David Barrington Barnes recalls the military and sporting career of Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart, a fearless war hero but also a dedicated hunter
The subject of this month’s biographical sketch is Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart VC KBE CB CMG DSO. This soldier truly was the bravest of the brave. If ever a man had on him the mark of the lion, De Wiart did. Having read his memoirs while still a boy, I have evermore been wary of calling any man a hero. His heroics over a lifetime’s soldiering make a mockery of the attribution of that word to today’s sports players, for example, who come into the public eye because of prowess in their various pursuits. But De Wiart was not just a magnificent soldier; he was also a hugely enthusiastic hunter.
Born a Belgian in 1880, De Wiart recalled his early life in Egypt where, encouraged by his stepmother, he found his first and lasting love of sport. A pony had him riding to and from school and the gift of a light breech-loading gun, a Flobert, was soon deployed against hapless Egyptian sparrows. Removing himself from Oxford University, he enlisted with a yeomanry regiment and fought briefly in the Boer War, in which he was shot in the stomach and groin and seriously wounded. These were to be the first of many wounds. After recovering and rejoining his regiment on active service, De Wiart was posted to Muttra in India where “the shooting was good and the pig-sticking excellent.” Pigs were plentiful and De Wiart relished the chase carried out at top speed, full out, a great deal over blind country.
Falls were inevitable and numerous. He recalled that on one occasion he cut off and speared a big boar with all three of them – horse, rider and boar – laid out flat on the ground. After another hunt, he spied a goose alighting on a bank and took his gun from his syce (groom), stalked and shot it. While in Muttra, De Wiart frequently used to shoot the crocodiles that lay along the river in their hundreds. For a man who dreaded snakes, he did well to shoot a rearing cobra at eight feet. He bagged two more cobras, one of which he grabbed by the tail as it disappeared down a hole.
After more service in South Africa, De Wiart returned to England in 1908, where soldiering was “not an exacting profession”. He therefore visited his connections in Europe, particularly in Austria, Hungary, Bavaria and Bohemia for their excellent shooting, which ranged from big game such as wild boar, red and roe deer to pheasants and partridges. He found the shoots delightful, and the international sporting friendships he made were plentiful and strong. While on a shoot in Bohemia a fellow guest was Colonel Bob Sandeman, who offered De Wiart the adjutancy of his yeomanry regiment, in which training was carefully timed to avoid it conflicting with the mayfly and hunting seasons.
De Wiart was wounded again while fighting the Mad Mullah, losing an eye in a frontal attack on a block house. On recovery he joined his regiment in time for the second Battle of Ypres, in the course of which he was wounded again and lost his hand. He persuaded the Medical Board to pass him fit for general service by saying that he had been hunting and shooting and must therefore be able to continue soldiering on. He won his VC at la Boiselle on the Somme in July 1916, averting a serious reverse and the loss of ground gained by his courage and example. Between then and the Armistice in 1918, De Wiart had many more adventures and was wounded again. He admitted to having enjoyed the war and his many decorations reflected his gallantry.
After the war, De Wiart was appointed 2 i/c of a military mission to Poland and then, as he put it, was given the earth: a hunting block in the remote Prypet Marshes, part of the enormous estate of a Polish prince. Here De Wiart set up home and for 15 years lived there for nine months of the year. He shot nearly every day he was there with undiminished pleasure. It was, he said, a sporting paradise. The main shooting was for wild duck, and various methods of shooting them were used according to the season. De Wiart most enjoyed the late autumn shooting. He often shot 180 duck in a flight and his record was 213. Springer spaniels were used for picking up and were essential as the splashes were ringed by thick, thorny bushes.
Disclaiming personal expertise, De Wiart recorded shooting more than 20,000 duck during his tenancy. Other shooting sport included spring shooting for capercaillie, pigeon shooting and excellent early season snipe shooting. In the autumn, driven hazel grouse, young black cock and occasional partridges were the main quarry. There was big game too – wolves, wild boar, moose and bear – but with one eye, De Wiart did little rifle shooting. During his sojourn De Wiart increased his firepower to a pair of 12-bore guns taking 2¾in cases and another with 3in cases, which he used with No 2 shot at the end of the season when small shot was ineffective. Like so many serious shots he liked to “use enough gun”. General Sir James Willcocks and Robert Ruark would have approved.
In his memoir, De Wiart said that although some big bags were shot, his best moments in the Marshes were evening flights where he waited alone and “felt the quiescent stillness of the coming night full of a tired magic, bringing the bustle of the day to a peaceful close”. He recalled how in 1939 the Bolsheviks came and took all his possessions but could not take his memories.
De Wiart led the 1940 Norwegian campaign. He was captured by the Italians in Libya after a forced landing on his way to take over the military mission to Yugoslavia. While a POW in Italy, he made a typically gallant, though ultimately unsuccessful, escape attempt. After the end of the Second World War Churchill sent him to China, where he was greatly taken with Madame Chiang Kai-shek. On his way back he had a horrific accident in which he broke his back. Remarkably, he survived this, as he had so many other injuries, and lived happily into old age. He died in June 1963 and is buried in Ireland.
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