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The Unkillable Soldier: Adrian Carton de Wiart

The Unkillable Soldier

Here’s the latest in my series of Remarkable Belgians. This person just about qualifies as Belgian. He was born in Belgium and had a Belgian father, but later took British citizenship. His story is quite amazing.

Born in Brussels, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was a one-eyed, one-handed war hero who fought in three major conflicts across six decades: the Boer War, the Great War, and the 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; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor declined to amputate them. No wonder that he became known as ‘The Unkillable Soldier’.

The birth of a legend

Adrian Carton de Wiart’s journey began amidst the opulence of Brussels. He was born on 5 May 1880 in Brussels. His Belgian father was Léon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart, a well-known and connected lawyer. His mother, Ernestine Wenzig, was Irish. At the time there were rumours that he was an illegitimate son of King Leopold II of the Belgians. Adrian grew up in an affluent household. In 1891 he was sent to boarding school in England, going on to study law at Oxford.

The Boer War: Bullets in the stomach and hip

In 1899, Carton de Wiart wanted to experience war first-hand. Unfortunately for him, he was under military age, and did not have his father’s consent. Not that those obstacles stopped him. Abandoning his studies, he pretended to be 25 and signed up under a pseudonym (Trooper Carton). He left for South Africa to serve with the British Army during the Second Boer War. For three years (1899-1902) he served with distinction, eventually ending when he received bullet wounds to the stomach and groin, necessitating a return to England.

Second Lieutenant Adrian Carton de Wiart, 1901
Second Lieutenant Adrian Carton de Wiart, 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, c1901 (C) National Army Museum

British Somaliland: Losing an eye and part of an ear

His next stop was with the Somaliland Camel Corps, fighting the forces of the Dervish movement. During an attack on an enemy fort at Shimber Berris, he was shot in the arm and in the face, losing his left eye and part of an ear. He received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his exploits. He returned to England to recover, and was given a glass eye. It caused him such discomfort that he allegedly threw it away and instead acquired a black eye patch.

Ypres: Losing a hand

World War One beckoned, and Carton de Wiart answered the call. By November 1914 he had become a British citizen. As commanding officer during the Second Battle of Ypres (1915), during a German artillery barrage Carton de Wiart’s left hand was shattered. According to his autobiography, he tore off two fingers when the doctor refused to amputate them. Later that year, his hand was completely amputated by a surgeon.

Carton de Wiart, (c1914-1918), the Unkillable Soldier
Carton de Wiart, (c1914-1918) (C) National Portrait Gallery

Battle of the Somme: Shot in the head

By 1916 he was back in action, leading the 8th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment in the Battle of the Somme. With one hand, one eye, and unwavering determination, he led his men into the fray, earning the prestigious Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy”. Those of his men who survived, recounted stories of Carton de Wiart pulling the pins of grenades out with his teeth and hurling them with his one good arm. But he received another serious injury at Devil’s Wood during the Battle of the Somme, when he was shot through the back of the head, but fortunately it missed his spinal cord. He hadn’t finished escaping death. During the remainder of the First World War, he was shot through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele, through the leg at Cambrai, and through the ear at Arras.

World War Two: His aircraft is shot down

With the outbreak of World War Two, there was to no staying at home in comfort for Carton de Wiart, despite now being in his 60s. In April 1941 he was dispatched to Yugoslavia to form a British military mission. However, his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean. He managed to swim to shore where he was arrested by the Italians and put in a PoW camp. He made numerous attempts to escape, once evading re-capture for eight days.

Sent to China: Breaks several vertebrae

Carton de Wiart was eventually released over two years later and was then sent to China by Winston Churchill to be his personal representative to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, a post he held until 1946. In Rangoon, he slipped on coconut matting on some stairs, fell, broke several vertebrae, and knocked himself unconscious. He was treated in Rangoon Hospital. He retired from the military in 1947 at the rank of Lieutenant General.

Lieutenant General Carton de Wiart after the Second World War, known as The Unkillable Soldier
Lieutenant General Carton de Wiart after the Second World War

The Unkillable Soldier retires

In retirement, Carton de Wiart found peace in the tranquil landscapes of County Cork. He bought Aghinish House in Macroom and moved there with his wife. Despite his advanced age and numerous injuries, he remained active and continued to pursue various interests such as fishing. He wrote his memoirs titled “Happy Odyssey,” which recounted his remarkable life and experiences. Thankfully we don’t have any more records of him breaking any more bones.

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, Virtuti Militari (Poland), Croix de Guerre (Belgium), Legion of Honour (France), and Croix de Guerre (France).

Although seemingly indestructible on the battlefield, The Unkillable Soldier died peacefully on 5 June 1963, aged 83.

Three interesting addenda

  • What did he call his wife? She certainly had plenty of names. In 1908, Carton de Wiart married Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen, the eldest daughter of Karl, 5th Prince von Fugger-Babenhausen and Princess Eleonora zu Hohenlohe-Bartenstein und Jagstberg of Klagenfurt, Austria. They had two daughters.
  • Two of Carton de Wiart’s cousins were Count Henry Carton de Wiart, who was Prime Minister of Belgium from 1920 to 1921, and Baron Edmond Carton de Wiart, political secretary to the King of Belgium and director of La Société Générale de Belgique.
  • Carton de Wiart is the subject of the 2022 song “The Unkillable Soldier” by Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton on their album The War to End all Wars.

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