This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode
Hi folks I’m starting today’s tale on 18th November 1914. The setting Shimber Berris, the tallest mountain in Somaliland – a state often lumped in with Somalia in general, but who had it’s own self determination – and who were damn well going to keep it that way, regardless of what the British, Italians or Ethiopians said. Our hero tells us the Kharif, “a hot labouring wind heavy with sand” was in full force, but up in the hills the air was quite pleasant. All the same he was at the head of a group of soldiers sent up to capture Shimber Berris. Up the steep, rocky hills with little more than a few shrubs to cover their ascent.
Since 1899 the British had Somaliland in their sights, and had been at war with the local Dervishes, led by a man they called ‘The Mad Mullah’. The sources point out Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a Sufi poet, turned freedom fighter, turned General was neither mad nor a Mullah- but a man who was willing to stand up for his people for decade after decade, because he believed their way of life was worth defending. Our hero himself writes somewhat respectfully of them and expresses regret that they finally lost out to the invaders when they brought planes in, in 1920. The job of him and his men today though is to take over a stone blockhouse which looks out over the valley, thus making it harder for the Mullah’s soldiers to launch guerrilla attacks on the British below.
As they got closer, within 400 yards of the building, the dervishes from inside the blockhouse began taking pot shots at the British. The shots fall well short – from how our hero describes the scene, particularly that they were mixing their powder low to conserve resources- I presume the Dervishes are firing with muskets rather than rifles. The British fire back at the stone building. The Dervishes return fire with cutting comments on the British soldiers parentage. Our hero turns to his commander, Lord Ismay and begs to be the one to charge the defences – All we have to do is cover the 400 yards, make a 3 foot jump across a deep embankment, then in the front door. Once we breach the front door it is all over for them. Ismay lets his eager second in charge lead the assault. Our hero, Adrian Carton de Wiart would write years later how they charged the enemy – returning a volley of bullets with their own volley. They were quickly up the hill and within feet of the target, when he catches a bullet to the face. To quote
“By this time I was seething with excitement. I got a glancing blow in my eye, but I was too wound up to stop – I had to go on trying to get in.”
Following the bullet to the eye, Carton de Wiart gets hit with a ricochet, striking him in the elbow. Frenetically he returns fire. Another bullet hits him, this time glancing along the side of his head and going through his ear. Our hero steps back from the melee long enough to have his ear sewed back up, then re-joins the fray. This time a second bullet ricochets, catching him again in his damaged eye – so close to his target, yet so far. Adrian Carton de Wiart is taken away from the front line. His men relieved for a while by an Indian battalion, who similarly cannot make their way to the front door, and eventually have to give up. The next day they ascend Shimber Berris, only to find the Dervishes have scarpered. I imagine to the defenders this experience birthed tales of noble defence akin to the siege of Saragarthi, or Rorkes Drift – what we have though is a chapter in the life of the unkillable, Adrian Carton de Wiart – often his tale was of insane misadventure, when compared to, say Mad Jack Churchill or Audie Murphy – but it is far too crazy a tale not to share. Welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination Season 1 Episode 7, The Unstoppable Adrian Carton de Wiart.
(Theme music- Ishtar ‘The Enemy Within’)
Adrian Carton de Wiart was a lifelong, professional soldier who saw action in many, many theatres of war. He served for many years as a British officer, spent some of his life as a mercenary in the employ of Poland, then returned to the British when World War Two broke out. His career spanned from the 2nd Boer war in 1899, till just after World War Two ended in 1945. You just don’t see that kind of longevity, and normally when you do – like in the case of Baron Edmund Ironside – the model for novelist John Buchan’s Richard Hannay – well, his short stint in World War Two was a desk job. Another thing which makes Adrian Carton de Wiart so remarkable is the number of scrapes he survived, and the number of serious injuries he shook off. At least eleven serious gunshot wounds, including multiple shots to the head, over two occasions. Shots to the stomach, leg, groin, hand and ankle. He survived two plane crashes, being shot at by planes while driving at dangerous speeds down winding country roads; survived trenches, revolutions, and mad mullahs, dug his way out of a prisoner of war camp- literally single-handed at an age where many would be collecting their pension. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s cover a little early biographical information.
Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was born 5th May 1880 to an aristocratic Belgian family in Brussels. Whether true or not there is a rumour he was the illegitimate son of King Leopold II. Regardless of this his father, his family were noteworthy – his father Leon being a well to do international lawyer . He grew up in Belgium, after the early death of his mother Ernestine, Egypt, then on to private schooling in Britain – first a posh prep school then Oxford University’s Baliol college, to study law. While he enjoyed the company at Oxford, he was a terrible student, and in 1899, seized upon the 2nd Boer war in South Africa as a means of escape. At this point he was still a year too young to enlist, and being a Belgian citizen (his mother was part Irish being the only tie to the country) ineligible to serve for the British – so he changed his surname to Carton, got hold of some fake documents, and enlisted under phony details.
