originally published March 10, 2013
Every so often, I come across a story so skull-squishingly incredible, I feel I have to splurt it into an article before someone tells me it isn’t true. I wouldn’t feel right soaking up too much of this space with a rambling introduction – let me just say that this guy could send John Rambo, John McClane and that guy Antonio Banderas played in Desperado scrambling tearfully to safety.
This man is the most imposing figure on the bad side of ass, the most singularly unstoppable war-beast of the 20th century, and the guy who – if the British Army had had three more of him – could have won the war themselves and conquered all of Europe for the crown.
This is Adrian Carton de Wiart.
In 1899, de Wiart ditched college to join the British Army. The Boer War, in which England was fighting the Dutch in an effort to conquer South Africa and perfect the art of racism, was in full swing. De Wiart wanted a taste of action.
Early in the war, de Wiart was “injured” in the stomach and groin. I assume that means he was shot. Most people, upon receiving a war-time “injury” to the groin area, will hang up their military helmets and try on something a little less violent, like cobbling. Not Adrian. He was sent home to be patched up, then he turned around and went back. At 21, he’d moved up to 2nd lieutenant.
The Great War broke out in 1914, and de Wiart was ready to step up. He was sent back to Africa, to British Somaliland, to battle the Mad Mullah, a Somali leader who was hell-bent on driving the forces of British Imperialism away from his little corner of the world. De Wiart wasn’t afraid of a fight.
Perhaps he should have been. He was shot twice in the face, losing his left eye and part of his ear. Was he ready for early retirement? Fuck no.
From Africa he was off to the Western Front, sailing for France in February of 1915, before the eye-hole goop had dried on the inside of his patch. Millions of men gave their lives to the cause of Britain in the Great War. De Wiart instead gave little chunks of himself. Here’s a rundown on the rest of his WWI injuries:
- He lost his left hand. The doctor refused to amputate his fingers, but de Wiart knew they needed to go. He pulled them off himself. No, seriously.
- In mid-1916, he fought at the Battle of the Somme; de Wiart was shot through the skull and also through the ankle.
- Over to Passchendaele in the summer of 1917, where he was shot through the hip.
- Next it was on to Cambrai, where a bullet flew through his leg.
- Then to Arras where another bullet punctured his ear.
By the time Adrian de Wiart was my age, he was a Brigadier General with more ventilation holes than a jet engine. (note: I’m assuming jet engines have lots of ventilation holes; I really don’t know)
I don’t feel inadequate though; I’m sure General de Wiart never built a demon-hat out of bacon. So there.
After the war, de Wiart issued the following quote: “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war… and why do people want peace if the war is so much fun?”
In between the wars, de Wiart didn’t rest. He was sent to deal with a conflict between Poland and Ukrainian nationalists. His train was blasted with a machine gun, but de Wiart managed not to take a bullet that time. He continued to work with Polish leader Marshal Pilsudski, and found himself surviving a plane crash, then spending a brief period as a prisoner in Lithuania. When the Soviet Red Army came to storm the gates of Warsaw, de Wiart found his train under attack. He stood on the running board of the train and fought the Reds back with his revolver, falling onto the tracks at one point and having to race to leap back (one-handed, mind you) back onto the train.
This guy lived through thirteen or fourteen action movies before retiring as the very model of a modern a major-general in 1922.
In 1939, de Wiart was recalled to duty, heading up the British Military Mission to Poland. On his way through Romania, his car convoy was attacked by the Germans, and de Wiart had to flee the country with a falsified passport. He was then sent up to battle the Nazis in Norway. Outmanned and with insufficient weaponry, his forces barely escaped alive.
Finally, at sixty, it was time for de Wiart to retire.
I’m joking, of course. He was on his way to Serbia to negotiate with the Yugoslavian government, when his plane was shot down in the Mediterranean. Though knocked unconscious by the crash, the cold water woke de Wiart, and he and the crew were forced to swim a mile to shore. That’s when they were taken prisoner by the Italians.
As a prisoner, de Wiart and his fellow officers spent seven months tunneling for freedom and made four unsuccessful attempts to escape. The fifth lasted for eight days, as he disguised himself as an Italian peasant (who couldn’t speak Italian) and tried to get over the border. He was caught, and sent back behind bars.
In 1943, the Italian government brought him to Rome, and asked him to personally deliver their secret plans to leave the war to England. De Wiart was released, returned to England, then was shipped off to act as Winston Churchill’s personal representative in China. On his way home, de Wiart suffered one more injury, this time slipping on some coconut matting and falling down a flight of stairs. He broke several vertebrae, and had “an incredible amount” of shrapnel from his old wounds removed from his body.
Finally, it was time for de Wiart to retire. He published his memoirs, became a widower at 69, a newlywed again at 71, then died in 1963 at 83 years of age. The official cause of death was ruled to be too much awesomeness.
Adrian de Wiart was a dedicated soldier who firmly believed in the power of force over diplomacy. He took on all enemies of his nation, and probably collected enough scrap metal in his innards to build a jeep. His is the war story to end all war stories.
The funny thing is, a movie based on his life would seem too ridiculous and unrealistic to be taken seriously.