The American general William Tecumseh Sherman is often quoted as saying that “War is hell.” Few members of the military have more of a right to believe that than the subject of today’s video – Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart. This hard-as-nails officer of the British Army served in the Second Boer War in South Africa, World War One, and World War Two.
He sustained horrific injuries in the line of duty, and was brought to the edge of death more times than a person could count. However, war was definitely not hell for this borderline-deranged military hero, Adrian Carton de Wiart. For this unkillable soldier, it was more like home.
While de Wiart has been held up by the English as a legendary example of courage and national pride, he was actually half-Belgian, half-Irish. He was born in Brussels, Belgium, on the 5th of May, 1880. His father was Belgian aristocrat, lawyer, and diplomat Leon Carton de Wiart.
Leon was a man of high international regard, as Grand Cross of the Egyptian Orders of Osmandiah and Medjidieh and a Knight of the Belgian Order. Needless to say, having a father with two such prestigious titles could have easily set Adrian up for a charmed life.
His mother was Ernestine-Zephirine-Emilie, an Irish woman who would die quite early in Adrian’s life. The same can also sadly be said for three of Adrian’s young sisters. Even from a young age, Adrian Carton de Wiart’s life played out like fiction. Growing up, his reputation was marred by rumours that he was secretly the illegitimate son of the Belgian King, Leopold II.
Much of Adrian’s childhood was split between Belgium, England, and Egypt. Due to his father’s business dealings in the Middle East, young Adrian became fluent in Arabic. When Adrian’s father remarried, this time to the English woman Mary James, Adrian was shipped off to a Catholic boarding school in Birmingham, UK.
He attended The Oratory, where he was trained to become the quintessential British gentleman and also an avid sportsman. Adrian was being groomed to follow his father’s path into business and law, but Adrian had other ideas. The founder of his boarding school, John Henry Newman, was famous for saying, “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning.”
Even if Adrian never heard this quote, its sentiment clearly resonated deeply with him. The court room held no satisfaction for Adrian Carton de Wiart. For as long as he could remember, he yearned for the excitement of battle. The thrill of war. And he knew that as soon as he got an opportunity, he would eagerly enlist.
That opportunity presented itself with the beginning of the Second Boer War in 1899. At the time, Adrian was attending Balliol College in Oxford, trying to earn a law degree. He was an unimpressive student, underperforming in exams and being dispassionate towards his studies.
When Adrian heard about the war, he immediately fled Oxford and found his way to the nearest enlistment centre. Adrian just knew that he needed to be involved in the war somehow, saying later in his memoirs: “At that moment, I knew once and for all that war was in my blood. If the British didn’t fancy me, I would offer myself to the Boers.”
The enlistment centre was where Adrian ran into his first obstacle: He was nineteen at the time, and the enlistment age was twenty. This didn’t do much to stop him, though, as Adrian lied about his age, his parental permission, his citizenship, and enlisted under the name “Trooper Carton.” Before he knew it, he was off to war.
Adrian’s long and illustrious life as a military serviceman was about to begin. The Second Boer War was a conflict between Imperial Britain and the local forces of South Africa, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, also known as the Boer States.
Adrian became a member of the Middlesex Yeomanry, a volunteer cavalry regiment. He served alongside Paget’s Horse, an elite British cavalry unit that acted as the backbone of Britain’s ground offensive in the Boer conflicts. However, while he was serving in the Orange River Colony, he was struck down – not by enemy soldiers, but by a sudden fever.
He was hospitalized for a brief period, before re-enlisting with the local military corps. Adrian experienced his first of many injuries while attempting to cross a river in South Africa, where Boer commandos ambushed him and shot him in the stomach and groin. He was no older than twenty at the time.
When he was found injured by his superiors, they asked him if there were many Boers in the area. Adrian’s reply? “No, but the few were very good shots”. Adrian survived and was shipped back to England for treatment, where his furious father chastised him for skipping school. But Adrian didn’t care – he may have been shot, but he survived. And now, he’d truly gotten a taste for the thrill of battle. A thrill he didn’t intend on giving up.
When Adrian fully recovered, with his father’s begrudging approval, he quit college and decided to pursue a military career full-time. He took an extravagant first-class plane trip back to Cape Town, handing out huge tips to the air hostesses and landing almost completely broke as a result. But Adrian didn’t mind.
He was a soldier again, and that made him feel alive. In South Africa, Adrian began to act out. He was promoted from trooper to corporal, before being immediately demoted for threatening to punch a sergeant. While he managed to reach the rank of 2nd Lieutenant during his service in South Africa, he saw practically no combat, which Adrian found extremely frustrating.
He was a fighter and a playboy – with a love of gambling, drinking, socializing, and hunting. The one thing Adrian couldn’t abide by was boredom, so when the second the Boer War came to an end, he applied to be sent to British Somaliland.
There, British Imperial forces were fighting against a guerilla warfare campaign lead by Mohammad Bin Abdullah, known to the colonialist authorities by his nickname “The Mad Mullah.” However, instead of immediately getting his combat wishes, he was instead stationed in Muttra, India.
There, his boredom drove him to create more trouble. Mounted pig-hunting became his favorite pastime, because it was the closest thing to real combat he could get. Even this caused him injuries, as – after falling from his horse – his horse also fell on him, cracking his ribs and ankle. Adrian’s frustration grew so great that he even shot an Indian servant in the butt after a petty squabble.
