The Story Behind The United Kingdom’s Unkillable Soldier

Serving in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War, Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart earned the title of the unkillable soldier. Not only did he survive these extremely violent conflicts, but he suffered what should have been fatal wounds in nearly every one. During his military career, he was shot in the stomach, ankle, hip, face, head, ear, and even tore off his own fingers. Moreover, he survived multiple plane crashes and managed to tunnel out of a prisoner-of-war-camp. Rising up the ranks of a soldier, he grew to become a legend. This is the story of the unkillable soldier, a man with war in his blood.

Born Into The Aristocracy

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Adrian Carton de Wiart was born in Brussels to an aristocratic family and was the eldest son of Léon Carton de Wiart. However, it was rumored that he was the illegitimate child son of Leopold II, the King of Belgium. Spending most of his childhood in Brussels and England, his father moved the family to Cairo after the death of his mother, where he learned to speak Arabic.

While attending the University of Oxford, he joined the British Army in 1899 during the Second Boer War. He enlisted under the name “Trooper Carton,” claiming he was 25-years-old when he wasn’t older than 20.

First Taste Of Battle

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De Agostini/Getty Images

While serving during the Second Boer War, Carton de Wiart was shot in the stomach and the groin, resulting in him being shipped back to England to recover. Although his father was angry that he had given up on his studies, he allowed Carton de Wiart to stay in the army. After another brief stint at Oxford, he returned to the South Africa where he began climbing the ranks.

By 1901, he had become a second lieutenant in the Royal Dragoon Guards, a lieutenant in 1904, and a captain in 1910. During that time, he also became a British citizen, married, and had two daughters.

The Beginning Of World War I

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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

When World War I broke out in 1914, Carton de Wiart was already on his way to British Somaliland (part of modern-day Somalia) to engage in a small conflict against the followers of Mohammed bin Abdullah.

During what was a successful attack against a fort held by Abdullah, known as “Mad Mullah,” Carton de Wiart wasn’t so lucky. He was shot twice in the face causing him to lose an eye and part of his ear. For his efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1915.

A Thirst For Battle

Carton de Wiart with eye patch
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Imgur

Even though he had lost an eye, Carton de Wiart didn’t seem to be affected by his injury. Quite the opposite, he was mainly annoyed that it was keeping him from the war. According to General Hasting Lionel, “I honestly believe that he regarded the loss of an eye as a blessing as it allowed him to get out of Somaliland to Europe where he thought the real action was.”

Fit with a glass eye; he found that it aggravated him and supposedly threw it from a cab, opting for an eyepatch. The eyepatch would soon become one of his most identifiable features.

Returning To The Front Line

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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

By February 1915, Carton de Wiart was on his way to the Western Front in France where he commanded three infantry battalions and a brigade. During his time in the trenches, he was injured seven more times including what should have been a fatal shot the back of the head. He also took injuries in his ankle, hip, ear, and leg.

At one point, his left hand was hit by a German artillery shell, leaving it a mangled mess. When the doctor insisted his fingers didn’t need to be amputated, he pulled them off himself. His whole hand was eventually amputated. It was at this point he took some time to recover.

Valor At The Somme

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Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Of course, it didn’t take long for Carton de Wiart to get back into the thick of it. He went on to fight in the horrific Battle of the Somme, where soldiers reported seeing a now one-handed Carton de Wiart rushing at the enemy with grenades, pulling the pins with his teeth.

During an assault on the village of La Boiselle during the battle, he further distinguished himself. After three unit commanders from the 8th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment had been killed, Carton de Wiart then took control of all three units. He then led them through the battle, managing to hold the advancing enemy at bay.

Honored For His Service

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Casemate Publishers
Casemate Publishers

In 1916, Carton de Wiart received the Victoria Cross, the highest honor for bravery and gallantry in combat that can be awarded to a soldier of the British Empire. At the time, he was 36 years old and a temporary lieutenant-colonel in the 4th Dragoon Guards, British Army, attached to the Gloucestershire Regiment, commanding the 8th Battalion.

In his autobiography, Happy Odyssey, he never mentions receiving the Victoria Cross, but instead notes, “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war; it had given me many bad moments, lots of good ones, plenty of excitement.”

Off To Poland

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The Print Collector/The Print Collector/Getty Images

At the end of the war, Carton de Wiart was sent to Poland in 1919 as second-in-command of the British-Poland Military Mission. At that time, the Polish were in desperate need of aid. They were currently engaged with Bolshevik Russia in the Polish-Soviet War, the Ukrainians in the Polish-Ukrainian War, the Czechs in the Czech-Polish War, and the Lithuanians in the Polish-Lithuanian War. Carton de Wiart was on the front lines once again.

This period of fighting in his life resulted in a plane crash, a brief period in Lithuanian captivity, and a single-handed skirmish against the Red cavalry. In 1923, he retired from the military as a major general.

A Well-Deserved Break

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After retiring from the military, he became a close friend with Prince Karol Mikołaj Radziwiłł of Poland, who inherited a 500,000-acre estate in eastern Poland after his uncle was killed by communists. The prince gave Carton de Wiart the use of a large estate known as Prostyń, a wetland as large as Ireland.

There, he converted his home on an island by the Soviet border into a hunting lodge where he spent 15 of his interwar years hunting waterfowl. In his memoir, he recalls, “I think I shot every day of those 15 years I spent in the marshes and the pleasure never palled.”

World War II Begins

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

But then, in 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and Carton de Wiart was forced to leave his beloved home. Initially, he attempted to help the leaders of Poland, but things quickly went too far for him to be any help. While escaping from Warsaw, Carton de Wiart’s convoy was fired upon by Luftwaffe machine gun fire, killing the wife of one of his aids.

