to effectively challenge the superior German forces, Carton de Wiart was eventually ordered to evacuate. Royal Navy transports got his men away, but they were bombed severely on the way out. Carton de Wiart arrived back at Scapa Flow on his 60th birthday.
Even back on British soil, Carton de Wiart found himself on the frontline when his London home was bombed by the Germans during the Blitz. All of his medals and decorations were destroyed or lost and he had to apply to the War Office for official replacements.
In 1941 he was appointed head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission, just as Hitler was preparing to invade Yuogoslavia. After negotiating with the Yugoslavian government in Belgrade, Carton de Wiart’s aircraft was heading for Cairo when both engines failed. The plane crash landed in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italian-controlled Libya. Carton de Wiart was knocked unconscious in the crash, but the cold water revived him. When the plane sank, he and the crew were forced to swim a mile to shore, where they were captured by the Italians.
Carton de Wiart was sent to a special prison for senior officers at in Italy. With his distinguished comrades, he five escape attempts, one of which including seven months of tunnelling. During one attempt, Carton de Wiart evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant – but his age, eye patch, empty sleeve, multiple scars and lack of Italian gave him away.
Carton de Wiart was released from prison in 1943 and taken to Rome, where the Italian government secretly planned to leave the war and wanted Carton de Wiart to act as messenger to the British government. He was accompanied by an Italian negotiator to Portugal to meet Allied contacts to facilitate the surrender. From Portugal, Carton de Wiart made his way back to England.
Carton de Wiart was immediately summoned by Churchill to be his personal representative in China, where he worked for the rest of the war and up to his retirement in 1947. On his way back to England, he stopped off in Rangoon as a house guest of the local army commander. Coming down stairs, he slipped on coconut matting, fell, broke his back and knocked himself unconscious. He eventually made it back to England and into hospital where he slowly recovered. The doctors succeeded in extracting an incredible amount of shrapnel from his old wounds.
Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart VC KBE CB CMG DSO finally settled in County Cork, Ireland, where he died in 1963 at the age of 83. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography described him thus: “With his black eyepatch and empty sleeve, Carton de Wiart looked like an elegant pirate, and became a figure of legend.”