The oldest son of Léon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart and his wife Ernestine Wenzig, Adrian Carton de Wiart was born on May 5, 1880, in Brussels, Belgium. Carton de Wiart was raised in a world of privilege, but he was never soft. Rumors swirled during his childhood that the young man was actually the illegitimate son of Belgian King Leopold II. As the child matured his time was split between Belgium and England.
When Adrian was six his parents divorced. His mother married Demosthenes Gregory Cuppa later that same year. This fact has no bearing on the story. I simply thought Demosthenes was one of the coolest names I had ever heard. After the divorce, Adrian’s father moved with him to Cairo. There he learned to speak Arabic.
Adrian’s father remarried, and the boy was dispatched to an English boarding school. This was considered de rigueur for young men of means during this time. He ultimately found himself at Balliol College in Oxford. However, in 1899 Carton de Wiart dropped out of school to go to war.
In a familiar refrain, Adrian lied about his age to get into uniform. In short order, he found himself in South Africa during the Second Boer War. In all the excitement of enlisting, training, and deploying to an active war zone, Adrian neglected to notify his father that he had joined the military. Soon after his arrival in Africa, he was wounded in the groin and belly and evacuated back to England. When his father found out that Adrian had left Oxford to fight in Africa he was livid. Adrian returned to Oxford after he recovered, but this didn’t last, either.
Soldiering was in his blood, and Carton de Wiart sought out chaos. He was granted a commission in the Second Imperial Light Horse and in 1901 made his way back to South Africa. The following year he was posted to India. While there he became enamored with the fine art of pig-sticking.
A Curiously Horrible Hobby
Pig sticking was popular among young British Army officers with more balls than brains. The Indian boar was known as the Andamanese pig and stood roughly three feet at the shoulder. Heavily tusked, these rangy animals topped out at around 300 pounds. Pig stickers took these ghastly beasts with long boar spears. These spears included a rigid cross guard to keep the enraged porker from sliding up the spear once he was pithed to rip the hunter’s heart out with his dying breath.
Of pig-sticking and young soldiers, an unknown military official of the era had this to say, “A startled or angry wild boar is…a desperate fighter [and therefore] the pig-sticker must possess a good eye, a steady hand, a firm seat, a cool head, and a courageous heart.”
I actually know a petite young lady in my modest little Southern town who likes to hunt wild pigs with dogs and a big honking knife. In a crowd, you would take her for a cheerleader. However, she is obviously insane.
Much like his American doppelganger, Theodore Roosevelt, Carton de Wiart viewed physical setbacks as fuel for personal improvement. In the wake of his battlefield injuries, he embraced physical fitness as a remedy for lurking weakness. Though an inveterate gentleman around the ladies, he was also known for his coarse diction when it was just guys. He was later described as, “A delightful character who must hold the world record for bad language.”
In 1908 he married the Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen. Once again, there’s no real point to including her here beyond the obvious observation that hers was an absolutely epic name. Together they had two daughters. Imagine having to ask this guy permission to date his little girl…
At the outset of the First World War, Carton de Wiart was posted to British Somaliland to face the Dervish leader Mohammad bin Abdullah. History has come to refer to this character as the “Mad Mullah.” While serving in the Somaliland Camel Corps, Adrian was shot twice in the face. These injuries cost him his left eye and part of his ear. If you’re counting, that should be four major wounds thus far. In 1915 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
After having been shot in the gut, the groin, and the ear and earning a handsome eye patch in lieu of an actual left eye, most combat veterans married to a wealthy Countess would rightfully retire to the family estate to draft their memoirs. By contrast, as soon as he could travel, Carton de Wiart caught a handy steamer for France and the largest war the world had ever seen.
Carton de Wiart commanded three separate infantry battalions and later a brigade. He caught bullets in his ankle and skull during the Battle of Cambrai. At the Battle of Passchendaele, he was shot in the hip and then later in the leg. At Arras, he took yet another round to the ear. He was wounded on seven separate occasions after he got to France.
