Articles

Britain's 'unkillable' soldier gave zero Fs about pain or death

There are officers who seem to be made of glass, staying firmly behind the barriers and barbed wire that keep them protected from the enemy guns.


And then there are those guys who are basically the Black Knight from Monty Python, declaring every injury a flesh wound and jumping back into the fray like an amputated hand ain't no thang.

British Army Lt. Gen. Adrian Carton de Wiart. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

That's why Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart is a British legend; he literally lost a hand, an eye, and part of an ear while serving in three wars, including two World Wars.

Carton de Wiart was born to Belgian nobility in 1880 and sent to prestigious schools. But in 1899, the British found themselves in the second Boer War and Carton de Wiart jumped at the chance to experience combat. But the British only wanted British subjects aged 25 or older or who had their father's consent.

So, Carton de Wiart employed a clever tactic called "lying" and shipped out under a pseudonym. His first war ended when he received enemy rounds to the stomach and groin and a trip back to England to recover.

The Boer War was old, nitty-gritty-style fighting. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

But flesh wounds couldn't keep the Black Knight out of the fight for long, and he volunteered for duty in 1914 during World War I, this time under his actual name as a naturalized citizen.

Similar to in the Boer War, Carton de Wiart found the enemy guns quickly and caught a few rounds from them, this time in his arm and face while fighting as a member of the Somaliland Camel Corps.

He accepted a Distinguished Service Order and headed out for a quick convalescence for his missing eye. According to Lord Ismay, Carton de Wiart was probably happy about the whole situation.

Then-Lt. Col. Adrian Carton de Wiart led British troops to victory after three other battalion commanders were killed at the Battle of La Boiselle. (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

"I honestly believe that he regarded the loss of an eye as a blessing," he said, "As it allowed him to get out of Somaliland to Europe where he thought the real action was."

And Carton de Wiart did get into the action. He was sent to the Western Front in 1915 (that's the year after the enemy rounds knocked out his left eye and took a part of his ear, for those keeping track). Sporting a black eyepatch over his empty socket in the Second Battle of Ypres, he was probably laughing when the German artillery barrage slammed into his position, severely injuring his left hand.

Doctors refused to amputate the hand, so our Black Knight tore off two of his fingers and went back to work. Doctors finally gave in and took the rest of his hand later. That was 1915.

In 1916, Carton de Wiart took command of a regiment at the Somme. Yeah, he once again returned to the front just a year later after a serious injury that would have ended anyone else's career.

Finding Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart in a photo is like playing "Where's Waldo?" if Waldo was ready to shoot you using only his remaining eye. (Photo: Public Domain)

At the Battle of the Somme, then-Lt. Col. Carton de Wiart saw three other battalion commanders die in the back-and-forth fighting at La Boiselle. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.

During World War II, the hero of one war and a distinguished veteran of another took an assignment in Yugoslavia. When — at the age of 60 — his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean, he went ahead and swam his way to shore and was captured by the Italians.

Fun fact: that was Carton de Wiart's second plane crash. He survived another crash in Lithuania between the wars.

Of course, even capture by the Italians wasn't enough to stop him, and he attempted multiple escapes. At one point, he managed to evade capture for eight days.

He survived the war and continued to serve the British until he retired in 1947 as a lieutenant general.

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