Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart is one of the most unusual British army officers of the two World Wars. Of Belgium birth, he was widely believed to be an illegitimate son of King Leopold II of Belgium by his First World War contempories (and several of his close relatives rose to high positions in Belgium between the wars). After his father remarried he gained a British step mother, and was sent to British public school, where he seems to have thrived, largely by focusing on sport and ignoring the academic side of life! He managed to get into the British Army during the Boer War, despite still being a Belgian citizen. After an adventurous time in the First World War he became the British envoy to the newly independent Poland, where if anything his life was even more daring! He so impressed his hosts that he was given a large estate in eastern Poland (right by the Soviet border), and spent most of the inter-war years there. He was still in Poland when the Germans attacked in 1939, offering his advice to the Polish military; but managed to get out before the final fall of the country, escaping via Romania.
Carton de Wiart comes across as having had a rather unlucky First World War. The basic pattern is that he arrives on the Western Front, is given a command, and after a brief period at the front suffers a serious wound which forces him back to the same London hospital. He lost an eye before he even reached the Western Front, during what reads like a rather ill thought through attack on a blockhouse in Somaliland!
His fame slightly outshines his actual importance during the Second World War. After taking part in the Norwegian campaign he was sent to North Africa, but his aircraft crashed just on the Axis side of the front lines, and he spent the middle period of the war as a POW in Italy. His release was tied up with the Italian armistice negotiations - although the general he escorted to Lisbon didn’t end up playing that big a part in the talks, he ended up in London at just the right time to gain some of the credit (which he claims not to have deserved in the book). After that he was sent to China as Churchill’s personal representative.
Most of the time Carton de Wiart comes across as an engaging character, with a generally positive attitude towards just about everyone he met, and a very different approach to the Poles and Chinese compared that most of his colleagues. He is especially scathing about the ‘old China hands’, dismissing their attitude as patronising and entirely incorrect. In both cases he judged people as individuals rather than on national sterotypes, and perhaps as a result appears to have been popular in both places. He didn’t like Mao, but was much more impressed with Zhou Enlai. However the book was written before the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, so his attitude to both may well have changed, as he was a great supporter of Chiang.
He is also an appealingly modest character, paying more attention to his wounds and the efforts of the medical teams than to his achievements during the war. We do get an account of the fight on the Somme for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, but he doesn’t mention it, and instead comments on how his battalion’s efforts weren’t mentioned in the post-war official history!
There there are one or two moments where he rather loses this reader’s sympathy at least – in particular a suggestion that hardly any soldiers were pleased by the end of the First World War! He also seems curiously determined to get involved in a duel, failing to achieve it during a visit to London during the First World War, but finally getting his way in Poland. His enthusiasm for large scale bird hunts on his Polish estate don’t read well these days, but are entirely in keeping with the period, and even he realised that they were overdoing it in some cases and stopped hunting particular birds!
Although we get plenty of detail of his private life, we get almost nothing about his personal life – at the end of the book I was quite convinced that this was a classic example of the unmarried (or almost unmarriable) soldier, but I have since discovered that he married in 1908 and had two daughters! Quite what they thought about moving to rural Poland for 20 years is left unrecorded…
This is one of the most unusual and most entertaining autobiographies that I’ve ever read, combining elements of POW story (complete with a tunnel escape from a castle), campaign accounts and travelogue, with appealing pictures being painted of Poland and China.
1 - Belgium, England, Oxford
2 - Some Boer War Skirmishes
3 - Heyday
4 - Fighting the Mad Mullah
5 - A Cavalryman Loses his Spurs
6 - Passchendaele and Park Lane
7 - Head of the British Military Mission to Poland
8 - Five Simultaneous Wars
9 - Polish Politics
10 - I Am Given the Earth
11 - Sporting Paradise
12 - The Storm Breaks
13 - The Unhappy Norwegian Campaign
14 - Italian Prisoner
15 - Prison Life at Vincigliati
16 - Plans for Escape
17 - Wings of a Dove
18 - Mr Churchill sends me to China
19 - Chinese Charivari
20 - The End of it All
21 - And So to Bed
Author: Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2007 edition of 1950 original