Friday 5 December 2014

Men of Yore: Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, 1919 (aged 39)

Early Life
Carton de Wiart was born into an aristocratic family in Brussels, on 5 May 1880, eldest son of Leon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart (1854–1915). By his contemporaries, he was widely believed to be an illegitimate son of the King of the Belgians, Leopold II.[6] He spent his early days in Belgium and in England.

The death of his Irish mother when he was six prompted his father to move the family to Cairo so his father could practise international law. His father was a court magistrate, well connected in Egyptian governmental circles, and was a director of the Cairo Electric Railways. Carton de Wiart was a Roman Catholic. He learned to speak Arabic.

In 1891 his English stepmother sent him to a boarding school in England, the Roman Catholic Oratory School, founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman.

From there he went to Balliol College, Oxford, but left to join the British Army at the time of the Boer War around 1899, where he entered under the false name of "Trooper Carton", and claimed to be 25 years old.

Boer War
Carton de Wiart was wounded in the stomach and groin in South Africa early on in the War and invalided home, and his father found out about him leaving college. His father was furious but allowed his son to remain in the army. After another brief period at Oxford, where Aubrey Herbert was among his friends, he was given a commission in the Second Imperial Light Horse. He saw action in South Africa again and on 14 September 1901 was given a regular commission as a second lieutenant in the 4th Dragoon Guards.[7] Carton de Wiart was transferred to India in 1902. He enjoyed 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 strong desire for physical fitness and he ran, jogged, walked, and played sports on a regular basis. In male company he was 'a delightful character and must hold the world record for bad language.'[8]

After his regiment was transferred to South Africa he was promoted to supernumerary lieutenant in July 1904[9] and appointed an aide-de-camp to the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Hildyard the following July. He describes this period lasting up to 1914 as his "heyday".[10] His light duties as aide-de-camp gave him time for polo, another of his interests.

By 1907, although Carton de Wiart had now served in the British Army for eight years, he had remained a Belgian subject. On 13 September, he took the oath of allegiance to Edward VII and was formally naturalised as a British subject.[1]

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.

Following his return to England, he rode with the famous Duke of Beaufort's Hunt where he met, among others, the future field marshal, Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, and the future air marshal, Sir Edward Leonard Ellington. He was promoted to captain in February 1910.[11]

In 1908 he married Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen (1887 Klagenfurt – 1949 Vienna), eldest daughter of Karl Ludwig, 4th Fürst (Prince) Fugger-Babenhausen and Princess Eleonora Fugger von Babenhausen of Klagenfurt, Austria. They had two daughters, the elder of whom Anita (born 1909, deceased) was the maternal grandmother of the war correspondent Anthony Loyd (born 1966).

In his memoirs, Happy Odyssey, Carton de Wiart makes no reference to his wife or to his daughters.


His college career was marked by a conspicuous lack of success in examinations, and he ran away later that year and enlisted (under a false name and age) in Paget's horse, a newly raised, independent regiment. ‘Trooper Carton’ was severely wounded fighting the Boers and, his real identity revealed, he returned to Balliol in 1900, but he did not complete his studies there. He went back to South Africa with the Imperial light horse, and in 1901 obtained a regular commission in the 4th dragoon guards. After service in India (1902–4), he became aide-de-camp to Sir Henry Hildyard, commander-in-chief, South Africa (1904–8). At Vienna in 1908 he married Countess Frederica, eldest daughter of Prince Fugger-Babenhausen of Klagenfurt and his wife, Nora, Princess Hohenlohe; they had two daughters. From 1910 to 1914 he was adjutant of a yeomanry unit, the Royal Gloucestershire hussars. In the summer of 1914 he was attached to the camel corps in Somaliland, in operations against Mohammed bin Abdullah. In November he was wounded in an eye, which had to be removed; his black eye-patch was thereafter a distinguishing feature. He was appointed to the DSO, and joined the 4th dragoon guards in the trenches near Ypres.

