In the realm of science fiction, one of the most formidable fighters of all time is a Terminator. These robotic soldiers from the future are the ultimate killing machine because they are virtually unstoppable. They can take being shot multiple times, lose limbs, and be subjected to unspeakable conditions but remain undaunted in their mission.
Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart may be humanity’s real-life counterpart to a Terminator. In his six decades as a soldier, he fought in four major military conflicts. During his adventures, he was shot in the face, head, stomach, hand, groin, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived four plane crashes; tunneled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; broke his back; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. He has been labeled as “The Unkillable Soldier.”
Adrian Carton de Wiart was born May 5, 1880, in Brussels, Belgium. Officially, he was the son of Léon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart and Ernestine Wenzig. Unofficially, rumors pursued him throughout his life that he was the illegitimate son of Belgium’s King Leopold II.
As a boy, Carton de Wiart lived in Belgium, England, and Egypt. When he was 11 years old, he was enrolled in a boarding school in England and went from there to Balliol College, Oxford.
It was when the Second Boer War erupted that Carton de Wiart’s life became one giant adventure. In 1899, he left Oxford to join the British Army. He enlisted under the false name of “Trooper Carton” and claimed to be 25 years old, when he was, in reality, aged 20.
In his memoir, he stated that his primary objective at this point in his life was to see combat. “At that moment, I knew once and for all that war was in my blood. If the British didn’t fancy me, I would offer myself to the Boers,” he wrote.
Carton de Wiart went to South Africa to fight in the conflict. His hopes of finding adventure were not long in being fulfilled. During combat, he was shot in the stomach and groin. This earned him a trip back to England to recover.
It was at this time that his father learned that Adrian left college. He was displeased but allowed his son to remain in the army. After fully recovering from his injuries, Carton de Wiart was given a commission in the Second Imperial Light Horse and again was on his way to South Africa. This time, it was under his real name.
In 1901, Carton de Wiart was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 4th Dragoon guards. Upon the conclusion of the Second Boer War, he was sent to India. This began the most peaceful period of his adult life. He found time to marry an Austrian countess and begin a family. In 1907, he became a British citizen.
The outbreak of World War I brought an end to this period of domestic tranquility. He was sent to British Somaliland to serve with the Somaliland Camel Corps. While attacking an enemy fort at Shimber Berris, Carton de Wiart came under fire. By the time the skirmish was over, he had been shot in the face — not once but twice. He recovered from his injuries but lost an eye and a portion of his ear. In exchange for the lost body parts and blood, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Most people would be discouraged from further soldiering after losing an eye. Adrian Carton de Wiart was not like most people, however. Fellow combatant Lord Ismay 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.”
Still wanting to see more action, Carton de Wiart was deployed in February 1915 to Europe’s Western Front. He commanded three infantry battalions and a brigade. To say that he found some excitement is a gross understatement. Before the war’s end, he would be wounded seven more times. His injuries included being shot through the skull and ankle at the Battle of Somme, through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele, through the leg at Cambrian, and through the ear at Arras.
At the Battle of Ypres, Carton de Wiart’s left hand was shattered under the fire of German artillery. He was frustrated that his physicians refused to remove his mangled fingers, so he tore them from his hand himself. Later that year, the entire hand was amputated — this time by a qualified surgeon.
His injuries were more than sufficient to justify being sent home. Carton de Wiart would hear none of that. During the Battle of Somme, he threw himself wholeheartedly into combat. Having only one hand at this point, he fought by pulling the pins from grenades with his teeth and throwing the grenades at the enemy with his good arm.
His exploits at Somme earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award in Great Britain. In his memoirs, he glosses over the honor, claiming “it had been won by the 8th Glosters, for every man has done as much as I have.”
After losing his eye, Carton de Wiart wore a glass eye for a while. He found it uncomfortable, however, and threw it out of a taxi window in aggravation. Instead, he opted for a black eye patch that he sported for the rest of his life.
Despite all of the injuries he received, the body parts he lost, and the trauma he endured, Carton de Wiart summed up World War I by saying, “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war.”
The years between the world wars continued to bring opportunities for adventure. From 1919 to 1921, Carton de Wiart commanded the British effort to assist Poland in multiple conflicts with the Soviet Union and its allies. In 1919 he survived two plane crashes.
In August 1920, Carton de Wiart was on an observation train when Cossacks attempted to hijack it. He fought them single-handedly (no pun intended), with only a revolver as a weapon. In the scuffle, he fell off the train onto the tracks but managed to recover, chase after the train, leap aboard it, and finish off the would-be hijackers.
Carton de Wiart fell in love with Poland and decided to retire there. He left active service in 1923 and spent the next fifteen years at his Polish estate.
This man of war was not destined to live long in a world of peace. When the Soviet Union invaded Poland at the start of World War II, he escaped from Nazi occupation and re-enlisted in the British Army.
In 1940, Carton de Wiart received orders to report to Norway, where he was to take command of a joint British/French force. While en route, however, his plane was attacked by a German fighter. Damage to the seaplane forced the pilot to make an unplanned landing on a fjord. Rather than take a rubber lifeboat to the shore, Carton de Wiart stayed aboard the stranded seaplane, taking fire from the attacking German plane until it ran out of ammunition and abandoned the mission.
In April 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Carton de Wiart to lead a British mission in Yugoslavia. While en route, his plane developed mechanical problems and took an abrupt nosedive into the Mediterranean Sea. Carton de Wiart and the crew climbed onto the wing of the wreckage, but it soon took on water and sank. Carton de Wiart — then 61 years old — swam to shore while carrying an injured crewman.
No sooner did the crew arrive on dry land than they were captured by Italian soldiers. Carton de Wiart became a prisoner of war and was sent to Vincigliata Castle near Florence as one of 13 high-ranking prisoners. Determined not to sit out the rest of the war as a prisoner, however, Carton de Wiart worked with his fellow prisoners for over seven months to excavate a 60-foot tunnel through solid bedrock. He and five other prisoners escaped in March 1943. After eight days on the run, Carton de Wiart was captured and again imprisoned.
In August 1943, Carton de Wiart was returned to Great Britain as part of a negotiated deal between Italy and the Allied Powers. One month later, Churchill again tapped Carton de Wiart for service. This time as Churchill’s special representative to Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek.
He remained in China for two years after the war concluded. During this time he survived yet another plane crash.
In 1947, Carton de Wiart decided to retire. Even in retirement, his adventures were not over. While on his way back to the United Kingdom, he stopped off in Rangoon and slipped down a flight of stairs, breaking his back and knocking himself unconscious. During his recovery, the doctors took the opportunity to remove a massive quantity of shrapnel from his many wounds.
The man who was called the unkillable soldier lived another 16 years after retiring. He died of natural causes in 1963 at the age of 83, surpassing the British male life expectancy of the time by 13 years.