In 1947 as he finally settled into a quiet life of retirement, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart must surely have felt fortunate to still be alive. Having been involved in so many major conflicts, the soldier was now bearing the nasty scars of his harrowing experiences. But despite all that he’d been through, he’d somehow made it.
Carton de Wiart’s time in the British military spanned almost half a century. That’s a substantial amount of time, and it meant that the Belgium-born soldier saw a lot of action. After all, the man was beginning his army career right at the dawn of the 20th century, an era of extreme turmoil.
The British Empire was actively involved in a huge number of wars across the first half of the century. As such, Carton de Wiart was himself a part of several of these conflicts. Over the years, in fact, the soldier saw action in the Boer War, World War I and World War II.
Remarkably, Carton de Wiart survived all of these deadly conflicts. But that’s not to say that he didn’t pick up some terrible injuries along the way. Over the decades, the soldier was shot several times – and he even emerged from not one, but two airplane wrecks. On top of that, he was imprisoned by enemy soldiers on a number of occasions.
By the time of his retirement, Carton de Wiart was understandably scarred and mangled. Body parts were missing, and bullet wounds littered his entire body. Yet through luck or sheer will, the soldier had always prevailed over his horrific injuries. As unlikely as it seems, the man made it to a venerable age.
Carton de Wiart had started his life in the Belgian capital of Brussels, the child of lawyer Leon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart. However, it’s been rumored that he was actually the secret love child of the Belgian monarch Leopold II. In any case, it was Leon who brought up the child, taking him to Cairo for the early stages of his life.
Carton de Wiart’s dad ended up marrying a woman from England, and so a decision was taken to send the boy to her home country. Aged 11, he arrived there to attend boarding school. However, he apparently found this period quite tough. So, in an attempt to integrate with his fellow pupils, the boy played numerous sports.
After school, Carton de Wiart continued his education at Oxford University, attending Balliol College, although higher education wasn’t exactly his forte. In fact, he failed to pass some examinations that would have set him up for a career in law. Around that time, though, another path opened up as a result of the Second Boer War.
Lasting from 1899 to 1902, the Second Boer War was a brutal conflict which resulted in many thousands of deaths. On one side of the struggle was Britain, while on the other was the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. Taken together, these two territories were known as the Boer states.
According to some sources, the war had its origins in a dispute over wealth. Specifically, the Brits and the Boers were both vying for control of a recently exposed gold mine. After negotiations between the sides broke down, the Boer states declared war on Britain and the conflict kicked off in October 1899.
The war ultimately went down in the history books as an extremely significant conflict. For one thing, the guerrilla strategies employed by the Boers were recognized around the globe. And as for Britain, the horrendous manner in which the empire treated captured Boer soldiers is now notorious.
The combat lasted for more than two-and-a-half years, finally concluding at the end of May 1902. By the conflict’s end, the British had emerged as victors and the two Boer states disintegrated. The territories were eventually brought under the control of the British Empire as the Union of South Africa.
The war had reportedly claimed the lives of more than 28,000 Boer and British fighters. Some 46,000 noncombatants were killed, of which 26,000 had been Boer people imprisoned in British concentration camps. The remaining 20,000 deaths had been African individuals who died in other camps run by the Brits.
The Boer War was a harrowing event, but for a young Carton de Wiart it represented an opportunity. Writing in his memoir later in life, the soldier recalled the outbreak of the conflict. In his words, “At that moment, I knew that war was in my blood.” He signed up to the British Army under false credentials; as a foreign-born individual he did not qualify under the force’s selection criteria.
The conflict in Africa marked the beginning of a career in combat that saw Carton de Wiart experience some tremendous levels of pain. During one particular outbreak of hostilities, the soldier was fired upon and wounded in his belly and groin. He survived, but he was sent back to Britain.
Carton de Wiart’s military career, however, was far from over at this point. Having spent some time in his homeland, he was then sent back to South Africa as a soldier. After that, he ended up in India, where he whiled away his time by hunting. Duty called again in 1914, however, as the course of global history took an especially dark turn.
Otherwise referred to as the Great War, World War I kicked off in 1914 following the murder of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Over the next four years, the world descended into a state of chaos. On one side, the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria fought bitterly with the Allies, who comprised Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Romania, Japan and America.
With the advent of new technologies, World War I unleashed unparalleled devastation upon the peoples of the Earth. Moreover, the gruesome nature of the trench warfare that came to define the conflict led to many deaths. By its conclusion in 1918 the war had taken over 16 million people’s lives.
Carton de Wiart’s introduction to this immense conflict was in Somaliland, where he battled against the Dervish movement. The soldier, however, sought a return to Europe, where he wished to fight on the Western Front. Comparing his exploits in Somaliland with the military actions in Europe, he once remarked that it was like “playing in a village cricket match instead of in the Test Match.”
Despite Carton de Wiart’s feelings on the conflict in Somaliland, though, it was nonetheless dangerous. In fact, the soldier was himself badly injured there after he took a bullet to the face. This wasn’t enough to keep him down, however, and he quickly resumed in the fighting. Then, another bullet hit him, this time in the eye. By the end of his exploits here, he’d been awarded with a medal – but he’d lost an eye and bits of an ear.
One Lord Ismay fought with Carton de Wiart during this time. In remarks given in 1964 he remembered what his comrade had gone through. As reported by the BBC, he said, “[Carton de Wiart] 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.”
