Phoebe’s Favourite Badass – Lt-Gen Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO
I read ERs article on her favourite badass with interest. Theodore Roosevelt does seem to have been a leading man in the world of Politics and indeed his moves to re-vitalise the United States were ambitious and ground-breaking. He was definitely a man of the people, and perhaps worthy of the title. But, for me, having a military background, it only seems natural for me to turn my attention to an area that I feel I am close to, whilst choosing my favourite badass. War. But who to choose? So many worthy men to choose from. Doge Enrico Dandolo? Marcus Cassius Scaeva? Xiahou Dun? What did all these men have in common? They were all blind, at least in one eye, Dandolo completely, yet didn’t let that stop them in battle. So I’m going to stick with that theme, and tell you about someone who has to be one of the greatest warriors and leaders of an army in history. Lt-Gen Adrian Carton de Wiart.
Born in Brussels in 1880, to a Belgian aristocrat father and an Irish mother, Adrian Carton de Wiart moved to Cairo where his father practiced International Law and was a magistrate, following the death of his mother where he learned to speak Arabic. He was sent to a Catholic boarding school in England at age eleven by his English step-mother. From there, he went up to Balliol College, Oxford where he was studying law, when war broke out between Britain and the Boers in 1899. Carton de Wiart abandoned his studies without graduating and adopting a pseudonym, and false age (claiming to be 25) he joined the British Army as ‘Trooper Carton’. At the time, Adrian was 19 years old, and being Belgian by nationality prevented him joining under his own merit. He would also have been required to have his father’s permission. He later proclaimed that he was determined to join the war, and if the British wouldn’t have him, he would have joined the Boers instead.
His active service however wasn’t to last long on this first attempt, early in the second Boer War, he was injured in the stomach and groin, and sent home to recover. During his convalescence he resumed his studies briefly, however when his father found out what he had done, he was furious. He did however allow Adrian to remain in the Army. By 1901, and with a commission under his belt, de Wiart was back in South Africa as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Dragoon Guards. In 1902 he was transferred to India, before returning to Africa in 1904 by which time he had been promoted.
In 1907, despite being a British Army soldier for 8 years, Carton de Wiart was still a Belgian national. On September 13th, he took his oath of allegiance to Edward VII and became a British Subject. Between 1904 and 1914, Lt Carton de Wiart was aide-de-camp to Commander in Chief Sir Henry Hildyard, which allowed him time to pursue his favourite pastimes such as polo, jogging and other sports. His injuries had impressed upon him the need to keep fit. De Wiart, being from an aristocratic family was well connected in Europe. Two of his cousins, Count Henri and Baron Edmond would be Prime Minister of Belgium and Political secretary to the King of Belgium respectively. By 1910, he had been promoted to the rank of Captain. In 1908 Adrian had married, to Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen, with whom he had two daughters.
As the Great War broke out in 1914, de Wiart was given second in command of the Somaliland Camel Corps; He took part in a small-scale conflict with the “mad Mullah” Mohammed bin Abdullah during which he was wounded again, this time being shot twice in the face, losing an eye, and part of his ear in an attack on an enemy fort at Shimber Berris. Lord Ismay, later military advisor to Winston Churchill, who was a staff officer in the unit at the time recalled many years later, that “He 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… 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.” Following his recuperation, in the same nursing home in England as his previous visit, the Sir Douglas Shields Nursing home, on Park Lane, he was given a glass eye, which legend has it, he found so uncomfortable that he threw it out of a Taxi window and instead chose to wear his now famous black eye-patch.
In May 1915, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. But by this time, Carton de Wiart was already in France. Adrian commanded three infantry divisions and a brigade during his time on the Western Front, participating in the Battles of the Somme, Passchendaele, Arras and Cambrai. He was also wounded SEVEN further times, over this period, being shot in the back of the head, stomach, ankle, leg and hip and having part of his hand blown off in an enemy shell explosion. A doctor refused to remove his damaged fingers, so de Wiart bit and tore two of them off himself. His hand was amputated a short while later. For his actions particularly those on the Somme, he received the Victoria Cross, in 1916. De Wiart maintained that the medal did not belong to him, but to his entire unit as they all performed their actions with equal commitment and bravery, with not one man more deserving than another.
