Advertisement
This story is over 5 years old
Stuff

Two Gunshots to the Head Couldn't Kill This British Soldier

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was the one-handed, eye-patched army officer whose story reads more like a Rowan Atkinson creation than a real serving soldier. He was an impossibly lucky—or unlucky, depending on how you see it—caricature of British resolve.

by Jack Gilbert
13 August 2014, 12:00pm

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart (top right) with US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference, 1943. (Photo via)

This month marks 100 years since Britain entered the First World War. That decision—like most decisions made by various European countries during the summer of 1914—preceded a bloody four-year massacre that claimed millions of lives. War is hell for everyone involved, and this war was no exception. But it may have been especially hellish for one British soldier in particular.

During WWI, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was shot twice in the face, losing his left eye. He was also shot through the skull, ankle, hip, leg, and ear. He lost his left hand in 1915, tearing his own fingers off when a doctor refused to amputate them. Reflecting on his experiences once the Allied forces had all returned home and the full human toll of the conflict had set in, Carton de Wiart wrote, “Frankly, I enjoyed the war. Why do people want peace if the war is so much fun?”

The one-handed, eye-patched army officer sounds more like a Rowan Atkinson creation than a real serving soldier: an impossibly lucky—or unlucky, depending on how you see it—caricature of British resolve. But he was very much a real trooper, fighting not only in WWI, but both the Boer War and Second World War, suffering multiple gunshot wounds, surviving two plane crashes, and escaping capture twice in the process. He also served as an emissary on some of the most historically important events of the 20th century and was branded a “model of chivalry and honor” by Winston Churchill.

Born in Brussels in 1880, Carton de Wiart he was the son of Leon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart, an international lawyer who lived in Cairo—though some argue that he was really the illegitimate son of Leopold II, the King of Belgium. His early years were spent riding donkeys in Cairo and learning to speak English, French, and Arabic fluently.

When his father married an Englishwoman, it was decided that Carton de Wiart would be sent to boarding school in England once he turned 11. In his memoirs he recalls finding it tough to settle into British public school life. He engaged in as many sports as he could to ingratiate himself among the other schoolboys.

From school, Carton de Wiart went on to study at Balliol College Oxford, but he never excelled academically. After failing his preliminary law exams, he realized it was unlikely he’d be able to follow the footsteps his father had laid out for him. So, the advent of the second Anglo-Boer War in October of 1899 came at the perfect time. “At that moment, I knew that war was in my blood,” he wrote. The young man enlisted under a false age and name, because as a foreigner he was ineligible to fight for the English in the Boer War.

During a battle in South Africa Carton de Wiart was shot in the stomach and groin, forcing him to return home to a father who’d now discovered he’d abandoned Oxford for the battlefield. But parental disappointment and two gunshot wounds wasn’t enough to put him off war. In fact, it just made him thirst for the frontline even more. After a brief spell at home, Carton de Wiart was commissioned with the Second Imperial Light Horse and returned to South Africa, before being posted to India with the 4th Dragoon Guards. There, he spent most of his days hunting, until war broke out in 1914 and his military career really took off.

A young Carton de Wiart (Photo via)

Carton de Wiart began World War One on the East Africa Campaign, but longed for action on the Western Front, referring to his initial posting as like “playing in a village cricket match instead of in the Test Match.” During a battle in Somaliland he was shot in the ear and the face. This didn’t stop him from continuing his attack after he was “stitched up,” but another bullet soon ricocheted into his damaged eye, leaving him in “bad shape.” Forced home to receive medical treatment, Carton de Wiart managed to persuade a bemused medical board that he was fit to fight in France.

In the trenches, a now eye-patched Carton de Wiart finally found himself where he wanted to be, ready for his body to be pummeled with a few more bouts of rapid-flying lead. During the battle of the Somme he was shot in the skull by a machine gun the second he moved his head over the parapet. Rescued by his beloved servant Holmes, he was taken to the surgeon, who told him the bullet had passed through his skull without “touching a vital part.” The doctor ordered a bottle of champagne and Carton de Wiart was back in battle three weeks later.

