Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880 - 5 June 1963),
was a British officer of Belgian and Irish descent.
He is considered by many
to be one of the most remarkable figures in British military history
for bravery, his striking character and the sheer adventure of his
long life. He is thought to be a model for the character of
Brigadier Ben Ritchie Hook in Evelyn
's trilogy Sword of
Dictionary of National Biography
described him so, "With his
black eyepatch and empty sleeve, Carton de Wiart looked like an
elegant pirate, and became a figure of legend."
Adrian Carton de Wiart was
born into an aristocratic family in Brussels, Belgium, on
5 May 1880, eldest son of Leon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart
(1854 - 1915).
He spent his early days in Belgium and in
England. The death of his Irish mother when he was six
prompted his father to uproot the family and move to Cairo, Egypt, to practice
international law. His father was a court magistrate, well
connected in Egyptian governmental circles, and was a director of the Cairo Electric
Carton de Wiart was a Roman Catholic
. He enjoyed his time in Egypt
and learned to speak Arabic
Carton de Wiart was not particularly close to his father, who was a
quiet, indoors sort of man. At an early opportunity his new stepmother
sent him to a boarding school in
England, the Roman Catholic Oratory School, founded by John Henry Cardinal
he went to Balliol College, Oxford, but left to join the British Army at the time of
the Boer War around the turn of the
No scholar, he was a truly ferocious warrior. He was shot through
the lung in South Africa early on and invalided home. After another
brief stint at Oxford, where Aubrey
was among his friends, he was given a commission in the
Second Imperial Light Horse
saw some action in South Africa again and in 1901 was given a
regular commission in the 4th Dragoon
. Adrian was transferred to India in 1902. This gave him
full scope for his love of sports, especially shooting and pig sticking
Character, interests and life in the Edwardian army
Carton de Wiart's serious wound in the Boer War instilled in him a
mania for physical fitness and he ran, walked and played sports at
every opportunity, especially if the sport involved depleting the
local fish, bird, rabbit and big game stocks. He was always up
early each day. De Wiart was both quick tempered and modest. In
male company he swore like a sailor.
Though de Wiart bears some similarity to Ben Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn
Waugh's war trilogy, Sword of Honour
, he was more rounded,
with considerable personal charm.
A champagne, claret and port man, he detested whisky, liked popular
music hall tunes and had no ear for classical music. Formidable and
intimidating, Carton de Wiart could be charming, was popular with
the ladies and managed to keep a wide circle of friends. A man's
man, he was more drawn to the outdoors type of person. His admirers
ranged from Winston Churchill
. He spoke French,
Arabic and Polish. He loved South Africa, Poland and Ireland and
hated India. He liked the country more than the city, but
of the cities, pre-World War I Vienna was his
The transfer of his regiment to a by-then peaceful South Africa
brought him a pleasant interlude
when he was appointed an aide-de-camp
to the Commander-in-Chief
, whom Carton de Wiart
admired enormously. Hilyard was, perhaps, the father he wished he
had. He describes this period lasting up to 1914 as his "heyday".
His light duties as ADC gave him time for polo
Carton de Wiart was well connected in European circles, his two
closest cousins being Count Henri
Carton de Wiart
, 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
. 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.
A transfer back to England gave scope for a new passion, fox hunting
. He rode with the famous Duke of Beaufort's Hunt
encountered, among others, the future field marshal, Sir Henry Maitland Wilson
, and the future
, Sir Edward Leonard Ellington
De Wiart found the time in 1908 to marry Countess Frederica Fugger
von Babenhausen, more fully Countess Friederike Maria Karoline
Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen (1887
Klagenfurt - 1949 Vienna), eldest daughter of Karl Ludwig, 1st
Fuerst or Prince Fugger von Babenhausen and Princess Eleonora
Fugger von Babenhausen
of Klagenfurt, Austria. They had two
daughters, the elder of whom Anita (b. 1909, decd.) was the
maternal grandmother of the war correspondent Anthony Loyd
In his memoirs, Happy Odyssey
, Carton de Wiart made
absolutely no reference to his wife or daughters.
World War I
When the First World War
Carton de Wiart was en route to British Somaliland
where a low level war
was underway against the followers of Mohammed bin Abdullah
, called the
" by the British. De Wiart had
been seconded to the Somaliland
. A staff officer with the corps was Hastings Ismay
, later Lord Ismay, Churchill's
In an attack upon an enemy fort at Shimber Berris
, Carton de Wiart was shot in
the face, and ever after a black patch over his left eye socket
formed part of his appearance.
