Along the way he was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp and; tore off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them.
De Wiart was born in Brussels in 1880, the son of a Belgian aristocrat and an Irish mother who died when he was six. In 1891, his English stepmother sent him to boarding school in England. He went on to study at Oxford but secretly left to join the army at the start of the Second Boer War, signing on as Trooper Carton.
He was wounded in the stomach and groin early in the campaign and invalided home. His father was furious when he found out that de Wiart had left college but he was allowed to remain in the army and again saw action in South Africa as a second-lieutenant in the 4th Dragoon Guards and then as an aide-de-camp to the Commander-in-Chief.
In 1908 de Wiart married Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen who was not only an Austrian aristocrat but must also have held some sort of record for the length of her name!
De Wiart was on his way to Somaliland at the outbreak of World War One. The British were fighting against the so-called ‘Mad Mullah’ Mohammed bin Abdullah and in an attack on a fort de Wiart was shot twice in the face losing an eye and part of his ear as a result.
Despite his disability, de Wiart set sail for France and commanded three infantry battalions and a brigade on the Western Front. He lost his left hand in 1915, pulling off his own fingers when doctors refused to remove them. He was shot through the skull and ankle at the Battle of the Somme, through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele, through the leg at Cambrai and through the ear at Arras.
In 1916 he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous bravery at an action at La Boisselle and by the end of the war de Wiart had achieved the rank of brigadier general.
In the interwar period, de Wiart served as second in command of the British-Poland Military Mission and when out on his observation train, he was attacked by a group of Red Cavalry, fighting them off with his revolver from the footplate of the train.
De Wiart spent fifteen happy years in Poland hunting and shooting on a large estate in the Pripet Marshes but the peace was shattered in 1939 when the Germans invaded from the west and the Russians from the east. He advised the Polish commander-in-chief but it was clear that the situation was hopeless and he made a run for the Romanian border during which his convoy was attacked by the Luftwaffe. He finally got out of Romania on a false passport.
In 1940, de Wiart commanded the Anglo-French campaign in Norway. From Namsos, he led forces over the mountains and down to Trondheimsfjord but without air, artillery or naval support the action was doomed to failure and his entire force was evacuated arriving at Scapa Flow on his 60th birthday.
In 1941, he was appointed the head of the British-Yugoslavian Military Mission but on his way to Belgrade his plane was shot down and crashed into the sea a mile off the coast of Libya. De Wiart was knocked unconscious but came to before the wreckage of the plane broke up and sank. He and his crew swam to the shore where they were captured by the Italian authorities.
[themedy_pullright colour=”red” colour_custom=”” text=”His eye-patch and empty sleeve, and the fact that he spoke no Italian did make him rather stand out”]
De Wiart was held at the Castello di Vincigliata with other high profile prisoners and made five escape attempts including seven months of tunnelling. He did manage to evade recapture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant but his eye-patch and empty sleeve, and the fact that he spoke no Italian did make him rather stand out.
The irony was that he had been approved for repatriation due to his various disabilities, although it is likely that he would have refused as repatriation would have required him to promise to take no further part in the war.
Then in 1943 de Wiart was taken to Rome because the Italian government was secretly planning to leave the war and they wanted him to accompany their negotiator to Lisbon to meet Allied contacts to agree the surrender. Once in Portugal, he was released and made his way back to England.
Within a month, Winston Churchill appointed de Wiart as his personal representative in China. On his way there, he attended the Cairo Conference and is seen in the photo on the right with his trademark eye-patch and empty sleeve.
De Wiart was to remain in China until the end of the war and beyond. He officially retired in 1947 and headed home but during a stopover in Rangoon he slipped on coconut matting, fell down, broke several vertebrae and knocked himself out. His injuries were treated when he eventually made it back to England and the doctors also succeeded in removing a large amount of shrapnel from his old wounds.
His wife died in 1949 and de Wiart married a divorcee twenty-three years his junior and retired to a life of hunting and fishing in County Cork in Ireland where he died in 1963 at the age of eighty-three.