Later, at the Battle of Passchendaele, Carton de Wiart was shot in the hip. Then, he was shot in the leg at Cambrai and through the ear at Arras. He lost his left hand to bullet wounds and was repeatedly hit by shrapnel—pieces of which surfaced decades later after another operation. In 1916, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, and throughout the war was promoted up through the ranks, until he was made a major in 1917.

A portrait of Carton de Wiart by the painter William Orpen (Photo via)

At the end of the war he was sent to Poland as second in command of the British-Poland Military Mission, spending the next two decades keeping himself busy with a set of remarkable diplomatic and military escapades. One of those was being captured by a group of Lithuanian soldiers, another was fighting off a group of Soviet cavalry using only a revolver. He retired from the army in 1923 and spent the next 15 years shooting on a Polish estate the size of Ireland.

When World War Two broke out, he left Poland and, in 1940, was recruited to lead an Anglo-French force in the taking of Namsos, a small town in Norway. This mission was a catastrophe and Carton de Wiart’s troops were shelled by German destroyer ships, attacked by German ski troops, and left waiting for German infantry to arrive, “sitting like rabbits in the snow.” Eventually a retreat was organized and Carton de Wiart arrived safely back on British territory on the 5th of May 1940, his 60th birthday.

Despite his unique take on bravery in battle, Carton de Wiart wasn’t promoted into senior command during World War Two. The award-winning British historian Max Hastings believes that was because he lacked the diplomatic skills required for such positions. “He was a warrior, and that’s what he liked doing best,” he told me. “And yes, his adventures were remarkable, but was he an important figure? No, I don’t think he was.”

For Hastings, Carton de Wiart was an inspirational “adventurer and eccentric who added hugely to the gaiety of nations and the gaiety of war.” But the historian feels the soldier was a little mad—admittedly, for good reason—and a relic of a former time.

A portrait of Carton de Wiart taken by the acclaimed photographer Cecil Beaton (Photo via)

“He would have done brilliantly under the Duke of Wellington’s command in the Napoleonic wars,” he said. “Churchill liked him for a time, because Churchill always liked these heroes and there was no question that Carton de Wiart was fantastically courageous. But people like him are a menace when you put him in charge of armies, because you never know what they're going to do next.”

In place of being promoted to high command, Carton de Wiart was sent on a series of diplomatic missions for the rest of the war. Of course, that didn’t slow him down. In April of 1941 he was appointed head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission and sent to Cairo to negotiate with the Yugoslavian government, but his plane crashed into the sea off the coast of Italian-controlled Libya. He lost consciousness when the plane hit the water, but was able to swim ashore with the rest of the crew, only to be captured by Italian policemen.

Taken prisoner by the Italians, Carton de Wiart tried to escape a number of times, including one attempt that involved him disguising himself as an Italian peasant. He was eventually brought to Rome when the Italians made plans to leave the war and wanted him to help negotiate a peace treaty. After two years overseas, he was finally repatriated on the 28th of August, 1943.

Carton de Wiart at the Cairo Conference, 1943 (Photo via)

Back only a month, he was called to spend a night at Winston Churchill’s home, where the prime minister asked him to go to China as his personal representative. On his way there he attended the Cairo Conference, which outlined the allies’ plans for post-war Japan. He spent the next four years on diplomatic missions, reporting back from the headquarters of the Nationalist Chinese Government in Chungking. 

According to Hastings, it was here that demonstrated how he really did lack any of the diplomatic skills needed to progress in the army. When he met Mao Tse Tung at a dinner party, for instance, he had no qualms “cutting short” his speech on the success of the communist organization. To round everything off, Carton de Wiart was involved in one more plane crash during his time in China.

The soldier retired in 1947, with the honorary rank of lieutenant-general. He lived the rest of his years out peacefully in County Cork, fishing and hunting. He died on the 5th of June, 1963 at the age of 83.

Despite all the brutality of warfare he saw during his time, seemingly nothing could drive him away from his main passion in life—being shot at in a field. Writing in his memoirs, he affirmed: "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."

@JackGilbert13

More stories about the wars:

The British Soldier Who Killed Nazis with a Sword and a Longbow

Unexploded British Bombs Are Still Hidden Under Berlin

Tagged:
WWI
WWII
Vice Blog
british army
winston churchill
war heroes
centenary
Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart
Cairo Conference
war wounds