By February 1915, he was on a steamer for France and years of heavy
fighting. De Wiart was in the thick of the fighting on the Western Front
, commanding successively three
infantry battalions and a brigade. He was wounded seven more times
in the war, losing his left hand in 1915, biting off his fingers
when a doctor declined to remove them. 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 he spent a
fair bit of time in hospitals recovering from wounds.
invariably went to the Sir Douglas Shield's Nursing Home, 17 Park
Lane, to recuperate, and became a regular customer.
Carton de Wiart's appearance was by now as striking as his
character. The eye patch, empty sleeve, bristling moustache, and
tall, lean and fit figure turned heads. His dashing demeanor
combined with his phenomenal bravery and remarkable exploits made
him a figure of legend. And he was amazingly outspoken. He was a
warrior, not a peacetime soldier.
During World War I, Carton de Wiart received the Victoria Cross
(VC), the highest and most
prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can
be awarded to British and Commonwealth
forces. He was 36 years old,
and a lieutenant-colonel in the
4th Dragoon Guards ,
British Army, attached to the Gloucestershire Regiment,
commanding the 8th Battalion, when the following events took place
n 2 July/3 July 1916, at La Boiselle, France, for which he was awarded the
Victoria Cross is displayed at the National Army Museum, Chelsea.
It says much about the man that in his autobiography, Happy
, there is no mention of his VC. It fell to the
publishers to add a special section covering the award. This
section does not appear in the Fifth Impression (London: Jonathan
Despite all his wounds in the war, de Wiart said at the end,
"Frankly I had enjoyed the war..."
The Polish mission
end of the war Carton de Wiart was sent to Second
Republic of Poland as second in command of the British Military Mission
under General Louis Botha.
a brief period, he replaced General Botha. Poland desperately
needed all the help it could get, as it was engaged with the
Bolshevik Russia (Polish-Soviet War), the Ukrainians (Polish-Ukrainian
War), the Lithuanians (Polish-Lithuanian
War) and the Czechs (Czech-Polish
There he encountered Ignacy Jan Paderewski
, the great
pianist and premier, Marshal Józef Piłsudski
, the Chief of
State and military commander, and General Maxime Weygand
, head of the French military mission
mid-1920. Charles de Gaulle
attached to the French military mission.
One of his tasks soon after his arrival was to attempt to make
peace between the Poles and the Ukrainian nationalists under
. The Ukrainians were
besieging the city of Lwów ( ;
He was unsuccessful and formed a negative view of
Petlyura, especially after Ukrainian forces machine gunned his
train, killing two Polish officers aboard.
From there he went on to Paris to report on Polish conditions to
the British prime minister, David
and to General Sir Henry Hughes Wilson
. Lloyd George was
not sympathetic to Poland and, much to Carton de Wiart's fury,
Britain sent next to no military supplies. Then he went back to
Poland and many more front line adventures, this time in the
Bolshevik zone, where the situation was grave with Warsaw
threatened. During this time he had significant interaction with
the dean of the diplomatic corps, Cardinal Achille Ratti, later
, who wanted Carton de Wiart's advice
as to whether to evacuate the diplomatic corps from Warsaw.
diplomats moved to Poznań, but the
Italians remained in Warsaw along with Ratti.
From all these affairs, Carton de Wiart developed a sympathy with
the Poles and supported their claims to the eastern Galicia
. This caused a falling out
with Lloyd George at their next meeting, but endeared him to the
Poles. His larger than life personality, straightforward manner,
bravery and passion for hunting appealed to the Poles. At one time
during his Warsaw stay he was a second in a duel between Polish
members of the Mysliwski Club, the other second being Baron
Carl Gustaf Emil
, later commander-in-chief of Finnish armies in World
War II and President of Finland. Norman
Davies reports that he was "...compromised in a gun-running
operation from Budapest using stolen wagon-lits".
He became rather close to the Polish leader, Marshal Piłsudski.
After an aircraft crash occasioning a brief period in Lithuanian
captivity, he went back to England to report, this time to the
Secretary of State for
, Winston Churchill
passed on to Churchill, Piłsudski's prediction that the White Russian
offensive under General
directed at Moscow would
fail. It did shortly thereafter. Churchill was more sympathetic to
Polish needs than Lloyd George and succeeded, over Lloyd George's
objections, in sending some war materiel to Poland.