Of course, this didn’t stop him, and he managed to make it to Romania using a forged passport. Although the Germans took everything he owned, he notes that they couldn’t take his memories.

The Norway Mishap

de Wiart in Norway
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1939, upon making his way back to England, he re-enlisted in the British Army as a colonel but was soon promoted to major general. After some time commanding the 61st Division Midlands, Carton de Wiart was ordered in April 1940 to take an Anglo-French force to occupy Namsos, a small town in Norway.

Once there, he was instructed to take the city of Trondheim, 125 miles south of the town. Reaching Namsos before his troops, he was attacked by a German fighter. The British and French troops experienced trouble entering the town as well which was then bombed and destroyed by the Luftwaffe. The British were eventually forced to evacuate Norway.

An Unexpected Crash landing

Plane crash landing
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Keystone/Getty Images

On April 5, 1941, Carton de Wiart was appointed as the head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission. Hitler was making preparations to invade the country, so Yugoslavia reached out to Britain for help. So, Carto de Wiart boarded a Wellington Bomber to Belgrade, Syria to negotiate with the Yugoslavian government.

However, both engines of the plane failed over the Italian-controlled Lybia, causing them to crash land over a mile offshore in the Mediterranean Sea. Initially knocked unconscious, when he came to, one-handed Carton de Wiart and his comrades made the swim to shore, only to be captured by the Italians.

A Prisoner Of War

uk's unkillable man was a prisoner of war during world war ii
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Because of his military rank, Carton de Wiart was a high-profile prisoner, and after four months was transferred to a POW camp for senior officers at Castello di Vincigliata. There were numerous other officers there and Carton de Wiart became close friends with Sir Richard O’Connor, Daniel Knox, 6th Earl of Ranfurly, and Lieutenant-General Philip Neame VC.

In letters to his wife, Ranfurly described Carton de Wiart as “a delightful character” and that he was “endlessly amused by him.” He also mentioned that he must “hold the record for bad language.”

Escape Attempts

Tunnel
Adam Guz/Getty Images Poland/Getty Images
Adam Guz/Getty Images Poland/Getty Images

Of course, Carton de Wiart wasn’t going to spend the war rotting in a POW camp. He and his three friends were determined to get out and made five attempts to escape during their time of imprisonment. At one point, the group spent seven months tunneling through sixty feet of bedrock, allowing six of them to escape in March 1943.

At 61 years old, Carton de Wiart evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant. However, his eyepatch, one hand, and numerous battle scars eventually resulted in his re-capture. That same year, he was released as a gesture of peace to the British.

An Assignment From Churchill Himself

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A month after returning to England, Carton de Wiart was invited to stay at Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s country home. It was there that Churchill informed him that he was needed for a diplomatic issue and would be going to China as his personal representative.

He arrived at the headquarters of the Nationalist Chinese Government in December 1943 and spent the next three years involved in reporting, diplomatic, and administrative duties. He worked closely with Chiang Kai-shek and was even offered a job by Chiang after he eventually retired.

More Accolades

Carton de Wiart with world leaders
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Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 9, 1944, Carton de Wiart was promoted to temporary lieutenant-general and the substantive rank of major-general. He then returned to England in December 1944 where he was to report to the War Cabinet on what was occurring in China.

He was then appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire at the 1945 New Year Honours. Not long after, he was put on an assignment on the Burma Front, where he had a front-row seat for the bombardment of Saband in the Netherlands East Indies.

He Attended Japan’s Formal Surrender

Signing the surrender document
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Bettmann/Getty Images

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Carton de Wiart flew to Singapore to participate in the formal surrender ceremony. After spending some time in Peking, he moved to Nanking, the now-liberated Nationalist capital and the former site of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937.

He was also accompanied by Julian Amery, the British Prime Minister’s Personal Representative to Chiang. He later flew to Tokyo to meet with General Douglas MacArthur and decided it was time to retire at the age of 66. Carton de Wiart retired in October 1947 with the honorary title of lieutenant-general.

One Last Injury For The Road

de Wiart at a reception
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Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After finalizing his retirement, Carton de Wiart was on his way home and made a stop in Rangoon (present-day Myanmar), as a guest of the army commander. While walking down a set of stairs, he slipped on a coconut husk mat and fell down. He wrote, “I hit my head on the wall knocking myself almost unconscious, broke my back, crushing a vertebra, and was very lucky not to break my neck.”

Of course, he returned to England and made a full recovery. The doctors who treated his back reportedly also removed several large pieces of shrapnel from previous wounds.

Finally Settling Down

Getting his portrait painted
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Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unfortunately, his wife passed away in 1949, not long after he returned home. Two years later, he married, Ruth Myrtle Muriel Joan McKechnie, better known as Joan Southerland. She was 23 years younger than Carton de Wiart and died at the age of 102 in 2006.

The two settled down in the iconic Aghinagh House in Killinardish, County Cork, Ireland. There, he spent his retirement enjoying the countryside, returning to his dear hobbies of hunting and fishing.

The End of A Long Life

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Adrian Carton de Wiart passed away peacefully on June 5, 1963, leaving behind no papers. He and his wife Joan are buried in Caum Churchyard off of the main Macroom road. His gravesite is outside of the graveyard on the grounds of his home at the Aghinagh House.

Carton de Wiart’s will was valued at probate in Island at £4,158 and in England at £3,496. He died with the appropriate title of UK’s unkillable soldier.