His superiors jailed him for this act of wanton violence. He’d spend the next several years killing time – but not enemy soldiers – in various British and allied territories across the globe. Adrian used his oodles of downtime to practice physical fitness, getting so strong he was capable of ripping apart decks of playing cards with his bare hands. Though this skill probably didn’t make him popular with fellow soldiers in the barracks who just wanted to play some poker.
In this time, he swore allegiance to the king and officially became a British citizen. During his deployment in Europe, he also married an Austrian Countess with a ridiculously long name: Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen.
He was doing pretty much everything except fighting. When World War One broke out, Adrian was ecstatic, and was finally deployed to British Somaliland to join the war against the Mad Mullah. Adrian was assigned a squadron of the Somaliland Camel Corps, tasked with hunting down the Dervishes, followers of the Mad Mullah.
During a daring attack on one of the Mullah’s fortresses, Adrian – wrapped up in the adrenaline of the fight – decided to charge in head first. Unsurprisingly, the Dervishes shot Adrian three times in the face, taking out his eye and blowing off half of his ear. Because Adrian seemed to be borderline immortal, this didn’t kill him.
He lost that eye forever, and was sent back to England for treatment and redeployment. When describing this conflict later on, Adrian said, “It had all been most exhilarating fun!” The British army conceded to Adrian’s wishes to be assigned to the Western Front, on the condition he wore a glass eye.
However, because he found the glass eye to be uncomfortable, he tore it out on the cab taking him to the airport. Adrian was more of an eye-patch guy. Later biographers would even describe him as looking like a “gentleman pirate.” Adrian joined the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment stationed along the Western Front, in February of 1915.
During the Second Battle of Ypres, while attempting to relieve an infantry unit, Adrian’s regiment was fired upon by a German artillery unit. Shell fragments, and exploded parts of his own wristwatch, utterly mutilated Adrian’s hand. It only left a part of his palm, and his two remaining fingers were hanging on by some thin tendons.
When a field medic refused to amputate these fingers, Adrian just tore them off at the stump and carried on. Adrian then fought in the Battle of the Somme, and was, once again, a hard-as-nails lunatic. Other soldiers reported seeing Adrian tearing the pins out of grenades with his teeth and throwing them into enemy territory with the hand that still had fingers.
During the assault on the occupied village of La Boisselle, after the sudden deaths of three unit-commanders, Adrian took command of all three units and lead them to victory across no man’s land. He was awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross for this act of valour in battle. Like any adrenaline junkie, Adrian wanted to maintain the high.
He continued charging ahead in battle after battle, until another near-death experience in the Delville Wood trenches. A series of trenches so treacherous they earned the nickname The Devil’s Wood. There, a sniper blasted him straight through the back of the skull. Predictably, he didn’t care.
Nor did he care in subsequent battles when he was shot once again in the ear, hip, leg, and ankle. Whenever Adrian was released from the hospital, he ran straight back to the frontline, having the time of his life. In the aftermath of World War One, he remarked that he really quite enjoyed the war. In the interim between World War One and Two, Adrian couldn’t bear to remain out of conflict.
He took part in battles across Eastern Europe, assisting Poland in its wars against Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, and Soviet Russia. In classic de Wiart style, he achieved numerous feats of daring, high-octane action. He survived several plane crashes, nonchalantly brushing off the resulting injuries.
He also fought off an onslaught of Cossack cavalrymen with a single revolver when they attempted to hijack a train he was protecting. Even when he fell off said train, while it was moving, he was quick to jump back on and continue the battle. After victory in the Polish Wars, Adrian remained in Poland for eighteen years. However, when World War Two began, Adrian didn’t hesitate to jump back into battle.
Using a fake passport, he returned to the UK and re-enlisted. By this point, Adrian was sixty-one-years-old, with one eye and one hand. It didn’t stop him, because as you’ve probably gathered by this point, basically nothing could stop Adrian Carton de Wiart. Initially, Adrian narrowly survived taking part in a few disastrous operations to drive the Nazis out of Northern Europe, all of which failed.
In 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave Adrian a secret envoy mission to offer assistance to Tito in Yugoslavia. However, during this mission, the Wellington Bomber transporting Adrian and his comrades crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. Adrian, despite being an elderly, half-blind amputee, still managed to swim himself and a wounded fellow soldier back to the shoreline.
He was then taken to a POW camp for British officers in Vincigliata Castle, near Florence, by Mussolini’s forces. Was this the end of Adrian’s story? Of course not. He and five other prisoners, all of whom were in their fifties, built a sixty-foot tunnel under the castle and escaped. They posed as Italian villagers, despite not speaking a lick of Italian, and managed to evade capture for over a week before getting found and taken back to the castle.
When Mussolini was deposed and killed, Adrian and the other prisoners were freed and returned to the UK. This would be Adrian’s final war, but not the last of his experience in international relations. He was sent on a diplomatic mission to China, and while he didn’t kill anyone, he still managed to exercise his trademark brand of foolhardy bravery. He told Chairman Mao Tse Tung, to his face, that he hated Communism.
Mao apparently took it in good humour. And, just because he was a creature of habit, he survived another plane crash during his stay in China. Adrian finally passed away, not from war, but from natural causes at age 83. He died in his County Cork home in Ireland, survived by his wife and four children – none of whom were mentioned in his memoirs. Though, in Adrian Carton de Wiart’s defence, he had a lot of ground to cover.
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