Carton de Wiart was active during the desperate days 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 marauding Red cavalry, and fought them off with his
revolver from the running board of his train, at one point falling
on the track and reboarding quickly.
When the Poles had won the war by 1921, the British Military
Mission was wound up and Carton de Wiart resigned his commission.
He was not a peacetime soldier.
His last Polish aide de camp was Prince Karol Radziwiłł
, who inherited a gigantic
500,000 acre (2,000 km²) estate in eastern Poland when the
Communists killed his uncle. They became friends and Carton de Wiart was
given the use of a large estate called Prostyń, in the Pripet
Marshes, an enormous wetland area larger than Ireland and
famous for waterfowl. Since borders have changed, it is now where
Belarus and Ukraine come together.
De Wiart's home was a
converted hunting lodge on an island, only a few miles from the
In this setting Carton de Wiart spent the rest of the interwar
years. Even though he had only one hand, he became an excellent
shot. In his memoirs he said "I think I shot every day of those
fifteen years I spent in the marshes and the pleasure never
palled". Some 20,000 ducks fell to his guns during this time and he
hunted elk and wild boar as well. The game shot went to the local
families, who were only too glad to get it. He discovered the
pleasures of reading with a particular interest in true adventure
stories. He made a point of not listening to the radio and took up
fishing. He went back to England only twice.
Carton de Wiart's Polish idyll was interrupted by oncoming war in
July 1939 when he was summoned back to the colours and appointed to
his old job, as head of the British Military Mission to
was attacked by Nazi Germany on 1
September and on 17 September the Soviets allied with
Germany attacked Poland from the east.
forces overran Prostyń and de Wiart lost all his guns, rods,
clothes, and furniture. They were packed up by the Soviets and
stored in the Minsk Museum, but
destroyed by the Germans in later fighting.
He never saw the
area again, but as he said "...they could not take my
World War II
The Polish campaign
Carton de Wiart met with the Polish commander-in-chief
, Marshal of Poland Edward Rydz-Śmigły
August 1939 and formed a rather low opinion of his capabilities. He
strongly urged Rydz-Śmigły to pull Polish forces back beyond the
, but was unsuccessful.
advice he offered, to have the seagoing units of the Polish fleet
leave the Baltic
Sea, was, after much argument, finally adopted.
This fleet made a significant contribution to
the Allied cause
, especially the several modern destroyers and
As Polish resistance faltered, de Wiart evacuated his mission from
Warsaw along with the Polish government. Together with the Polish
commander Rydz-Śmigły, de Wiart made his way with the rest of the
British Mission to the Romanian border with both the Germans and
the Soviets closing in. His car convoy was attacked by the Luftwaffe
on the road, and the wife of one of his
was killed. He was in danger of arrest in
Romania and got out by aircraft on 21 September with a false
passport, just in time as the pro Allied Romanian prime minister,
, was assassinated
The Norwegian campaign
brief stint in command of the 61st Division in the
Midlands of England, Carton de Wiart was summoned in April 1940 to
take charge of a hastily drawn together Anglo-French force to
occupy a small town in western Norway, Namsos.
orders were to take the city of Trondheim, some distance to the south, in conjunction with a
naval attack and an advance from the south by troops landed at
He had never met his troops before.
He flew to Namsos to get the lay of the land before the troops came
in. When his Short Sunderland
flying boat came in for a landing, it was attacked by a German
fighter and his aide was wounded and had to be evacuated. After the
French Alpine troops landed (without their transport mules and
missing straps for their skis), the Luftwaffe bombed and destroyed
the town of Namsos in a matter of hours. The British landed without
transport, skis or artillery. There was no air cover. The French
stayed put in Namsos for the remainder of the short campaign.
Despite these handicaps, de Wiart managed to move his forces over
the mountains and down to Trondheim Fjord, where they were promptly
shelled by German destroyers. They had no artillery to challenge
the German ships. It soon became apparent that the whole Norwegian
campaign was fast becoming a shambles. The naval attack on
Trondheim, which was the reason for the Namsos landing, did not
happen and his troops were sitting ducks without guns, transport,
air cover or skis in a foot and a half of snow. They were being
attacked by German ski troops, machine gunned and bombed from the
air and the German Navy was landing troops to his rear. He
recommended withdrawal. He was asked to hold his position for
political reasons. He did.