Carton de Wiart's career in the First World War was legendary. Severely wounded eight times, he lost his left hand, and was awarded the Victoria Cross for an action on the Somme in which he assumed command of 57 brigade of 19th division during the capture and defence of La Boiselle (3–4 July 1916). He subsequently commanded in succession the 12th, 105th, and 113th infantry brigades. He ended the war a brigadier-general. After the armistice he was appointed second-in-command of the British military mission to Poland, succeeding to the command on the death of General Louis Botha in 1919. He was involved in the widespread fighting, including the battle of Warsaw against the Bolsheviks, but had little influence over the course of the Polish–Soviet war. Indeed, Carton de Wiart was embarrassed by the Lloyd George government's off-hand attitude towards the Poles. In 1924 he resigned his commission, and spent the rest of the inter-war years happily shooting duck in the Pripet marshes in Poland, from a house there lent to him by Prince Charles Radziwill, his last Polish aide-de-camp. He was summoned back to England in July 1939, and was asked to resume his old mission to Poland. Unhappily for him, Carton de Wiart found himself reprising his role of the early 1920s, acting as the representative of a state friendly towards Poland but unwilling or unable to offer any immediate military aid. He had strong disagreements with the Polish commander-in-chief, Marshal Smigly-Rydz. With the Polish forces defeated by the invading Germans, Carton de Wiart returned to England by way of Romania and was given command of the 61st (territorial) division. In April 1940 he was appointed to command, as lieutenant-general, the central Norwegian expeditionary force. He failed to capture Namsos, but skilfully extracted his force, emerging from the disastrous campaign with his stock high with Churchill.

In April 1941 Carton de Wiart was dispatched to form a British military mission in Yugoslavia, but his aircraft was shot and came down in the sea, and he became a prisoner of the Italians. Held with other senior officers at Sulmona and the Castello di Vincigliati at Fiesole, he was at once busy with attempts to escape. With Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor, on one occasion he eluded recapture for eight days, no small achievement given Carton de Wiart's distinctive appearance. In August 1943 the Italians dispatched Carton de Wiart to Lisbon to act as an intermediary in the negotiations which led to Italy's withdrawal from the war in the following month.

In October 1943 Churchill sent Carton de Wiart, as a lieutenant-general, as his personal representative to Chiang Kai-shek in China. The rest of the war he spent in Chungking (Chongqing), where he could do little to resist the erosion of British power in the face of increasing American power in the region. He attended the Cairo conference in November–December 1943, and in December 1944 made a personal report to the cabinet on the situation in the Far East. His dismissive view of Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists revealed the shallowness of his grasp of Chinese politics. He eventually retired to England in 1946, having broken his back in Rangoon en route. He was appointed KBE in 1945, was elected an honorary fellow of Balliol in 1957, and held an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen, as well as many foreign decorations.

Carton de Wiart's wife died in 1949, and on 18 July 1951 he married (Ruth Myrtle Muriel) Joan (b. 1903/4), daughter of George McKechnie and divorced wife of Arthur Henry Carr Sutherland. They settled at Aghinagh House, Killinardrish, co. Cork, where he continued his tireless pursuit of snipe and salmon. He died there on 5 June 1963.

With his black eye-patch and empty sleeve, Carton de Wiart looked like an elegant pirate, and became a figure of legend. In 1916 Cynthia Asquith called him ‘the hero of the war’ (Diaries, 244), and Evelyn Waugh based the figure of Ritchie-Hook in his Sword of Honour trilogy on Carton de Wiart. His autobiography, Happy Odyssey (1950), gives something of the flavour of the man. He was quick-tempered and modest, omitting any mention of his decorations from his autobiography, and he loathed humbug and meanness. Carton de Wiart was a battlefield leader in the most literal sense, rather than a commander or a diplomat. It was ironic that much of his post-1918 career was concerned with quasi-diplomatic roles for which he was neither well-suited nor well-qualified, and in which he was not particularly successful. In the view of one historian, he was ‘almost as politically naive as he was brave’ (Thorne, 560).

As Guest, the commentor who kindly recommended de Wiart to me, said he "has the honor of having the best opening paragraph on Wikipedia".  No mean feat!

De Wiart was more a man of action than of contemplation, much like the 'Mad Baron' Ungern-Sternberg, who like de Wiart failed miserably in the academic world (at the elite Naval Cadet Corps, he racked-up no less than twenty-five disciplinary charges).  It seems that the action and rote-learning are not always compatable.  It might also be why boys are doing worse at school than girls at present (despite the efforts of teachers to drug them into compliance with Ritalin), because they are more like Carton de Wiart inasmuch as they tend more towards action than towards rote-learning.



  1. I don't know if you keep count, but you are coming up on 100 entries in the Men of Yore series, this one is entry 93 already!

    I suggest a summary post for the anniversary & took the liberty to create html links for all 93 entries, here is the raw code.

  2. Hey wow! Thanks! I've copy and pasted the raw code into a new post and it's on the right-hand side of the blog now. I'll update it with new Men of Yore entries when they appear. It should make it easier for people to peruse the different MoY posts rather than going through hassle of using the 'labels' tag, which displays entire posts rather than links.