In 1915 Adrian was shot in the left hand and duly reported to the unit surgeon. His hand was in quite a state, so de Wiart demanded the physician amputate his fingers so he could get back to the war. When the doctor refused the exasperated officer simply tore them off himself.
Carton de Wiart got his brigade a mere three days before the end of the war. Upon his arrival at his new command, the war-weary unit fell in for inspection. A man who was there said this of their new commander’s general demeanor, “Shivers went down the back of everyone in the brigade, for he had an unsurpassed record as a fire eater, missing no chance of throwing the men under his command into whatever fighting happened to be going…He arrived on a lively cob with his cap tilted at a rakish angle and a shade over the place where one of his eyes had been.”
The observer reported that the newly-minted brigadier was also missing a limb and had eleven wound stripes on his uniform. The first man in line for inspection noted that Carton de Wiart, despite having only one eye, ordered him to get his bootlace changed.
While a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 8th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in 1916, Carton de Wiart earned the Victoria Cross, his nation’s highest award for bravery in combat. His citation reads, “For most conspicuous bravery, coolness and determination during severe operations of a prolonged nature. It was owing in a great measure to his dauntless courage and inspiring example that a serious reverse was averted. He displayed the utmost energy and courage in forcing our 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 organization of positions and of supplies, passing unflinchingly through fire barrage of the most intense nature. His gallantry was inspiring to all.”
We’re Just Getting Warmed Up
After the war, Carton de Wiart was posted to Poland as part of the British-Poland Military Mission. Poland was at that time in conflict with the Russians, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, and the Czechs. Throughout his time in Poland, de Wiart faced peril aplenty. In 1920 while out on an observation train his party was attacked by Red Army cavalry. De Wiart posted himself on the footplate of the train and repelled the mounted troopers with his revolver. At one point he fell off of the moving train only to quickly reboard. You recall that throughout it all the man only had the one hand and a single eye.
Carton de Wiart retired in December of 1923 to the estate of a Polish friend in the Pripet Marshes. Of the next period of his life, he later said, “In my fifteen years in the marshes I did not waste one day without hunting.”
In the summer of 1939 with the Nazis preparing to invade, de Wiart was recalled to active duty. When the Germans overran his estate they stole his fishing tackle, gun collection, furniture, and clothing. De Wiart narrowly escaped through Romania after an attack by the Luftwaffe that killed the wife of one of his aides. By now the old soldier was angry.
Carton de Wiart commanded Commonwealth forces during a running fight across Norway culminating in a desperate seaborne evacuation led by Lord Louis Mountbatten. Afterward, he briefly commanded a division in Northern Ireland before being dispatched to Yugoslavia as head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission. While en route in a Vickers Wellington bomber, the plane crashed into the sea about a mile short of Italian-controlled Libya. The 60-year-old, one-armed British Major General was knocked unconscious in the crash, but came to once doused in the cold water of the Mediterranean. He swam to shore but was captured by Italian forces on the beach.
During his subsequent incarceration as a POW, Major General de Wiart attempted to escape five times. One attempt to tunnel out of his camp occupied him for seven months. He once successfully remained loose for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant. This was all the more impressive considering he had only one arm, one eye, sundry obvious scars, and didn’t speak Italian.
Once the Italians decided they would abandon the Nazis they requested de Wiart serve as their emissary to the British Army. In this capacity, he needed fresh clothes and was sent to Rome at government expense for a fitting. Though he distrusted the Italian tailors, he said that he, “Had no objection provided he did not resemble a gigolo.”
We lack the space to do this man justice. After the Italian surrender, de Wiart was posted through China, India, and Egypt in a variety of official roles. Along the way, he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
When passing through Rangoon, de Wiart tripped on a coconut mat and tumbled down stairs, fracturing several vertebrae in his back and rendering himself yet again unconscious. With a little time in a Burmese hospital he recovered. His first wife died in 1949. Two years later he married a woman 23 years his junior. Carton de Wiart finally retired for real to Aghinagh House in Killinardish, Ireland. He died in the summer of 1963 at the age of 83, a British hero of the sort about whom ballads are crafted.