After orders, counterorders and some genuinely foolish suggestions
from London, the decision to evacuate was made. However, on the
date set to get the first of the troops off, the ships did not show
up. The next night a naval force arrived, led through the fog by
Lord Louis Mountbatten
transports got the whole force away, though bombed very severely on
the way out, with a French destroyer and a British destroyer, ,
Wiart arrived back at the British naval base of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands on his 60th birthday, 5 May 1940.
For more particulars about these events see Namsos in April 1940
His one active command in World War II was not a success, but the
blame could not be put on him in this cauldron of politics. As de
Wiart said about the campaign "...war and politics seem bad mixers,
like port and champagne. But if it wasn't for politicians we
wouldn't have wars, and I, for one, should have been done out what
for me is a very agreeable life."
Ireland and the Mediterranean
was posted back to the command of the 61st Division, which was soon
transferred to Northern
Ireland as a defence against invasion.
trainer of troops, de Wiart brought the 61st up to a high standard
of efficiency. He made many good friends in the country. However
the arrival of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Royds Pownall
Commander-in-Chief in Northern Ireland brought sad tidings. De
Wiart was told that he was too old to command a division on active
He remained inactive very briefly, as he was appointed as head of
the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia on 5 April 1941. Hitler
was preparing to invade the country and the Yugoslavs asked for
British help. De Wiart departed England in a Wellington Bomber
, bound for
After refuelling in Malta the aircraft left for Cairo running the
gauntlet with enemy territory to the north and south. 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 out, but the cold water brought him to. When the plane
broke up and sank, he and the rest aboard were forced to swim a
mile to shore. They were captured by the Italian authorities.
Prisoner of War
De Wiart was a high profile prisoner. After four months at
the Villa Medici at Sulmona (from which the Imperatore Hotel at Gran Sasso, from where Mussolini was
later rescued, could be seen) he was transferred to a special
prison for senior officers at Castello di Vincigliata.
There were a number of senior officer prisoners here because of the
large "bag" made by Rommel in North Africa early in 1941. De Wiart
made friends, especially with General Sir Richard O'Connor
, Thomas Daniel Knox, 6th
Earl of Ranfurly
and Lieutenant-General Philip Neame
VC. The four were committed to
escaping. He made five attempts including seven months tunneling.
Once de Wiart evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian
peasant, no mean feat considering that he was in northern Italy,
did not speak Italian, and was 61 years old, with an eye patch, one
empty sleeve and multiple injuries. Ironically, de Wiart had been
approved for repatriation due to his disablement but notification
arrived after his escape. As the repatriation would have required
that he promise not to take any further part in the war it is
probable that he would have declined anyway.
In letters to his wife, Hermione, Countess of
, 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 - superbly outspoken."
Then, in a surprising development, de Wiart was taken from his
prison in August 1943, and driven to Rome. Italy was trying to get
out of the war, and backdoor negotiations were going slowly. Carton
de Wiart was to accompany an Italian negotiator, General Zanussi
, to Lisbon to meet Allied
contacts to facilitate the surrender.
But to keep the cover, de Wiart was told he needed civilian
clothes. Distrusting Italian tailors, he emphasized that they must
be properly made. He was not going to wear one of their "bloody
When they reached Lisbon, de Wiart was released and made his way to
England, reaching there on 28 August 1943.
month of his arrival back in England, 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 representative. He left by air for
India on 18 October 1943.
As his accommodation in China was not ready de Wiart spent time in
India getting an understanding of the situation in China,
especially being briefed by a genuine tai-pan
, head of the great China trading empire, Jardine Matheson
. He spent time with
the Viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell
and with Sir Claude Auchinleck
the Commander-in-Chief in India. He had great respect for both. He
also met the controversial Orde
Before arriving in China, Carton de Wiart attended the Cairo summit
meeting attended by Churchill, President Roosevelt
Chiang Kai Shek
. There is a famous
picture of these worthies gathered in a Cairo garden, with Carton
de Wiart standing behind them.
When in Cairo, he took the opportunity to renew his acquaintance
with Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly the wife of his friend from
prisoner of war days, Dan Ranfurly. They became fast friends. She
described him as "...tall, slim and elegant - very direct and
De Wiart was one of the few to hit it off with the notoriously
irascible commander of US forces in the China-Burma-India Theatre,
General Joseph Stilwell
He arrived in the headquarters of the Nationalist Chinese
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 war time capital. He got on well with Chiang kai-Shek and
his formidable wife, indeed, when he finally retired he was offered
a job by Chiang. He regularly flew out to India to liaise with
British officials. His old friend, O'Connor, had escaped from the
Italian prisoner of war camp and was now in command of British
troops in eastern India. The Governor
, the Australian Richard Casey
, became a good
friend, his wife having nursed de Wiart on one of his many hospital
visits in World War I. De Wiart had a great capacity to make the
most of life.
