On the battlefields of the First World War he lost an eye and a hand in fierce fighting, won a Victoria Cross for death-defying bravery, and was shot and wounded eight times. In the Second World War, as an officer in his sixties, he came under ferocious Nazi bombardment on an ill-fated mission in Norway, survived a plane crash in the Med and escaped from a PoW camp. Back in London, his well-appointed house was flattened by a German bomber and his possessions, including his hard-earned military medals, were destroyed.
But did such misfortune sap the morale of Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart? Not a bit of it. After all, this was the man who wrote of the 1914-1918 conflict: ‘Frankly, I enjoyed the war.’ Now, ahead of Remembrance Sunday, the military records of this extraordinary soldier are being published online for the first time. His details are among 22million newly digitised public and service documents placed on the genealogy website Genes Reunited.
Even though his military career was one of the most remarkable in the history of the Army, his story has not been widely told. Born in 1880 to a wealthy Belgian family, he studied law at Oxford but in 1899 quit university and went to South Africa. Giving a false name and age, he enlisted in the British Army and fought in the Second Boer War. He was wounded in the stomach and groin and invalided home. In 1901, he became an officer in the 4th Royal Dragoon Guards. In the First World War he fought with the Army’s ‘Camel Corps’ in British Somaliland, in east Africa, tackling an uprising by supporters of Mohammed bin Abdullah, dubbed the ‘Mad Mullah’.
In an attack on an enemy fort he was shot in the face and lost his left eye – forcing him to wear a black patch for the rest of his life. His gallantry earned him the DSO. He then went to the bloody trenches of the Western Front to command infantry battalions. In 1915 he lost his left hand after being hit by shrapnel – but not before he tore off some damaged fingers by himself. In the Battle of the Somme he was shot in the skull and ankle, but won the VC, the country’s most acclaimed military honour.
The citation describes how, commanding the 8th Battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment at La Boiselle, he displayed ‘dauntless courage’ in a ‘fire barrage of the most intense nature’. In total he was wounded in battle eight times and was mentioned in dispatches on six occasions. In his autobiography Happy Odyssey, he wrote of the 1914-18 conflict: ‘Frankly, I enjoyed the war; it had given me many bad moments, lots of good ones, plenty of excitement and with everything found for us.’
Between the wars, he served on the British Military Mission in Poland, returning home after the Nazi invasion in 1939. In 1940, aged 60, he led an operation to take the Norwegian city of Trondheim to halt the German advance but the mission failed when supply lines collapsed. In 1941, on his way to lead the British Military Mission in Yugoslavia, his plane crashed into the sea a mile off the coast of Libya, an Italian colony. He swam ashore but was captured and sent to a PoW camp in Italy.
He made five escape attempts, once eluding capture for eight days even though he was conspicuous with an eyepatch and did not speak Italian. Released in 1943, Winston Churchill sent him as his special representative to China. He retired in 1947 and died in 1963, aged 83.