If there is one soldier in the history of military endeavour likely to make men of my ilk feel like pampered desk-jockeys, it’s Adrian Carton de Wiart: a Belgian-born British Army officer whose extraordinary life — and serial escapes from the jaws of death — prompt most who encounter his Wikipedia page to assume it’s some kind of Pythonesque satire.
Unencumbered by any ideological inclination, and narcotised by the smell of blood, de Wiart was doggedly loyal to any arbitrary cause that would pitch him against armed adversaries. In other words, he was the field-marshal’s dream and the pacifist’s nightmare. He was also utterly, resolutely unkillable: as prolific a casualty as any theatre of war has ever seen take centre stage, but never, ever to be commemorated by the blood-red flora of Flanders despite heavy involvement in three wars over four decades of military service.
De Wiart was born in 1880 in Brussels, but his family moved to Surrey, England, and then Cairo when he was a child. Like many children of well-to-do expats at the time, he was sent back to England for secondary education. He progressed to Oxford, where wine and cricket overshadowed any inclination towards academic endeavours. “I measured my contemporaries by their prowess at sport or taste in Burgundy and remained unimpressed by their mental gymnastics,” he later said of a period during which he ran up some hefty bills despite his father’s generous allowance.
Failing his law preliminary, de Wiart was drawn to the Foreign Legion — “that romantic refuge of the misfits” — but the outbreak of the Boer War sparked an epiphany in him: “At that moment I knew, once and for all, that I was determined to fight, and I didn’t mind who or what. If the British didn’t fancy me I would offer myself to the Boers.”
Having enlisted as a British subject under a false name and age, De Wiart found himself a member of a yeomanry regiment and aboard a troopship on a terrifyingly stormy voyage to Cape Town, much of which he spent cheerfully mopping up the sick of his landlubber comrades, not only impervious to the hazardous nature of his predicament but generally chuffed to be experiencing his first brush with mortal danger. On arrival in South Africa he was swiftly hospitalised with a bout of fever, but was released prematurely and randomly joined up with a bunch of local corps. Fighting with them, he copped the first of several bullets that would, over the course of his life, embed themselves in de Wiart’s corporeal form — this one in the groin.
“I do not think it possible for anyone to have had a duller dose of war,” he later wrote, having been invalided back to the nursing home on Park Lane, London, that would become his second home over the course of the next few years. “I returned [to England] bereft of glory, my spirits deflating with every mile.” Once recuperated, he journeyed to Egypt to ask his father’s permission to commit his life to martial endeavour. After some persuasion, de Wiart senior gave his blessing, and shortly afterwards the young, thrill-seeking militiaman arrived back in Cape Town to joined the Imperial Light Horse Colonial Corps, who promoted him to corporal within days, then demoted him within 24 hours for threatening to deck his sergeant.