Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, whose war service sounds like fiction but is all true!

Adrian Carton de Wiart fought in the Boer War, World War One, World War Two and during his military service from 1899 to 1947 he survived being shot in the stomach, groin, head, ankle, hip and leg. He also survived two air crashes, five escape attempts from a prisoner of war camp and after a doctor refused to amputate his fingers he bit them off. He also lost an eye and in 1915 was awarded the VC.

Adrian Carton de Wiart was born in Belgium in 1880 to an Irish mother and a Belgium aristocrat but it was widely rumoured he was the illegitimate son of the King of Belgium, Leopold II.

In 1899 he was sent to England to study at Oxford University but quickly dropped out and enlisted into the British Army under a false name and was known as Trooper Carton and was sent to fight in South Africa during the Boer War. He was shot in the stomach and groin and sent back to England but after recovering he rejoined the army under his real name and after being commissioned returned to South Africa in 1901.

During the British campaign against the ‘Mad Mullah’ in Somaliland whilst attacking an enemy fort Carton de Wiart was shot twice in the face and lost his left eye.

For a short time he wore a glass eye but whilst travelling in a taxi he threw it out of the window and put on a black eye patch which he wore for the remainder of his life.

Whilst serving on the Western Front as an infantry commander during the Great War he was wounded seven more times and after a doctor refused to amputate his mangled fingers he bit them off.

During the Battle of the Somme he was shot through the skull and ankle, at the Battle of Passchendaele he was shot through the leg and whilst fighting at Arras he was shot through the ear.

His citation for his VC during the Battle of the Somme States:“For most conspicuous bravery, coolness and determination during service operations of a prolonged nature. It was owing in a great measure to his doubtless courage and inspiring example that a serious reverse was altered. He displayed the utmost energy and courage in forcing an 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.”

Carton Medals Rotated

Despite losing various body parts Carton de Wiart said, “Frankly, I enjoyed the war”

From 1919 to 1921 he saw further action in Poland during the Polish-Soviet War and whilst on a train being attacked by the Soviet Cavalry he fought them off with his revolver from the running board of the train and at one point he fell onto the track and quickly jumped back to continue the fight. He later survived an air crash and spent a brief time in captivity.

He retired from the British Army in 1923 with the rank of Major-General (said to be honorary) and spent the next 16 years hunting on a friend’s 500,000 acre estate in Poland a few miles from the Soviet border. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 he was recalled as head of the British Military Mission in Poland and later escaped Poland with his staff whilst being chased by German and Russian soldier and despite being attacked by the Luftwaffe they made it to the Romanian border. Carton de Wiart then travelled back to England by aircraft after obtaining a false passport.

In 1940 he commanded Anglo-French forces in Norway with orders to take the city of Trondheim and with little support managed to move his troops over the mountains during which they were attacked from the air by the Luftwaffe, shelled by German navy destroyers and machine gunned by German troops and was eventually ordered to evacuate and board Royal Navy transports which were heavily attacked during their withdrawal.

On his 60th birthday he arrived at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, Scotland and after returning to his London home it was bombed out during the blitz and all his medals were destroyed and he had to apply to the War Office for replacements.

In 1941 he was appointed head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission and whilst on an aircraft flying to Cairo both engines failed and crashed in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya which was controlled by Italy. After being knocked out during the crash he was revived by the cold water and he along with the crew swum a mile to the shore where they were captured by the Italians and sent to a POW camp in Italy.

Carton de Wiart was involved in five escape attempts, including spending seven months tunnelling with other prisoners. After one escape he spent eight days disguised as an Italian peasant but was easily recognised because he had one eye, one arm and could not speak Italian.

In 1943 he was released from prison and acted as a negotiator for the Italian surrender after which he returned to England and became Churchill’s personal representative in China until 1947. Whilst returning to England he stayed at a guest house and whilst walking down the stairs he slipped on coconut matting and fell, knocked himself out and broke his back. After eventually arriving back at England it has been said a doctor successfully extracted an incredible amount of shrapnel from his old wounds.

Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Paul Chislain de Wart VC, KBE, CB, CMG,DSO eventually moved to County Cork, Ireland, where he died in 1963 at the age of 83.
After his death one commentator said: “With his black eyepatch and empty sleeve, Carton de Wiart looked like an elegant pirate and became a figure of legend”

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

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