In the wake of this latest round of terrible injuries, Carton de Wiart was sent to Britain to recuperate. However, he was eager to return to the battlefield. As Lord Ismay put it, “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’s recovery took place in an institution located in London’s Park Lane. This was to be a familiar place for the soldier, as it was here that he ended up every time he was badly hurt in the following years. In fact, it was so expected that he’d show up that the facility reportedly held on to pajamas specifically for him.
Following the loss of his eye, Carton de Wiart was given a glass replacement. This so irritated him, however, that he’s said to have once removed it himself and tossed it out of a cab he was in. From then on, he wore an eyepatch. And by 1915 he was finally sent to the Western Front, where he fought at Ypres in Belgium.
Seeing action in Ypres, Carton de Wiart picked up yet another terrible injury. This time, it was one of his hands that was left horrifically mangled. Dealing with the damage himself, the soldier ripped some of his own fingers off because a medic refused to remove them. It was only later that a surgeon properly amputated his whole hand.
Roughly a year after that horrific episode, Carton de Wiart was back in action. This time around, having persuaded a medical panel that he was able, he was sent to France, where he took part in the Battle of the Somme. It was during this period that Carton de Wiart developed a reputation among other soldiers.
And that’s hardly a surprise. By this time, after all, Carton de Wiart had developed what we might generously refer to as a unique appearance. In addition to his moustachioed face, he was now wearing an eye patch and missing a hand. But on top of this, he also became known for his courage.
Perhaps predictably, however, the Battle of the Somme saw Carton de Wiart getting hurt yet again. Just as he raised his head from cover, the unfortunate soldier took yet another bullet to the head. This somehow traveled through the man’s skull without hitting anything major, however, and he survived yet another harrowing wound.
A person known as A. Holmes acted as a servant to Carton de Wiart during this time. In 1964 Holmes spoke to the BBC about this particular injury. He said, “They shifted us from Ypres then back on the Somme again to the Devil’s Wood, and that’s where the old man got shot through the back of the head. But fortunately it missed his spinal cord.”
Carton de Wiart’s misfortune in battle wasn’t finished yet, either. Back in action during the Battle of Passchendaele, he sustained an injury to his hip. Later, while fighting in the region of Cambrai, he was struck through the ear. The man, it seemed, couldn’t stop getting hurt, but his military career continued regardless. In fact, by 1917 he’d even been promoted to the rank of major.
Having said that, Carton de Wiart failed to climb the military ladder as far as he otherwise might have. Some people attribute this fact to his brave nature, which could perhaps be construed as outright foolhardiness. As historian Timothy Bowman remarked to the BBC in 2015, “His habit of turning up in the front line and getting himself injured didn’t bode well for his ability to manage a division.”
By the close of World War I, Carton de Wiart had been shipped over to Poland. Here, even though this was during a period in between the two world wars, he still managed to get himself into trouble. On one occasion, he ended up getting captured by Lithuanian forces. At another stage, he fought against Soviet soldiers. Eventually, though, he drifted into a quieter life.
Such a peaceful existence, however, was destined to come to an end. World War II eventually broke out, and so a year later in 1940 Carton de Wiart returned to active military duty. He was assigned the task of leading some Allied troops in taking over a Norwegian town. The operation, however, was a disaster, and his soldiers had to fall back. Carton de Wiart himself then ended up back in Britain.
The following year, Carton de Wiart was given a new task. He was ordered to travel to Egypt in order to contribute to negotiations with Yugoslav officials. On the plane journey to Cairo, however, disaster yet again struck. The aircraft fell from the skies and ended up in the Mediterranean. Carton de Wiart passed out upon impact, but he then woke up and managed to strike out towards the Libyan coastline, the nearest land. When he reached shore, however, he was taken prisoner by Italian authorities.
Now, Carton de Wiart was a prisoner, though unsurprisingly his spirits weren’t the least bit dampened. Despite his now advancing age, his inability to speak Italian, and his notable look, he nonetheless attempted to break free. He even managed it at one stage, but he was recaptured after just over a week.
Eventually, Carton de Wiart was officially released by the Italians. Soon after, he was actually invited to stay over at the residence of Winston Churchill. Apparently, Churchill personally asked that the soldier go to China to act as a diplomat; this was a role that he was to perform for the next four years.
It’s been suggested that Carton de Wiart was lacking in the art of diplomacy. Apparently, he even once interrupted Chairman Mao and showed no unease about having done so. Of course, it wouldn’t be right if he left China unblemished. Naturally, he was once again in an aircraft that crashed during this period.
Somehow, though, Carton de Wiart survived and made it to retirement. In 1947 after everything he’d been through, he left the military as an honorary lieutenant-general. Moving to Ireland, he spent his remaining decade-and-a-half living a life of leisure. The ex-soldier finally passed away on June 5, 1963 at the ripe old age of 83.
Reading through Carton de Wiart’s own writings, we can gather a sense of how much he revered war. He wrote, “Governments may think and say as they like, but force cannot be eliminated, and it is the only real and unanswerable power. We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.”
Carton de Wiart’s legacy has endured into contemporary times, with soldiers of our own age taking note. As a veteran soldier who fought in Afghanistan, Thomas O’Donnell has marveled at Carton de Wiart’s story. As he reflected to the BBC, “For him to have endured all those injuries and gone through so much rehabilitation in so many conflicts and to never give up is really inspirational, particularly given the inferior medical facilities they had then. I just don’t know how he managed it.”