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Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart¬†(May 5, 1880 ‚ÄďJune 5, 1963)


‚ú™ Lieutenant-General¬†Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart was a¬†British Army¬†officer. He was awarded the¬†Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy” in various Commonwealth countries.

He served in the¬†Boer War,¬†First World War and¬†Second World War. He was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear; was blinded in his left eye; survived two plane crashes; tunneled out of a¬†prisoner-of-war camp and tore off his own fingers when a doctor declined to amputate them. Describing his experiences in the First World War, he wrote, “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war.”

After returning home from service (including a period as a prisoner-of-war) in the¬†Second World War, he was sent to China as¬†Winston Churchill’s personal diplomatic representative. While¬†en route¬†he also attended the¬†Cairo Conference.

In his memoirs, Carton de Wiart wrote, “Governments may think and say as they like, but force cannot be eliminated, and it is the only real and unanswerable power. We are told that¬†the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.”

The¬†Oxford Dictionary of National Biography¬†described him thus: “With his black eyepatch and empty sleeve, Carton de Wiart looked like an elegant pirate, and became a figure of legend.”

Carton de Wiart was born into an¬†aristocratic¬†family in¬†Brussels on 5 May 1880, the eldest son of L√©on Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart (1854‚Äď1915), a lawyer and magistrate, and Ernestine Wenzig (1860‚Äď1886). At the time, he was widely believed to be an illegitimate son of¬†King Leopold II of the Belgians.¬†He spent his early childhood days in Belgium and in England. The loss of his mother when he was six years old prompted his father to move the family to¬†Cairo¬†so his father could practice at Egypt’s¬†mixed courts.

In his position as a lawyer, magistrate and a director of the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company, his father became very well connected in Egyptian governmental circles. While living in Egypt, Adrian Carton de Wiart learned to speak Arabic.

Carton de Wiart was a Roman Catholic. In 1891, his English stepmother sent him to the Roman Catholic¬†Oratory School, a¬†boarding school¬†in England. From there, he went next to¬†Balliol College, Oxford, but left around 1899, just before or during the¬†Second Boer War, to join the British Army. He falsified his name and age, signing up as “Trooper Carton” and claiming to be 25 years old when his actual age was no more than 20.

Carton de Wiart was wounded in the stomach and groin in South Africa early in the Second Boer War and was invalided at home. His father was furious when he learned his son had abandoned his studies, but allowed him to remain in the army. After recovering from his wounds, he would see action in South Africa again. On September 14, 1901, he was given a regular commission as a second lieutenant in the 4th Dragoon Guards. Carton de Wiart was later transferred to India in 1902. He enjoyed sports, especially shooting and pig sticking.

Carton de Wiart’s serious wounds in the Boer War instilled in him a strong desire for physical fitness. He regularly ran, jogged, walked and enjoyed playing a variety of sports on a regular basis. In male company he was noted as “a delightful character who must hold the world record for bad language.”

After his regiment, he was transferred to South Africa and promoted to supernumerary¬†lieutenant¬†on July 16, 1904¬†.He describes this period lasting up to 1914 as his “Heyday,” the title of Chapter 3 of his autobiography. His light duties as aide-de-camp gave him time for¬†polo, another of his many athletic interests.¬†By 1907, although by then having served in the British Army for eight years, he still remained a Belgian subject. On September of that year, he took the oath of allegiance to¬†Edward VII¬†and was formally naturalized as a British subject.

In 1908, he married Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska¬†Fugger von Babenhausen¬†(1887¬†Klagenfurt¬†‚Äď 1949¬†Vienna) and together they had two daughters.

While on leave, he travelled extensively throughout central Europe, using his Catholic aristocratic connections to shoot at country estates in Bohemia, Austria, Hungary, and Bavaria. He was promoted to the rank of captain on February 26, 1910.

Carton de Wiart was en route to¬†British Somaliland¬†when the First World War broke out where a¬†low-level war¬†was already underway against the followers of Dervish leader¬†Mohammed bin Abdullah, called the “Mad Mullah” by the British. Here, Carton de Wiart was shot twice in the face, losing his eye and a portion of his ear. He was awarded the¬†Distinguished Service Order¬†(DSO) on May15 1915.

In February 1915, he embarked on a¬†steamer¬†heading for France. Carton de Wiart took part in the fighting on the¬†Western Front, commanding successively three infantry battalions and a brigade. He was wounded seven more times during the war, losing his left hand in 1915 and pulling off his own fingers when a doctor declined to remove them.¬†He was also shot through the skull and ankle at the¬†Battle of the Somme; through the hip at the¬†Battle of Passchendaele, through the leg at¬†Cambrai, and through the ear at¬†Arras. Afterwards, he went to the Sir Douglas Shield’s Nursing Home to recover from his injuries.

In 1916, Carton de Wiart was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for gallantry in combat that can be awarded to British Empire forces. He was only 36 years old and a temporary lieutenant-colonel in the 4th Dragoon Guards (Royal Irish), British Army:

‚ÄäFrom the London Gazette, 9 September 1916:

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 organisation of positions and of supplies, passing unflinchingly through fire barrage of the most intense nature. His gallantry was inspiring to all.‚ÄĒ‚ÄäLondon Gazette, 9 September 1916.

On 8 November, just three days before the end of the war, Carton de Wiart was given command of a brigade with the rank of temporary brigadier general.¬†A.S. Bullock gives a vivid first-hand description of his arrival: ‘Cold 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.’

Bullock recalls how the battalion looked ‘very much the worse for wear’ when they paraded for the brigadier general’s inspection. 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.’ He was also missing two limbs and had eleven wound stripes. Bullock, the first man in line for the inspection, noted that Carton de Wiart, despite having only one eye, ordered him to get his bootlace changed.