On 1 November 1944, de Wiart was promoted to lieutenant-general
De Wiart returned home in December 1944 to report to the War Cabinet
on the Chinese situation. He seems
to have made such a good impression on the Deputy Prime Minister
as well as on
Churchill, that Clement Attlee
he became head of the Labour Government in June 1945, asked de
Wiart to stay on in China.
was assigned to a tour of the Burma Front, and befriending Admiral
Sir James Somerville,
Commander-in-Chief of the British
Eastern Fleet, he had a front seat (actually a deck chair) on
the bridge of the battleship for the bombardment of Sabang in the
East Indies in 1945, including air battles between Japanese
fighters and British carrier aircraft. It was the first time
the Queen Elizabeth had fired its guns in anger since the
Dardanelles in 1915.
A good part of de Wiart's reporting had to do with the increasing
power of the Chinese Communists
The historian Max Hastings
Wiart despised all Communists
principle, denounced Mao
as 'a fanatic',
and added: 'I cannot believe he means business'. He told the
that there was
no conceivable alternative to Chiang
as ruler of China." He met Mao Zedong
dinner and had a memorable exchange with him, interrupting his
propaganda spiel to give him a tongue lashing for holding back from
fighting the Japanese for domestic political reasons. Mao was
briefly stunned, and then laughed. De Wiart had had no illusions
since his encounters
with them in Eastern Europe in the early twenties.
After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, 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, accompanied
by Julian Amery, the British Prime
Minister's Personal Representative to Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek.
A visit to Tokyo to meet General Douglas MacArthur
came at the end of his
tenure. He was now 66 and ready to retire, despite the offer of a
job by Chiang.
home via French Indochina, de Wiart
stopped in Rangoon as a guest of the army commander.
down stairs, he slipped on coconut matting, fell down, broke his
back and several vertebrae, and knocked himself out. He eventually
made it to England and into a hospital where he slowly recovered.
The doctors succeeded in extracting a remarkable amount of shrapnel
from his old wounds and generally patched him up. He recovered and
was on the road again, to Belgium to visit relatives.
died in 1949 and in 1951, at the age of 71, he married Ruth Myrtle
Muriel Joan McKechnie, a divorcee known as Joan Sutherland (she
died 13 January, 2006, aged 101), and settled at Aghinagh house, Killinardish , County Cork, Ireland, taking up a life pursuing salmon and the snipe.
wife was 25 years his junior.
De Wiart died at the age of 83 on 5 June 1963.
His remains are buried in Killinardish Churchyard, in County Cork,
Carton de Wiart's will was probated in Ireland at 4,158 pounds
sterling and in England at 3,496 pounds sterling.
In his memoirs he 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."
- Williams, ODNB
- To War With Whittaker, The Wartime Memoirs of the Countess
- Happy Odyssey
- Nemesis (2007) Hastings, M. HarperCollins Press,
London. ISBN 0-00-721982-2 ISBN 978-0-00-721982-7 p.446
- Happy Odyssey
- Nemesis (2007) Hastings, M. HarperCollins Press,
London. ISBN 0-00-721982-2 ISBN 978-0-00-721982-7 p.446. The "I
cannot believe he means business" quotation is referenced to
The National Archives FO 371/F6140/34/10
- Michael Rhodes. "Noble centenarians thread. Usenet group
alt.talk.royalty. Message posted on 17 January 2006.
Accessed 5 August 2007.
- Happy Odyssey p. 271
- Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross, Richard Doherty
& David Truesdale, 2000
- Monuments to Courage, David Harvey, 1999
- The Register of the Victoria Cross, This England,
- VCs of the First World War - The Somme, Gerald
- Happy Odyssey - The Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir
Adrian Carton de Wiart, Carton de Wiart 1950
- The Biographical Dictionary of World War II, Mark M.
Boatner III, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 1999
- To War With Whitaker, The Wartime Diaries of the Countess
of Ranfurly 1939-1945, Mandarin Paperbacks, London,
- White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920
and "The Miracle on the Vistula", Norman
Davies, Pimlico Edition, London, 2003
- E. T. Williams, "Carton de Wiart, Sir Adrian (1880–1963)", rev. G. D.
Sheffield, Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, .
Online version retrieved on 6 February 2009.