Adrian Carton de Wiart: The story of the unkillable soldier

British soldier Adrian Carton de Wiart lived through some of the most remarkable war stories and events ever recorded shares Shane Daly earning himself the moniker ‘The Unkillable Soldier’, a title he carried with him into his retirement in Macroom.

Painting by Sir William Orpen, 1919 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Born in Brussels in 1890, De Wiart was the son of Léon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart, a well-known and connected lawyer and Ernestine Wenzig, whose mother was Irish.

A combatant in WW1, The Boers War and WW2, de Wiart served four decades in the army, during which time he was shot 11 times: in the face, skull, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, ear, groin, the eye, the hand and the elbow.

He was blinded by the gunshot wound to his eye, leaving him with a trademark eyepatch for the rest of his life.

The bullet to his left hand, sustained in Ypres, on the Western Front, during WW1, completely destroyed three of his fingers and left two hanging on by a shred of skin. When the doctor refused to remove the fingers, which he felt could be salvaged, De Wiart is recorded as ripping them off himself with his right hand. This action meant he eventually lost his arm, leaving him with his other trademark, an empty uniform sleeve.

De Wiart survived his army base being bombed, enemy fire on a plane he was a passenger in, and a plane crash. After crash landing in Italy during WW2, he was taken as a prisoner of war. As a senior member of the British army at the time, he became the highest ranking POW in history. He and his fellow POWs made five escape attempts. During one attempt they spent seven months digging a tunnel, succeeded in breaking free, but were recaptured after a week. He was awarded the Victoria Cross,  the highest decoration for valour in the British armed forces, acknowledging his bravery.

Unencumbered by any ideological inclination, and narcotised by the smell of blood, de Wiart was doggedly loyal to any arbitrary cause that would pitch him against armed adversaries. In other words, he was the field-marshal’s dream and the pacifist’s nightmare. He was also utterly, resolutely, ‘unkillable’.

De Wiart was brought up in Surrey, England, and then Cairo, where his father was a lawyer, magistrate, and a director of the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company and well-connected in Egyptian governmental circles. Adrian Carton de Wiart learned to speak Arabic during his time here.

After attending boarding school in England, he went to Balliol College, Oxford, leaving around 1899, just before or during the Second Boer War, to join the British Army. Failing his law preliminary, de Wiart was drawn to the Foreign Legion “that romantic refuge of the misfits” but the outbreak of the Boer War sparked an epiphany in him: “At that moment I knew, once and for all, that I was determined to fight, and I didn’t mind who or what. If the British didn’t fancy me I would offer myself to the Boers.”

In South Africa, de Wiart joined up with a bunch of local corps, during which time he copped the first of several bullets, this one in the groin.

“I do not think it possible for anyone to have had a duller dose of war,” he later wrote, having been invalided back to the nursing home on Park Lane, London, that would become his second home over the course of the next few years. “I returned to England bereft of glory, my spirits deflating with every mile.”

Once recuperated, he journeyed to Egypt to ask his father’s permission to commit his life to martial endeavour. After some persuasion, de Wiart senior gave his blessing, and shortly afterwards the young, thrill-seeking militiaman arrived back in Cape Town to join the Imperial Light Horse Colonial Corps, who promoted him to corporal within days, then demoted him within 24 hours for threatening to punch his sergeant. “My vivid imaginings of charging Boers single-handed and dying gloriously with a couple of V.C.s were becoming a little hazy.” Before long, he was shipped to the 4th Dragoon Guards and stationed in India.

De Wiart’s time in India generated some happy memories, but not for the first time in his life, the lack of life-threatening combat left him knee-deep in nihilism. “India for me was a glittering sham coated with dust, and I hoped I should never see her again,” he wrote.

Eventually returning to what had become his motherland and joining his regiment in Brighton, de Wiart distracted himself from the vacuous banality of peacetime by taking part in polo matches and making occasional jaunts to Austria, Hungary, and what was then Bavaria, to spend the interwar years shooting deer, chamois and pheasants.

Accepting an adjutancy with the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, his plans changed in 1914 when his father broke the news that he had been ruined financially due to the crash in Egypt. Without an allowance and soldiering in England not being well paid enough to sustain him, de Wiart again sought active service abroad. His intended destination this time, in 1914, was Somaliland, where a low-key war effort was being waged against Mohammad ‘Mad Mullah’ bin Abdullah. By his own admission, de Wiart’s “cup of misery overflowed” when he discovered, during a stop-off in Malta, that England had declared war on Germany. In light of this development, his forthcoming station of duty “felt like playing in a village cricket match instead of a test”. De Wiart’s hunger to have his mortality tested in new and interesting ways was soon sated though, during a testy battle with bin Abdullah’s Dervish forces. One bullet whistled through his rolled-up uniform sleeve; the next went through his eye, the next gunshot required the plucking of a bullet splinter from his elbow, the one after that required the services of a nearby surgeon to stitch up his ear.

His last Polish aide de camp was Prince Karol Mikołaj Radziwiłł, member of the Radziwiłł family who inherited a large 500,000 acre estate in eastern Poland. They became friends and Carton de Wiart was given the use of a large estate called Prostyń, in the Pripet Marshes, a wetland area larger than Ireland and surrounded by water and forests. In this location Carton de Wiart spent the rest of the interwar years. In his memoirs he said “In my fifteen years in the marshes, I did not waste one day without hunting”.

After 15 years, Carton de Wiart’s peaceful Polish life was interrupted by the looming war when he was recalled in July 1939 and appointed to his old job, as head of the British Military Mission to Poland. Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany on September 1 and, on September 17, the Soviets allied with Germany, attacked Poland from the east. Soon Soviet forces overran Prostyń and Carton de Wiart lost all his guns, fishing rods, clothing, and furniture. They were packed up by the Soviets and stored in the Minsk Museum, but destroyed by the Germans in later fighting. De Wiart never saw the area again, but as he said “they did not manage to take my memories”. De Wiart was posted back to the command of the 61st Division, which was soon transferred to Northern Ireland as a defence against invasion. However, following the arrival of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall as Commander-in-Chief in Northern Ireland, Carton de Wiart was told that he was too old to command a division on active duty. This was followed by command of the Central Norwegian Expeditionary Forces, in its hopeless attempt to hold Trondheim. A year later, he was sent to head the Military Mission in Yugoslavia but, on the way, his plane crashed into the sea and after swimming ashore he was made a prisoner of the Italians. In August 1943, the Italians released him and sent him to Lisbon to negotiate their surrender terms.

From October 1943 until retirement in 1946, De Wiart was the Government’s Military Representative with General Chiang Kai-Shek in China. On his retirement, he bought Aghinish House in Macroom and moved there with his wife. His awards include the Victoria Cross, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Companion of the Order of the Bath, Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, Distinguished Service Order (Mentioned in Despatches), Virtuti Militari (Poland) Croix de Guerre (Belgium) Legion of Honour (France) and Croix de Guerre (France).

After a lifetime of brave battles, Adrian Carton de Wiart passed away on June 5, 1963 and now rests in Killinardish Churchyard, Carrigadrohid, County Cork.

Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

Next Post

West Cork Distillers crowned Large Cork Company of the Year 2024

Tue Mar 5 , 2024
In a resounding testament to excellence and innovation, West Cork Distillers has been crowned the Large Cork Company of the Year 2024 at the prestigious Cork Chamber awards. This accolade marks a significant milestone in the company’s journey, recognising West Cork Irish Whiskey‘s outstanding contribution to the local economy, commitment to […]