His men would later recall how, despite his one eye and missing hand, their commanding officer was an inspiration to them, giving them the urge to follow him into battle. He was often to be found standing on a parapet, pulling grenade pins with his teeth and throwing them at the enemy with his one good hand, urging his men forward. Between March 1916, and July 1917, de Wiart was promoted several times, eventually earning the rank of Major, and was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre, Belgian Officer of the Order of the Crown and from Britain, Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in the King’s birthday honours list in 1918. He ended the war with a Brigade command and the temporary rank of Brigadier-General. His verdict on the whole event was “Frankly, I enjoyed the war.”
Following the Armistice, Adrian was sent to Poland on peace-keeping duties between the Poles and the Ukranians, Soviets Lithuanians and Czechs. He was acting in a military advisory capacity for several key figures during this time, and again saw action particularly when his train was attacked by Red Army cavalry, which he defended by standing on the footplate and firing his revolver until they retreated. At one point during the skirmish he fell off, but quickly re-took his position and continued. Following the Polish victory in these wars, Adrian Carton de Wiart officially retired from the British Army with the honorary rank of Major-General in December 1923. But it doesn’t end there……
Following his retirement, Carton de Wiart made his home on an island three miles from the Polish-Soviet border on land reserved for him by his friend Prince Karol Mikolaj Radziwill, his final Polish aide-de-camp who had inherited 500,000 acres following the murder of his uncle by Communists. Adrian spent the next 15 years hunting and fishing, only returning to England during three months of winter each year, whilst the lakes and hunting grounds were frozen over. In 1939, he was present in Poland when they were invaded by Germany on one border and Russia on the other. He was recalled to Britain and re-appointed in his previous position as Head of the British Military Mission to Poland. He met the Polish commander in chief Edward Rydz-Smigly and was unimpressed by the man’s military prowess. He advised him to pull his forces back from the Vistula river but was ignored. He was however successful in persuading Rydz-Smigly to withdraw his fleet from the Baltic. This fleet later played a significant role in Allied maritime war efforts.
As it became apparent that the Polish were weakening, De Wiart was forced to evacuate along with Rydz-Smigly and the rest of the Mission towards the Romanian border being chased all the while by both Soviet and German forces. Whilst on the road, their convoy was attacked by the Luftwaffe and one of the mission wives killed. Using a false passport, de Wiart managed to make his escape by airplane on 21st September 1939 in the nick of time. Pro-Allied Prime Minister of Romania Armand Calinescu was assassinated that day. De Wiart meanwhile lost all his belongings which were seized by the Soviets, and taken for storage in Minsk. They were later destroyed by German shellfire.
Adrian carton de Wiart was restored to his rank of Major-General and given the task of leading the Allied mission into Norway to take Trondheim in 1940, working with the French. Landing with several vital pieces of equipment missing, and his aide being wounded by enemy fire, his team and that of the French were immediately in a precarious position, having no means of defence against heavy enemy fire. The French force maintained their position in Namsos, whilst de Wiart led his own down the mountains with no transport, skis, air support or artillery cover to Trndheimsfjord where he was advised to hold his position despite overwhelming odds and enemy fire as a political strategy. It was apparent that the Norwegian campaign was fast failing and eventually after many orders and counter-orders, London decided to evacuate de Wiart and his men. Their ships failed to arrive on the appointed night, but turned up the following night. The German fleet successfully destroyed two vessels, one French, One British, but de Wiart and his men were able to get away. 12,000 men were evacuated that night, with very small losses, occurring when first the Bison and then the Afridi capsized. 35 of the 69 survivors from the Bison who had been picked up by the Afridi, 53 of the Afridi’s crew and 13 soldiers. Adrian carton de Wiart arrived in Scapa Flow Naval Base on his 60th birthday, 5th May 1940.
