Pre-WW1, WW1, WW2

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart: The Soldier That Couldn’t be Killed

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart stomach was hit from his time fighting the Boers in South Africa, he lost his eye from a skirmish with the Somalis, lost a chunk of his ear, and had his left hand mutilated by the Germans during The Great War. He truly was the soldier that couldn’t be killed

His ankle, hip, and leg were also shot. In total, this man was dealt with eleven injuries. This soldier, who would become a Lieutenant General before his final retirement, also assisted the new Polish government during the interwar period and the Chinese Nationalists in their struggle against Mao Zedong’s communists.

He was also an Italian prisoner of war during World War II, where he was used by Italy to garner a peace deal with the Allies.          

This gentleman was one of a kind, the kind comic book aficionados read. He was known to many as the unkillable soldier. He was Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart. H was the epitome of a Brit with a stiff upper lip in the face of adversaries.

Making War his Career in South Africa

Much to the dismay of his father, a successful international lawyer based in Cairo, young Adrian signed to serve in the Second Boer War.

In 1899 he became a trooper after falsifying his age as 25. He felt that his education lacked his affinity with the outdoors and the masculine pursuits he adored.

The military life would satiate the fire in this young Belgian turned Brit. He would be reprimanded for hitting his superior, which cost him his recent promotion to corporal. He recanted that he was quite lucky to not face a court-martial!

Carton de Wiart
Sir Carton de Wiart as a young lieutenant with the 4th Dragoon Guards in India 1904

In his time soldiering through South Africa, he often raced horses. He also placed bets with his fellow soldiers on running . One famous instance was a bet with a Praetoria regiment that he would not make a run to Johannesburg in ten hours. He made it in nine hours and twenty minutes with forty minutes to spare.

He noted in his memoir that his peak physical fitness did not make the trek any harder or easier. It was his time in South Africa that Carton de Wiart recalled as a highlight in his early war years.

The countless horse races and runs through the wilderness. Yet, war was his interest, and Adrian embraced it.

On the battlefield, Carton de Wiart would endure his first few scars. These were a few groin and stomach shots. Nothing to what he would endure in the Great War of 1914-18 however.

With the scars, his fascination with peak physical performance came to its fore. As he healed and waited for the next war assignment.

He returned to England in 1908, where he played a little polo and waited impatiently for the next campaign. That would come in 1914 in British Somaliland where he faced the “Mad Mullah.”

Fighting the Somalis

The “Mad Mullah” was Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, the leader of the Dervishes. This was a nationalist movement that attempted to free Somaliland from British dominion. The fighters were noted by de Wiart as fiercely committed to their cause. They tended to face a meat grinder against British tactics however.

However, the Dervishes were able to shoot de Wiart. He was hit in the elbow ,the eye, and two damaging shots to the ear. A nearby Lieutenant Simmons who helped to patch up Adrian’s ear would be another casualty. This as he tried to get Adrian to safety.

His fight against the Somalis garnered him a Distinguished Service Order.

Carton de Wiart 1916
During the Somme battle Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart took command of the 8th Battalion The Gloucestershire Regiment. He was shot in the head!

The doctors in the field and in England would concur that Sir Carton de Wiart’s left eye was damaged beyond repair. They necessitated its removal and replacement with a glass eye on January 3rd, 1915.

After using the said glass eye for a short time, he later threw it away. He would for the rest of his life wear an eye patch that has since become iconic.

After the Medical Board in England passed him with some reservation, Carton de Wiart was transferred by ship to France. The fighting was slowing down amidst German offensives. The experience in the First World War in Ypres and La Boiselle, would inspire his fellow Brits to fight against the Germans. Or as Carton de Wiart called them “the Huns.”

Another War

During the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, de Wiart would have his left hand mutilated by German volley fire,

For hours, he would endure the sharp pain. Followed by numbness as he was accidentally shot a couple of times by his fellow Brits!

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 He would return to England to recuperate from his wounds, demanding that his hand be removed. It was in this instance that he infamously ripped the two fingers hanging by a piece of skin.

Eventually, the doctors acquiesced to de Wiart’s demands. Amidst recuperating , his father passed away. He would soon transfer from the calvary to the infantry, where he said it was a boring affair. This was because there were no horses to take care of.

Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC
His medals speak volumes. Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO

In 1916, in time for the Battle of the Somme, Carton de Wiart took command of the 8th Battalion The Gloucestershire Regiment. Revelling in the leadership opportunity, those who fought with de Wiart noted that his leadership was electrifying. Carton de Wiart would recount his time leading the regiment as a group of gentlemen who were well trained for the war effort. By the first of July, the first objective was to defend the town of La Boisselle.

For two days, from July 2nd to 3rd, Carton de Wiart and the Gloucestershire Regiment faced immense German offensives and counterattacks. The Germans tried to keep the British from retaking the town. The chaos was immense, but the men of the regiment never faltered amidst such a formidable enemy.

It was in this battle that Carton de Wiart used his teeth to launch grenades. He often stressed the importance of timing when fighting. He said in his memoir that “often a dozen men at the right moment were more effective than a hundred at the wrong.”