At the end of the first World War, Carton de Wiart was sent to Poland as second in command of the British-Poland Military Mission. Poland desperately needed support, as it was engaged with Bolshevik Russia in the Polish-Soviet War, the Ukrainians in the Polish-Ukrainian War, the Lithuanians in the Polish-Lithuanian War and the Czechs in the Czech-Polish border conflics.

One of his tasks soon after arrival was to attempt to make peace between the Poles and the Ukrainians; however, the peace talks were unsuccessful. From there, he went on to Paris to report directly to the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and to General Sir Henry Wilson, regarding the Polish situation

On July 27 1920, Carton de Wiart was appointed an aide-de-camp to the King, and brevetted to colonel. He was active in August 1920, when the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw. While out on his observation train, he was attacked by a group of Red Cavalry and fought them off with his revolver from the footplate of his train; at one point falling on the track and re-boarding quickly.

Carton de Wiart officially retired from the British Army on December 19, 1920, with the honorary rank of¬†major general. Carton de Wiart was given the use of a large Polish estate called ProstyŇĄ, 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 1 September and on 17 September the¬†Soviets¬†allied with Germany¬†attacked Poland¬†from the east. When Soviet forces overran ProstyŇĄ, Carton de Wiart lost all his guns, fishing rods, clothing and furniture. He never saw the area again, but as he said “they did not manage to take my memories.”

Recalled to a special appointment in the army in the autumn of 1939, Carton de Wiart reverted to his former rank of colonel, and was granted the rank of acting major general on 28 November, 1939.

Carton 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

Advanced to temporary major-general on November 28 1940, he remained inactive very briefly, as he was appointed as head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission on April 5, 1941. Hitler was preparing to invade the country and the Yugoslavs asked for British help. Carton de Wiart travelled in a Vickers Wellington bomber to Belgrade, Serbia to negotiate with the Yugoslavian government. After refuelling in Malta, the aircraft left for Cairo with enemy territory to the north and south. During the flight, both engines failed off the coast of Italian-controlled Libya, and the plane crash-landed in the sea about a mile from land. Carton de Wiart was knocked unconscious, but the cold water made him regain consciousness. When the plane broke up and sank, he and the rest aboard were forced to swim to shore. There they were captured by the Italian authorities.

In letters to his wife, Lord Ranfurly described Carton de Wiart in captivity as “a delightful character” and said he “must hold the record for bad language.” Ranfurly was “endlessly amused by him. He really is a nice person ‚Äď superbly outspoken.” The four were committed to escaping and made five attempts, including seven months tunneling. Carton de Wiart once evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant (he was in northern Italy, could not speak Italian, and was 62 years old, with an eye patch, one empty sleeve and multiple injuries and scars).

In a surprising development, Carton de Wiart was taken from prison in August 1943 and driven to Rome. The Italian government was secretly planning to leave the war and wanted Carton de Wiart to send the message to the British Army about a peace treaty with the UK.

Carton de Wiart was to accompany an Italian negotiator, General Giacomo Zanussi, to Lisbon to meet Allied contacts and negotiate the surrender. When they reached Lisbon, Carton de Wiart was released and made his way to England, reaching there on August 28 1943.

Within a month of his arrival back in England, Carton de Wiart was summoned to spend a night at the prime minister’s country home at¬†Chequers. Churchill informed him that he was to be sent to¬†China¬†as his personal diplomaticrepresentative.

He arrived in the headquarters of the¬†Nationalist Chinese Government,¬†Chongqing, in early December 1943. For the next three years, he was to be involved in a host of reporting, diplomatic and administrative duties in the remote wartime capital. Carton de Wiart became a great admirer of the Chinese people. He wrote that, when he was appointed as Churchill’s personal representative to Chiang Kai-shek in China, he imagined a country “full of whimsical little people with quaint customs who carved lovely jade ornaments and worshiped their grandmothers.”¬†Once stationed in China, however, he wrote: “Two things struck me forcibly: the first was the amount of sheer hard work the people were doing, and the second their cheerfulness in doing it.”

Carton de Wiart returned home to England in December 1944 to report to the War Cabinet on the Chinese situation.

A good part of Carton de Wiart’s reporting had to do with the increasing power of the¬†Chinese Communists. The journalist and historian¬†Max Hastings¬†writes: “De Wiart despised all Communists on principle, denounced¬†Mao Zedong¬†as ‘a fanatic’, and added: ‘I cannot believe he means business’. He told the British cabinet that there was no conceivable alternative to Chiang as ruler of China.”¬†He met Mao Zedong at dinner and had a memorable exchange with him, interrupting his propaganda speech to criticize him for holding back from fighting the Japanese for domestic political reasons. Mao was briefly stunned, and then laughed.

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Carton de Wiart flew to Singapore to participate in the formal surrender. After a visit to Peking, he moved to Nanking, the now-liberated Nationalist capital. Carton de Wiart retired from military service in October 1947, with the honorary rank of lieutenant-general.

En route home via French Indochina, Carton de Wiart stopped in Rangoon as a guest of the army commander. Coming down stairs, he slipped on coconut matting, fell down, broke several vertebrae, and knocked himself unconscious. He was admitted to Rangoon Hospital where he was treated. His wife died in 1949. In 1951, at the age of 71, he married Ruth Myrtle Muriel Joan McKechnie, a divorcee known as Joan Sutherland, 23 years his junior (born in late 1903, she died 13 January 2006 at the age of 102.) They settled at Aghinagh House, Killinardrish, County Cork, Ireland.

When Carton de Wiart died at the age of 83 on 5 June 1963, he left no papers. He and his wife Joan are buried in Caum Churchyard just off the main Macroom Road. The grave site is just outside the wall on the grounds of his own home, Aghinagh House. ✪

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