From there, De Wiart was given once again command of the 61st Division, at that time defending Northern Ireland. However new Commander in Chief of Northern Ireland Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Royds Pownall subsequently told him he was too old to command an active division and relinquished him of command. From here in 1941, and once again acting Major-General, he was sent in a Wellington bomber to Yugoslavia (Serbia) on the Military Mission there as Hitler prepared to invade. After refueling in Malta, the plane took off but due to complete engine failure over the Libyan coast, the Wellington crash landed into the sea a mile from land. De Wiart was knocked unconscious by the impact but soon regained consciousness when he hit the cold sea. All aboard survived the crash but were forced to swim ashore, where they were captured by the occupying Italian forces and taken to a Prisoner of War camp at Sulmona.
Due to Rommel’s successes in North Africa earlier that year, several high profile Allied Prisoners had been captured. It was deemed necessary to establish a Prisoner of War camp for these men, which was located at Castello di Vincigliata. It was to here de Wiart was transferred four months after his capture, joining amongst others General Sir Richard Thomas, Lieutenant-General Philip Neame VC and Thomas Daniel Knox, 6th Earl of Ranfurly who wrote to his wife that de Wiart was a “delightful character… superbly outspoken… most hold the record for bad language”.
The four men soon became committed to escape, which they attempted several times. On one occasion, after tunneling for some months, de Wiart managed to evade capture for eight days in Northern Italy, disguised as a peasant, despite being of a definitely distinguishable appearance, with one arm missing, several scars and a black eye patch. He also couldn’t speak a word of Italian. Whilst on the run, an order was given for his repatriation due to disability, a condition of which was his retirement from further service. It is likely he would have refused. However, following his re-capture, in 1943 he was taken from the camp, and after being fitted out with a good suit in Rome, was accompanied by an Italian negotiator, General Giacomo Zanussi and taken to Lisbon to meet with Allied contacts, where he was to be tasked with assisting secret negotiations for Italian withdrawal from the war. De Wiart was released when they arrived in Lisbon. Two other similar delegates had the same task, following the fall of Benito Mussolini. The overall mission was a success and Italy’s surrender was confirmed in September of that year.
De Wiart arrived back in England in August 1943, and just a few short weeks later was tasked to be Churchill’s personal representative in China. He flew via India where he was briefed by key trade and political figures on the Chinese situation, and subsequently attended a conference in Cairo, along with other notable figures such as Franklin D Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and General Chiang Kai Shek. For the next three years he worked in a diplomatic and administrative capacity, between the Chinese government and the British, liaising regularly in India. Adrian’s despising of Communism was well known. During a dinner he attended, where he was forced to sit through a propaganda speech given by Mao Tse-Tung, de Wiart famously interrupted him to criticize China’s lack of self-defence against Japan citing domestic political reasons, to which Chairman Mao was speechless for a moment before laughing.
De Wiart also watched bombardments of Japanese aircraft by British carriers in the late stages of the war at Sabang, whilst seated on the bridge of HMS Queen Elizabeth during a tour of Burma and the Eastern Front. Following the surrender of Japan, and the formal acceptance during which he took part in Singapore, Adrian visited Peking, Nanking and finally Tokyo where he met General Douglas McArthur as the final meeting in a career spanning over 48 years and three significant wars. Although offered a position with Chiang, which he declined, Adrian Carton de Wiart formally retired in October 1947, at the age of 66 with the honorary rank of Lieutenant-General. He had been decorated many times.
Returning home via French-Indochina, he stayed as a guest at the home of his army commander friend in Rangoon where he slipped down the stairs, knocking himself out and fracturing several vertebrae. During following surgery, his doctor managed to remove a large amount of shrapnel which de Wiart had been carrying around for several years. He made a full recovery and settled in Ireland after spending time visiting relatives in Belgium. His wife died in 1949, and two years later he remarried aged 71. Adrian Carton de Wiart died peacefully at his home in County Cork in 1963 aged 83 years old following a slightly less energetic retirement spent mostly fishing.
One of the most interesting things I have learned about Adrian Carton de Wiart is how much of his life he remained quiet about. He wrote his autobiography, Happy Odyssey, covering the majority of his life in the Army and his different exploits, including the fishing in Poland prior to the outbreak of World War Two and the famous suit from his release from the Prisoner of war camp which he was concerned due to his mistrust of Italian tailors would make him look like a gigolo, but later granted it was as good as anything he could obtain on Saville Row, but never once did he mention his Victoria Cross, nor his wife and daughters.
But he was still the biggest badass.