Fierce Fighting in WWI and a Victoria Cross

Morale boosting was important for Carton de Wiart; he recalled seeing a soldier running away from the fighting. Rather than reprimand the soldier, he reminded the man that he had little wounds compared to his superior.

After a push in the right direction, the soldier marched onwards. Words cannot describe the brutal landscape left behind at La Boisselle. Yet, by the fourth of July 1916, the regiment successfully kept the Germans from taking the town.

Carton de Wiart
Lucky or unlucky? Adrian Carton de Wiart during World War II, (Photo Cecil Beaton)

After the ordeal, he was shot in the head and would endure another hospital trip back in England.

At the end of the war, Adrian Carton de Wiart received a Victoria Cross for his leadership and gallantry in La Boisselle. His citation states,

“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.”

He would also receive a Belgian Croix de Guerre in 1918. By the end of his military career, he had garnered dozens of military awards from Britain, France, Poland, Belgium. These added to his other service awards for British campaigns in the World Wars.

Not surprisingly, de Wiart would famously utter, “Frankly, I enjoyed the war.”

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart in Poland

With the Great War over, peace talks had brought the idea of self-determination to Europe. One of the states that returned after centuries of Austrian, German and Russian dominance was Poland.

It was here that Carton de Wiart became intrigued with Polish culture. He was contemplating living in the country for his retirement. Though plans changed by 1939.

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Carton de Wiart would see the fledgling government under Józef Piłsudski fight against the Soviets, where he quipped that he would see the war, and dine at his home when he was done for the day. In addition, he served Britain as a military advisor. Often meeting with key Polish generals and staff members to strike peace deals with the Soviets. By 1924, the wars on Poland and the Eastern European regions had quieted down. At this point, Carton de Wiart resigned from his military commission.

For years, he would admire Polish culture, which he noted was French in its style. In his adopted homeland he would hunt, ride horseback, and meet many friends until the German invasion of Poland.

World War II: Back into the Furnace

 World War II came and rather than stay in Poland, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart would come back and fight with his fellow Brits; he would lead an attack in German-occupied Norway and was a prisoner of war in Italy from 1941 to 1943.

In German-occupied Norway, he led an attempted campaign to keep Germany from seizing key military and resource capabilities. However, he noted that the military struggled to deal with the aerial Blitz in England, and Carton de Wiart’s group faced many German bombings. In the end, the campaign was “unhappy.”

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On a trip to Yugoslavia under the blessing of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Carton de Wiart’s plane would inexplicably stall or was likely shot down. The plane would crash in the Mediterranean with the crew managing to survive; swimming to the Italian coast, Carton de Wiart was another high profile prisoner of war with other Allied generals. They were placed in the Vincigliata Castle in Florence, nicknamed Mussolini’s Colditz.

From April 1941 to 1943, Carton de Wiart with other fellow generals of Irish descent would attempt daring escapes in futile attempts to head for Switzerland. One attempt had the men dig a tunnel from the castle to the nearby town, where they disguised themselves as Italian peasants. Allegedly, the ruse worked for only eight days before being recaptured.

In 1943, as the Italian peninsula was battered by Allied invasions from Sicily, the Italian government attempted to strike a peace deal with the Allied powers. The plan? To use Carton de Wiart as a messenger, to tell the Allies that the Italians were willing to strike a peace deal.

Helping Chiang kai-Shek

After two years as an Italian prisoner of war, Carton de Wiart served as a military advisor and as a Churchill representative to Chiang kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces from 1943 until his final retirement in 1947 from the military. This final chapter in a fighting man was, in his words, a whimsical place that he felt lacked much interest in helping out. In his memoirs he noted the odd ways the Chinese spoke, but enjoyed their work ethic and discipline.

After settling in his new assignment, he would help the Chinese nationalists not only fight against the Imperial Japanese, but the Communists under Mao Zedong. At first, the nationalists struggled to gain any aerial support against the Japanese; Carton de Wiart contended with this logistical struggle as he needed to fly vast distances to advise military movements.

Yet, Carton de Wiart would note that the Chinese nationalists could not face the masterful propaganda of Chinese communism. How Chiang kai-Shek was able to keep power for so long mesmerized Carton de Wiart. Before leaving China in 1947, he was offered by the Chinese generalissimo a personal advisor post. While flattered, he decided once he returned to England to retire from the military altogether. The story for the Chinese nationalists would not end well in 1949 however. Who knows what would have happened had Carton de Wiart stayed and advised?

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart Looks Back

After leaving China, Carton de Wiart wrote about his escapades and his ventures in his biography, Happy Odyssey, which he wrote after a suffering a serious injury; he fell down some steps in Rangoon after slipping on coconut matting in his leather shoes. He had a number of vertebrae broken in this incident, which inspired him to write his memoirs.

An honest man, he noted that his memoir wasn’t a great resource for historians as the book was a recollections of his memories from a warrior since retired. Happy Odyssey is a highly recommended book for anyone who wants to read more about this incredible man, in his own words.

Carton de Wiart lived peacefully until he passed away in his sleep in 1963 at the age of 83 after a well-deserved retirement in County Cork in Ireland fishing his time away. He is buried near Aghinagh House, where he lived until his death. Up to his last day, he was a man’s man.