The Unbelievable Life of Adrian Carton de Wiart

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Podcast Transcript

Throughout history, there have been some truly remarkable people who have done some truly remarkable things. 

One such person was Adrian Carton de Wiart. If you don’t know who he is, thanks, ok, because by the end of this episode, you surely remember his story, if not his name. 

He was courageous, a little bit insane, and extremely hard to kill. 

Learn more about Adrian Carton de Wiart and his incredible life on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve done episodes on some truly remarkable people. Robert Smalls, who was born into slavery, stole a Confederate ship and went on to serve in the United States Congress.

There was Joseph Medicine Crow, who met the requirements to become a Crow Nation war chief while serving in Europe in WWII. 

Mad Jack Churchill went into battle during the Second World War with a longbow and a broadsword.

However, none of them have a story quite like that of Adrian Carton de Wiart. 

I’m going to do something unusual and start with the end of the story first. 

The end of the story is that Adrian Carton de Wiart died peacefully on June 5, 1963, at the age of 83, at his home in County Cork, Ireland. 

The only reason why the facts surrounding his death are noteworthy is because, as you will soon see, there is no reason why this man should have lived to the age of 83. At pretty much any point in his life, if someone had taken the odds, they would have been overwhelmingly against him reaching this age. 

The subject of our story was born Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart on May 5, 1880, in Brussels, Belgium. His father was an aristocratic Belgian who served as a lawyer and a magistrate. His mother was Irish. 

He grew up in England and Belgium until his mother passed away when he was six. His father then moved the family to Cairo, where he served as an attorney and the director of a company. While he was there, Adrian learned to speak Arabic. 

At the age of 11, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school in England, and from there he attended Oxford. 

However, he never completed his studies at Oxford. In 1899, at the age of 19, he went off to war. 

Adrian wanted to take part in the Second Boer War, which was being fought in South Africa. As he was not a British Citizen and was only 19, which was too young for overseas service, he lied about his age, provided a fake name of ‘Trooper Carton,’ and joined the army. 

Soon after arriving in South Africa, he suffered what would be his first major wounds. He was shot in the stomach and groin. He was sent back to England to recuperate.

His injuries were a shock to his father, who had no idea he had abandoned his studies at Oxford and had joined the army.

The injuries he sustained might have meant the end of military service for many men, but not for him. He returned to South Africa, was promoted to lieutenant, and received a position as an aide de camp to the head of British forces in the region. 

In 1907, after serving in the British military for eight years, he officially became a British subject. The next year, he married the daughter of an Austrian aristocrat, Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen.

The years before the First World War were great for him. He rose through the ranks, traveled through Europe on his leaves, and, according to him, simply enjoyed his life. 

In 1914, he was sent to Somaliland to put down a revolt by Mohammed bin Abdullah, whom the British had dubbed the Mad Mullah. While he was en route, Britain entered the First World War.

During an attack on a fort, Adrian was shot twice again, this time in the face. One bullet resulted in the loss of an eye, and the other took part of his ear. 

When he was taken to the hospital, he was fitted with a glass eye. However, he found the glass eye so uncomfortable that he reportedly just took it out one day while riding in a taxi, threw it out the window, and wore an eye patch for the rest of his life. 

For his actions in Somaliland, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Again, once someone had lost an eye in combat and had served in the military for 15 years, that would probably be the end of their career. However, Adrian was just getting started. 

Lord Ismay, who fought alongside Carton de Wiart in Somaliland, said, “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…”

Despite the loss of his eye, he was assigned to active duty on the Western Front. He commanded several units, including three different brigades and a battalion. 

In May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Carton de Wiart suffered his greatest injury. During a German artillery bombardment, he was hit by shrapnel in his left arm. 

The shrapnel devastated his arm and his hand. His wristwatch was embedded into his wrist. His hand was so mangled that his fingers were hanging by the skin. 

When he was taken to the hospital, he told the doctor attending to him to amputate his fingers. The doctor refused to do so. 

So, in a move that had come to define him, he tore two fingers off of his hand himself. 

The injuries were so severe that later that year, most of his arm was amputated to prevent infection from spreading.

Getting shot in the stomach and groin didn’t stop him. Losing an eye and part of his ear didn’t deter him. Losing his left arm wasn’t going to stop him, either. 

He returned to the front with only one arm and one eye. 

In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, he didn’t let his disability hold him back. The soldiers in his unit recalled him pulling the pins from grenades with his teeth and throwing them with his good hand. 

He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honor in the British Military. A medal that can easily be distinguished by its purple color. 

His commendation for the Victoria Cross read,

“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.”

Later, at the Battle of the Somme, he was shot again, once in the skull and once in the ankle. 

Once again, despite getting shot twice and receiving the Victoria Cross, he went back to the front. 