Adrian, at this time a bottom of the rung grunt in Paget’s Horse, Yeomanry regiment fell in love with soldiering. His stories in South Africa at this time are nothing special. Not long after arriving, and acclimatizing, and before he’d seen any significant action he was ambushed by a couple of Boer soldiers while crossing a river. He was shot in the stomach and groin and sent home – His dishonesty was uncovered, and his father, Leon was furious at Adrian for enlisting. Once recovered he would beg his father to allow him to re-enlist – he was just wasting his time at Oxford after all, and had found his niche in the army. Leon relented. Adrian Carton de Wiart became a naturalized British citizen and re-enlisted, being sent back to South Africa, with the Imperial Light Horse Brigade. The remainder of his time there would consist of drudgery – next to no action, a lot of aimless wandering from one post to another. In 1902 he took his first commission as an officer, and tried to get himself sent to Somaliland – remember the war there started in 1899 – but got sent to India to serve with the 4th Dragoon guards.
Most of his next 12 years was more or less free of conflict – and full of sports, hunting – a lot of killing animals for sport – the kind of hi-jinks you imagine when talking of upper crust Brits and use the word Hi-jinks really. Drinking, gambling, party tricks. In 1904 he was sent to Pretoria for more of the same – loved playing polo there. In 1908 he was sent back to serve in Britain, and only decided to look for an overseas posting when, on 3rd January 1914 his father sent him the message he had gone bust playing the stock market, and the allowance he got, which propped up his gambling, horses, sports and hi-jinks – would cease immediately. Needing the money Adrian signed up to fight in Somaliland, not knowing World War One was only around the corner – something which made him sad to hear, as for now he was trapped in an obscure country on the horn of Africa fighting in a sideshow to a sideshow, while all the big action was going on, on the continent.
Now, back to the aftermath of Shimber Barris, where Adrian had been shot – technically twice – in the left eye. The field surgeons could do nothing for him, and sent him to Egypt. The Egyptian doctors wanted to remove his eye, but Adrian refused – he had a reason for this. Now, while his autobiography does give an indication he was far more upset by this twist in the tale than most of the articles do, he knew if he was fixed up in Egypt he would be sent back to Somaliland – If he is sent to London, he would be, if found fit for duty after the surgery – sent to Europe to fight in the main event. Back in England his eye was removed. He is declared fit for service so long as he wore a glass eye (he didn’t) and sent him to France.
he got his wish redeploying in France and Belgium, where he saw action at the battles of the Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai, 2nd battle of Ypres and Arras among others. In February 1915 he sailed for France with his own infantry battalion, later on commanding a whole brigade. Adrian Carton de Wiart would win much praise for his soldiering and leadership, and he would also pick up several injuries. On arriving at the 2nd Battle of Ypres his battalion was sent out to relieve a previous battalion. On getting to the site he wandered ahead with a small group to meet the staff officer, only to be greeted by a pile of dead- mostly German bodies. Out of nowhere a volley of fire came their way, Carton de Wiart catching a shot to the hand which sent his watch out as shrapnel – embedding into the wound further. His hand badly mangled, Carton de Wiart got back on his feet and pursued his attackers, who fled. He then turned around and headed back to base. The terms in which he described his injuries are probably gory enough that I could get the podcast marked explicit, but will say he had all but lost two fingers and a whole lot more besides. He was sent back to London to recuperate – doctors trying, for the rest of 1915 to save his hand, and removing a little more at a time as it went bad. Eventually they amputated the hand, and three weeks later Adrian Carton de Wiart was on a boat headed back to the continent.
There is a tale, soon after returning and being posted to the Somme, Adrian Carton de Wiart is called on to clear the Germans out of the village of La Boiselle, France. They had tried twice before, both times leading to a bloody defeat. This was confirmed on their arrival, by large piles of dead British bodies in the middle of no man’s land. In a particularly tough battle three unit commanders were killed, and things had taken a dire turn. Carton de Wiart, through force of personality, and tactical smarts, took command of all 3 battalions and rallied the troops, winning the battle. This was a hard won battle with many casualties but it highlights why he was so highly regarded.
Later, In the battle of the Somme he was shot, again, through the skull, and ankle. The head injury is particularly shocking. Sent out at night to capture a particularly dangerous wooded area, high wood – named the Devil’s wood by some, Carton de Wiart was surprised by a sudden attack from out of nowhere. Carton de Wiart, quote
“We were still moving up when suddenly I found myself flat on my face, with the sensation that the whole of the back of my head had been blown off”
Holmes, his servant, managed to get him to shelter and they sat the battle out, before attempting to get medical help. He had been struck by a machine gun bullet at the back of the skull – which had gone clean through the back of his skull – managing to avoid anything necessary for life. This wound did not keep him off the battlefield for long. That night though he was one of a very few survivors of the botched attack.
On the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month of 1918 Armistice was signed and the First World War all but ended. Adrian Carton De Wiart summed up his wartime experience simply “Frankly I had enjoyed the war”. When I say the war was all but finished – in an effort to rearrange post World War One Europe several new conflicts broke out. Take Poland as an example. We’ll take a quick break here, and return to discuss the next chapter in the life of Adrian Carton De Wiart
This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.