Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart by Sir William Orpen

The Un-killable Soldier: Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart

Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO, (5th May 1880 – 5th June 1963,) was a British Army Officer of Belgian and Irish descent who saw active service in three major conflicts spanning over six decades. His life and military career are widely recognised as legendary amongst various online outlets and published works that often describe him as “the un-killable soldier.” 

Born into an aristocratic family in Brussels on 5th May 1880, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart had the advantage of an established name from an early age. In 1891, he was sent to boarding school in England with the intention of going on to study at Oxford University. During his studies of Law in 1899, the Second Boer War broke out in South Africa. This subsequently persuaded Sir Adrian to abandon education and follow up a career in the British Army. Being under military age, not being a British subject and not having the consent of his father, Sir Adrian had no choice but to pose as a 25 year old British citizen under a pseudonym. In his autobiography, ‘Happy Odyssey,’ Sir Adrian wrote about the Second Boer War: “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.” 

Carton de Wiart started active service with the Middlesex Yeomanry during the conflict. It was while he was fighting in South Africa that he was first injured, receiving bullet wounds to the stomach and groin and thus necessitating a premature return to England to recover at a nursing home in Park Lane. He would return to the nursing home each subsequent occasion he was injured whereupon it became such a regular occurrence, staff at Park Lane kept his personal pyjamas ready for his next visit. In 1902, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was gazetted into the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards as an officer in India but would not see further fighting for over a decade.

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart by Sir William Orpen
Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart by Sir William Orpen

Just months after the outbreak of the First World War, Carton de Wiart, now a naturalised British subject, was serving with the Somaliland Camel Corps in East Africa whilst tackling an uprising by supporters of Mohammed bin Abdullah – often dubbed “Mad Mullah.” During an attack on an enemy stronghold, Sir Adrian was shot in the arm and the face, losing his left eye and part of his ear. Despite sustaining great injury, his bravery and resilience prevailed and his service was duly recognised by being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his exploits. 

Sir Adrian’s iconic appearance was soon to be cemented when we received a black eye patch at Park Lane during his second recovery period. He had originally been offered a glass eye but after suffering discomfort, he decided to favour simplicity and satisfied himself with the eye patch alternative. Despite his newly acquired impairment, Carton de Wiart soldiered on and returned to combat in May 1915; this time being posted to the Western Front with the familiar 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards.

His next major call to action would see Sir Adrian amongst the fierce fighting of the Second Battle of Ypres; once again sustaining great injury. With his left hand completely shattered during an enemy artillery barrage, Sir Adrian nonchalantly requested immediate amputation. According to his autobiography, Carton de Wiart tore two of his fingers off when the doctor attending to him refused to amputate. This in turn led to the eventual removal of his left hand later that year.

Now suffering from two severe physical impairments, Sir Adrian made the outstanding decision to yet again return to combat after his recovery. His heroic escapades and devil-may-care attitude had risen him to fame amongst the ranks but his greatest test so far was yet to come.

In 1916, Sir Adrian took command of the 8th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and while serving with them during the Battle of the Somme, his already well-established heroism would reach new levels of renown. As the infamous battle raged on, the little village of La Boiselle found itself in the midst of a fight for ground between the British and German forces. When three of the other commanding officers lost their lives, Carton de Wiart took charge of all units fighting in the French village, holding off countless enemy counterattacks in the process. He was shot through an ankle as well as through the back of his skull but his courage and determination prevailed, earning himself the Victoria Cross. His citation reads: 

“He displayed conspicuous bravery, coolness and determination in forcing home the attack, thereby averting a serious reverse. After the other battalion Commanders had become casualties, he controlled their commands as well, frequently exposing himself to the intense barrage of enemy fire. His energy and courage was an inspiration to all.” 

Despite being awarded Britain’s highest military honour, Sir Adrian made no mention of his medal in his autobiography, later telling a friend: “it had been won by the 8th Glosters, for every man has done as much as I have.”

By the time of the war’s conclusion in November 1918, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart had been severely wounded a total of eight times with further injuries occurring in the battles of Passchendaele, Cambrai and Arras – his hip, leg and ear respectively. He was also mentioned in dispatches a total of six times during the entirety of the First World War, elevating the man to legend. 

During the inter-war period, Carton de Wiart resided in Poland as a British Military Mission, returning to England soon after the Nazi invasion of the country in 1939. Once again, the United Kingdom was plunged into the darkness as war clouds gathered above Europe. Yet the fighting days of a national icon were not yet over as Sir Adrian returned to the familiar territory of war. 

In 1940, aged 60, he led an operation to take the Norwegian city of Trondheim in order to halt the German advance, but unfortunately the mission failed when the supply lines collapsed. He also had a brief stint stationed in Northern Ireland until April 1941, whereupon he was appointed as head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission. During the journey to Yugoslavia, Carton de Wiart’s Wellington Bomber allegedly suffered Engine failure and the crew had no choice but to ditch in the sea off the coast of Libya, an Italian colony. After swimming approximately a mile to shore, Sir Adrian and his crew were captured by the enemy authorities and sent to a POW camp. 

Sir Adrian’s time in enemy captivity saw him make a total of 5 escape attempts in a period of two years. He even managed to elude capture for eight days, despite not speaking Italian and having a particularly distinctive appearance. In August 1943, the Italians released Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart and sent him to Lisbon to assist in the negotiations of their surrender terms. Soon after, the hero returned to London and from October 1943 until his retirement in 1946, he served as the Government’s Military Representative with General Chiang Kai-Shek in China.  

After a long and outstandingly eventful career, Carton de Wiart settled in County Cork, spending his remaining years fishing. The ‘un-killable soldier’ passed away peacefully in 1963, aged 83. His legend continues to inspire today as those who know his story remember a man of great bravery who stared death in the face on more than one occasion. When asked of his time in the First World War for example, he famously replied: “Frankly I enjoyed the war.” His statement most likely stands testament to every conflict he served in. When one war ended, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart seemed to always be prepared for the next. In his autobiography, one sentence reads: “We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.”