In the spring of 1917, he was shot again at the Battle of Arras, and he lost what was remaining of his left ear.

He went back to the hospital and went back to the front. 

Later that year, at the Battle of Passchendaele, he was shot again, this time in the hip. 

He went back to the hospital and went back to the front. 

Near the end of the war in late 1918, at the Battle of Cambrai, he was shot once again in the leg. 

After all of his injuries, he was sent to the Sir Douglas Shield’s Nursing Home in England. He became such a regular that it became a running joke amongst the staff that they always kept a pair of his pajamas on hand for the next time he would show up. 

For those of you keeping count, he was shot eight times, not including the shrapnel that caused him to lose his arm. 

In his autobiography, he said of his experience during the First World War, “Frankly, I enjoyed the war.”

Supposedly, for the rest of his life, bits of metal would occasionally fall out of his body. 

During the war, he was officially and temporarily promoted, eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General. 

At this point, surely, he could enjoy his well-earned retirement.


After the war, he continued in the military, serving as the commander of the British-Poland Military Mission.

After the war, Poland constantly fended off their neighbors. They had border conflicts with the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the Czechs. 

While flying over Lithuania, his plane crashed, and he survived. He wound up spending time in a Lithuanian prison. 

In August of 1920, when the Red Army was approaching Warsaw, his observation train was attacked, and he found himself in a firefight, firing his pistol from the train. 

Finally, in 1922, he retired to an estate in Poland near the Soviet border at the rank of Major General.

He served as an advisor to the Polish government up to the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Just weeks before the German invasion, he had advised the Polish commander-in-chief to move his forces back to a more defensible position. They ignored most of his advice, but they did pull the Polish navy out of the Baltic Sea, which allowed them to operate throughout the war. 

When the invasion of Poland began, Carton de Wiart fled south to Romania. As he fled, his vehicle was attacked by a German fighter, which killed his assistant but left him unscathed. 

After the invasion of Poland, later in 1939, he was recalled to active duty in the British Military. He was initially appointed as the head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission in 1940. 

In 1941, while flying from Cairo to Serbia, his plane crashed off the coast of Italian-controlled Libya. He was knocked unconscious, but the cold water revived him. He and the rest of the crew had to swim to shore, which he did….with one arm… the age of 60.

When he and his crew made it to shore, they were captured by the Italians. 

Carton de Wiart was considered to be a high-profile prisoner and was moved to a special camp for officers. While there, he befriended several of the other officers and immediately set to work, trying to escape. 

He made five different escape attempts. In one attempt, they spent seven months working on a tunnel. In his most successful attempt, he managed to evade the authorities for eight days. He hid in the countryside dressed as a peasant and managed to evade capture despite knowing no Italian and being a 62-year-old one arm with an eye patch. 

Finally, in 1943, he was summoned to Rome. The Italians wanted to make peace overtures to the Allies and were going to bring him as a good-faith gesture to the negotiation site in Lisbon. 

However, the Italians required him to dress as a civilian. He said, “[he] had no objection, provided [he] did not resemble a gigolo.”

Once he was released, now he was able to finally retire in peace, right?


As soon as he made it to England, he was summoned to the home of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. There Churchill asked Carton de Wiart  to be his personal representative to China.

The British relationship with China was difficult, considering the whole Hong Kong situation, but he did a commendable job, especially considering he was kept on even after Churchill was elected out of office.

Finally, in 1947, at the age of 67, Carton de Wiart retired with the rank of a three-star lieutenant general. 

On his way home, he stopped in Rangoon, where he slipped on a coconut mat, fracturing several of his vertebrae, which, like everything else, did not kill him.

In retirement, he wrote his autobiography, titled “Happy Odyssey.”

After writing his memoirs, he passed away at the age of 83. 

Adrian Carton de Wiart, despite receiving multiple major injuries, having been shot, blown up, and surviving two plane crashes, never gave up. 

His life story is a testament to his unbreakable spirit and endurance through some of the most significant and brutal conflicts of the 20th century. His legacy is one of extraordinary bravery, a near-reckless zest for adventure, and an indomitable will to survive.

With his injuries, plane crashes, Victorica Cross, and his high rank in the army, one could say that he was a one-eyed, one-armed flying purple people leader. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Benji Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Durinno from Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write:

Indispensable source of wisdom..

One of the best podcast, frankly i started to listen everything everywhere daily when working in the night shifts. now im addicted to it. keep up the good work sir. also can you do a podcast regarding Tamil language, computer virus please and thank you ..!!

Thanks, Durinno! I don’t know if I know enough about Tamil to properly do an episode on it, but it could certainly appear in a show about the languages of India. As for computer viruses, that is definitely something that is possible in a future episode. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.