Sunday, November 11, 2012

Interesting people; Adrian Carton de Wiart

Heres a little light reading for Rememberance Day. Sometimes, its tempting to believe ridiculous stereotypes are based on something other than simple prejudice, and if that happens its good to have an example that blows the stereotype clean out of the water. If for example, you ever found yourself believing Belgians were a sort of peaceful people, averse to the idea of war, or just plain 'yellow', then meet Adrian Carton de Wiart.

Born in 1880, de Wiart came into being, at just the right time to participate in the most bloody and brutal wars of all time, get wounded and maimed in all of them, and thoroughly enjoy himself in the process. Its not a stretch of any one's imagination to suppose, de Wiart may actually have been a right nutter, or perhaps he was a reincarnation of an ancient war god, but what ever the reason, history records how Adrian Carton de Wiart, supposed illigimate son of King Leopold II (the bad king of the Congo), joined the British army (underaged of course) and went to the Boer War in 1899 where he was duly shot in the stomach and groin.

This kind of wound would put most modern soldiers into therapy for the next few years, but for de Wiart it was merely a taste of what was to come, and he was hungry. He quickly swore allegience to King Edward VII of Great Britain and as a career officer in the British Army was ready for action when the Great War kicked off. Actually, de Wiart was already at war before the Great War kicked off as he was in British Somaliland fighting the Mad Mullah (they had them in those days too) where, on an attack at Shimber Berris, he lost his left eye. Not thwarted by the difficulties of monocular vision, de Wiart made it back to Europe and got stuck in to the western front. Over the course of the next few years he was wounded seven times, eventually losing his left hand and taking a bullet to the skull (and one to the ankle) at the Battle of the Somme, another through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele, another through the leg at Cambrai, and another through the ear at Arras. When he published his memoirs, and disregarding the fact that he'd won the VC during the conflict, de Wiart wrote frankly that he'd enjoyed the Great War.

De Wiart was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on the 2nd and 3rd July 1916, at La Boiselle, France. The citation reads;

For most conspicuous bravery, coolness and determination during severe operations of a prolonged nature. It was owing in a great measure to his dauntless courage and inspiring example that a serious reverse was averted. He displayed the utmost energy and courage in forcing our attack home. After three other battalion Commanders had become casualties, he controlled their commands, and ensured that the ground won was maintained at all costs. He frequently exposed himself in the organisation of positions and of supplies, passing unflinchingly through fire barrage of the most intense nature. His gallantry was inspiring to all.

The mid-war period was a bit slow for de Wiart but he found time to amuse himself  in Poland in 1920. When the Red Army was at Warsaw, de Wiart was acting as an observor for the British government and in July of that year found himself on a train being chased by Red Army cavalry. Undaunted by the communists he took to shooting at them from the running board with his revolver.

As we all remember, Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and you can probably guess who was still in Poland at the time. Still an observor, de Wiart offered his advice to the Polish commander but was largely ignored, and as Poland fell, he was obliged to flee the country with the Luftwaffe shooting up his car as he left. He arrived in Rumania but again, was forced to get out by the skin of his teeth as the Rumanian fascists assassinated the pro-Allied prime minister.

Still a Colonel in the British army de Wiart went to Namsos in Norway with the Anglo-French forces, but on his arrival his plane was shot up by a Luftwaffe fighter. De Wiart survived but his aide was wounded and had to be taken back to the UK. The French decided to stay in Namsos, which was being bombed by the Luftwaffe, but de Wiart took his British unit to Trondheim Fjord, where they were shelled by German destroyers. With no air support, artillery or reinforcements, the British were being out flanked by the Germans. De Wiart knew the game was up in Norway but despite constant air attacks, held on to the last moment.

After the disaster of Norway, de Wiart was appointed as head of the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia. He flew there in a Wellington bomber but was shot down off the coast of Libya by the Luftwaffe. Captured by the Italians de Wiart was eventually sent to a special prison for senior officers at Castello di Vincigliata. After five escape attempts (including a seven month tunnelling effort) de Wiart was released as Italy tried to get in bed with the Allies. On one escape attempt de Wiart evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant, which as Wikipedia notes, was surprising since he was in northern Italy, did not speak Italian, and was 61 years old, with an eye patch, one empty sleeve and multiple injuries.

Next, Winston Churchill sent de Wiart to China, but before he got there he attended the Cairo Conference (see image above where de Wiart is easily recognisable). On his arrival in China, de Wiart worked at the headquarters of the Nationalist Chinese Government until his 'retirement', returning home in December 1944 to report to the War Cabinet on the Chinese situation. After that he returned to Asia and (as a spectator, on the bridge of the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth) he observed the bombardment of Sabang in the Netherlands East Indies. I'm guessing a naval bombardment by a dreadnought battleship with 15inch guns wasn't just another day in the office, even for de Wiart. 

After the war, de Wiart retired, but before he could get back to Europe, he slipped and fell down a flight of stairs in Rangoon, and broke his back. This put him out for a while, but he eventually recovered and in 1951, at 71 years old, he married a woman 23 years younger than himself (apparently he had a life long reputation for being something of a fox), moved to Ireland and lived the rest of his days in peace. He died of plain old age in 1963. Aged 83.

After a life time of loyal and active service, his will left £3,496.

1 comment:

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Superb! Bless 'em all..