Born into an aristocratic family in 1880, Carton de Wiart’s future seemed assured. At age 11 he was sent to an exclusive boarding school in England, then went on to study law at Oxford. But when he was 19, he left college and enlisted in the British Army. His father was furious.
De Wiart left for South Africa to serve as a trooper in the British Army during the second Boer War. As he was under military age, wasn’t a British subject and didn’t have his father’s consent, he pretended to be 25 and signed up under a pseudonym. He ended up receiving bullet wounds to the stomach and groin, necessitating a return to England. Although eager to return to the battlefield, he had to wait more than a decade to experience further front-line action.
At the outbreak of WW1 in November 1914, Carton de Wiart, by then naturalized as a British subject, was serving with the Somaliland Camel Corps. During an attack on an enemy stronghold, he was shot in the arm and in the face, losing his left eye and part of his ear. Although in great pain from the wounds, he kept fighting.
He returned to England to recover in a nursing home. (He was to return to this same place on each subsequent occasion he was injured, which became so frequent that they kept his own pajamas ready for his next visit.) While recuperating from his injuries, de Wiart received a glass eye. It caused him such discomfort that he allegedly threw it from a taxi and instead wore a black eye patch.
Upon recovering from his injuries, de Wiart was sent to the Western Front in May 1915. During the Second Battle of Ypres, de Wiart’s left hand was shattered in a German artillery barrage. According to his autobiography, he tore off two fingers when the doctor refused to amputate them. His hand was removed by a surgeon later that year. After a period of recovery, de Wiart once more managed to convince a medical board he was fit for battle. In 1916, he took command of the 8th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment. He became legendary for his bravery and endurance of pain. His eye patch, empty sleeve and striking moustache, combined with his bravery, made him famous with men under his command.
When World War Two broke out, he was sent to form a British military mission in Yugoslavia, but his aircraft was shot down over the Mediterranean. After swimming to shore, he was captured by the Italians. Despite being in his 60s, he made numerous attempts to escape the POW camp, on one occasion eluding recapture for eight days. He ended up spending 2 years as a POW.
Churchill greatly admired Carton de Wiart, describing him as “a model of chivalry and honour” and writing the foreword to his autobiography. De Wiart received numerous medals for his actions, including the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, Queen’s South Africa Medal, British War Medal, Croix de guerre 1914-1918 (Belgium) and many, many more.
In spite of his many injuries, De Wiart was a warrior though and through. Of his experience in WWI, he said, “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war.”