The unkillable officer

Special Thanks to Beyond the Band of Brothers historical tours

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart (1880-1963) was born into an aristocratic Belgian family, with rumors whispered about him being the illegitimate son of King Leopold II of Belgium. When the Second Boer War broke out between the British Empire and Dutch South African settlers in 1899, de Wiart abandoned his studies in Britain and joined the Army. Not being of military age yet and not having his father’s consent and being a foreign citizen, de Wiart claimed he was 25 years old and used the false name Trooper Carton. He later wrote that he was so excited about fighting in a war that if the British had rejected him, he would have offered to join the Boers.

De Wiart in South Africa during the Second Boer War
He was shot in the stomach and groin while fighting in Africa and was sent to a nursing home in London to recuperate. Throughout his long career, the same home would take care of him after his many wounds. They actually had his own personal pajamas always ready for his next stay.
De Wiart in WWI
World War I found de Wiart, by then a naturalized British citizen, in the Somaliland Camel Corps, fighting against the independence efforts of Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Thani. During an attack on an enemy-held fort, de Wiart was shot in the head twice, losing his left eye and part of his left ear. He was given a glass eye at first, which he uncomfortable and settled for a black eyepatch instead.

By early 1915 de Wiart was well enough to return to the war, but this time to the Western Front, rather than the backwaters of Africa. Later that year a German artillery barrage mangled his left hand. Two of his heavily damaged fingers caused him significant pain but the doctors refused to remove them. Losing patience, he tore them off with his right hand. Later, his entire left hand had to be amputated.

De Wiart in WWII
Carton de Wiart spent most of the interwar years in Poland as part of the British diplomatic mission there. At the time, Poland was involved in wars against the Soviet Union, the Ukraine, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia, which made de Wiart develop a deep sympathy for the embattled Poles. De Wiart befriended Cardinal Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI, he also acted as second in a duel with the other second being future Finnish military leader Carl Gustaf Mannerheim and even possibly smuggled guns from Hungary to Poland. In 1920, with the Red Army threatening Warsaw, Russian cavalry attacked de Wiart’s observation train. He fought them off with his revolver, falling off the train and quickly getting back on it in the process.
De Wiart in Poland
After the British mission was wrapped up, de Wiart spent 15 years at a friend’s estate in Poland, fleeing when World War II broke out. While escaping, his car was attacked by the Luftwaffe and one of his passengers was killed. Rejoining army service, de Wiart led troops in the short and ill-fated Allied attempt to aid the Norwegians against the German invasion, holding his position without proper supplies until they could be evacuated.
De Wiart in China
In 1941, with Hitler preparing to invade Yugoslavia, de Wiart was sent to Belgrade to negotiate with the Yugoslav government. On the way, the engines of the airplane carrying him failed and they crashed into the sea off Libya. After swimming a mile to shore, de Wiart and his crew were captured by Italian troops and sent to a POW camp in Italy.
Photograph taken at the Cairo Conference. Sitting, from left to right: Chiang Kai-shek, F. D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. De Wiart is standing on the extreme right of the photo.
De Wiart tried to escape five times, including a 7-month project to dig a tunnel. On one occasion he evaded capture for 8 days despite not speaking Italian and having a highly distinctive appearance due to his eyepatch and missing hand. Much to his surprise, the Italians offered to set him free in August, 1943. The country was already preparing to surrender to the Allies and they asked de Wiart to assist in hammering out the surrender terms.
De Wiart (second from the left) with fellow officers in Italian captivity
After his return to Britain, he was next sent to China as a diplomat and administrator to aid Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. He retired from military duties in 1947, but received one final injury on the way home from Asia. In the city of Rangoon, Burma, he slipped on some stairs, fell and broke several vertebrae. Ironically, this made him healthier in the long run: during his recovery back in England, doctors operated on him and removed numerous pieces of shrapnel from his old wounds. The unkillable officer went on to live until 83 years of age. When once asked about World War I, he answered: “Frankly, I enjoyed the war,” and he probably felt the same sentiment about the other two conflicts he fought and got so frequently wounded in.
De Wiart boarding a Dakota and leaving Beijing
You can learn more about the incredible people who fought in the First World War and World War II on our historical tours scheduled for 2019 and 2020.
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