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Adrien Carton die Wiart: Britain's immortal solider
Despite being shot multiple times all over his body, losing an eye and a hand, and being taken a prisoner of war, Adrien Carton die Wiart apparently enjoyed his time in military service.
After World War I ended, the British Army officer Adrien Carton de Wiart was asked to sum up his experience. He wrote, ‘Frankly, I had enjoyed the war’. This was a man who did not fit the stereotype of the mud-spattered Tommy shivering in a hole in Belgium waiting to be gassed to death by the Germans.
Veteran of the Second Boer War, World War I and World War II, recipient of the Victoria Cross in 1916, prisoner of war camp escapee, knight of the realm, fitness fanatic and sufferer of multiple injuries that would have caused a lesser mortal to throw in the towel, Adrien Carton de Wiart was cut from a completely different cloth.
The early years
Born into an aristocratic Catholic family in Belgium in 1880, Carton de Wiart was packed off by his stepmother to a boarding school in England. From there, he went up to Balliol College, Oxford.
However, the lure of military adventure over the life of an undergraduate proved too hard to resist. He abandoned his studies, lied about his age and joined the British Army under the false name ‘Trooper Carton’. After completing his training, he was shipped off to fight in the Second Boer War.
The Second Boer War
While serving in South Africa, Carton de Wiart was shot in the stomach and groin, which led to him being invalided back to Britain. The news that he was in hospital with battle injuries came as a surprise to his furious father, who thought his son was still studying at Oxford. However, once he’d calmed down, he allowed him to stay in the army.
Carton de Wiart made a full recovery and was quickly commissioned into the Second Imperial Light Horse and sent back to South Africa. This was followed by a stint in India where he took up the hobby of killing pigs while on horseback with a sharpened stick. It was a different time.
The Great War
News that Britain had declared war on Germany in 1914 reached Carton de Wiart as he was on his way to British Somaliland. In an attack on the enemy fort of Shimber Berris during the army’s campaign to put down an uprising by the Somali religious leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, Carton de Wiart was shot twice in the face, losing an eye and part of his ear. This would have put paid to most men’s military careers. Adrien Carton de Wiart was not like most men.
By February 1915, he was in the thick of the fighting on the Western Front. Over the next three years, Carton de Wiart took a bullet to the skull and another to the ankle during the Battle of the Somme; he was shot through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele; shot through the leg at Cambrai and through the ear at Arras. When his hand was badly wounded, he asked a doctor to amputate his fingers. The doctor refused so the injured man simply pulled them off himself. His hand was eventually amputated.
Missing a hand, an eye and wounded multiple times, it would have surprised nobody had Carton de Wiart opted for a quiet life after the war ended in 1918. However, he had no intention of doing so.
The Second World War
Carton de Wiart spent the interwar years in Poland working for the British-Poland Military Mission. When the country was invaded in 1939, he escaped Warsaw as the Nazis advanced on the city. His motorcade was strafed by the Luftwaffe and two of his party were killed. The survivors made it to Romania, where Carton de Wiart evaded arrest by using a false passport to fly out of the country.
After leading an unsuccessful Anglo-French attempt to prevent the Nazis from taking the town of Namsos in Norway, Carton de Wiart was sent to Yugoslavia in 1941 to negotiate British assistance with the imminent invasion of the country. However, after his plane crashed in Italian-occupied Libya, he was caught and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. He had no intention of staying a prisoner for long.
Carton de Wiart made five escape attempts over the next two years, including spending seven months digging a tunnel. On one occasion, he managed to escape and evade capture for eight days - a remarkable feat for a 62-year-old man with an eyepatch, a missing hand and multiple battle scars who couldn’t speak a word of Italian.
Eventually, he was taken to Rome where he was asked to take a message back to the British informing them that Italy wished to leave the Axis. Carton de Wiart was only too happy to oblige on one condition - that he was provided with a suit as good as any available from a tailor’s shop in Savile Row. The Italians duly furnished him with one before packing him off to Lisbon, after which he made his way back to England to deliver their message.
He spent the rest of the war as Churchill’s representative in China, where he once memorably interrupted Mao Zedong during dinner when the future dictator was in full flow. Carton de Wiart wanted to berate Mao for not attacking the Japanese. Mao was stunned into silence before bursting out laughing. For his long and distinguished military service, Carton de Wiart was promoted to the rank of major general and made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1945.
The old warhorse finally retired in 1947 at the age of 66 after a trademark brush with death when he slipped on matting and broke several vertebrae. Two years later, his wife of 41 years, the incomparably named Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen, died. He remarried a woman 23 years his junior called Joan Sutherland and moved into her large Georgian mansion in Ireland, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Adrien Carton de Wiert died at the age of 83 on 5th June 1963. He is buried, rather fittingly for such an unconventional individual, not in the graveyard of the church near his and Joan’s home, but on the other side of the graveyard wall.