Extraordinary tale of the one-eyed, one-handed war hero who fell in love with Poland and didn’t leave for TWENTY years
Visitors in the 1920s and 30s to the watery wilds of the Pripet Marshes, then in eastern Poland, may have heard tales of a one-eyed, one-handed British war hero who lived on an island in the depths of the wilderness and spent his days shooting ducks despite his lack of body parts.
The war hero in question was Lieutenant General Adrian Carton de Wiart, and he was, by all accounts, un-killable. A passionate soldier, over a 50-year military career that embraced both world wars and numerous other wars, conflicts and battles he was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear, and survived a handful of plane crashes. After having his hand shattered in one battle he even ripped off his own fingers.
For his exploits he picked up the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest medal for gallantry, and the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest award for heroism and courage in face of the enemy.
A reason for the Polish medal was, perhaps, Carton de Wiart’s love of Poland. He had first come to the country not long after the end of WWI as part of the British Military Mission, which was to aid and advise the nascent republic. He would not leave the country until the outbreak of WWII. “I came for three weeks and ended up staying for 20 years,” he would write in his autobiography ‘Happy Odyssey’.
His appointment to the military mission in 1919 had come as something as a shock to Carton de Wiart.
“The Ministry of War succeeded in giving me a rare surprises when it proposed that I go to Poland as deputy to General Botha, the head of the British Mission,” he wrote. “I was not very knowledgeable when it came to geography and only had a rather vague idea about Poland. I knew that it was somewhere near Russia and that it was fighting the Bolsheviks.”
But when he arrived in Warsaw he began to develop an affinity for the Poles, who at the time were struggling to keep their young country alive.
He also struck up a good relationship with Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the Polish leader.
“As a politician, I'd rate him as one of the best,” he recalled. “He had a striking appearance, and the attitude of a conspirator. He possessed deep set and penetrating eyes, a high forehead and a very distinctive drooping moustache. I was lucky to make friends with Piłsudski straight away.”
During the Polish-Soviet war Carton de Wiart saw Piłsudski almost every day, with the Pole using him as an outlet for him to vent his pent up frustrations over the attitudes of the British and French governments.
But as a soldier who relished action he tried to get to the front as often as possible. On one occasion, when his observation train came under attack from Red Cavalry, he helped fight the attackers off using his pistol.
When the war ended and the British mission wound up Carton de Wiart found himself at something of a loose end. Instead of returning to the UK, however, he decided to quit the army and take up an offer made by Prince Karol Radziwiłł, whom he had befriended during the war, to live on his estate in the Pripet Marshes, which are now in Belarus.
Travelling east with the prince he discovered an environment of “wild lowland beauty, stretching into the distance with countless lakes, forests and rivers.” It was love at first sight. A short time later Radziwiłł told Carton de Wiart that they had found a place for him called Prostyń.
“They had found a lonely wooden house on an island surrounded by water and forests,” he wrote in ‘Happy Odyssey’. “I decided to accept right away, feeling that I had always dreamed of something like this. I asked the prince about the price of the lease but he seemed offended by this question. He replied that if I like the property, I can have it for free. He didn't want to listen to any arguments.”
So began years of a soothing life in Poland’s eastern wilds so different to world of blood and violence which had embraced most of Carton de Wiart’s adult life.
“In my fifteen years in the marshes I did not waste one day without hunting,” he wrote. “I lived healthy and comfortably, close to nature and away from the troubles plaguing the inter-war period. I had no contact with world affairs, and, I must admit, had no interest in them.”
Although living a solitary life he would accept invitations from the local gentry, finding Poland to be “one of the most hospitable countries on earth.” He also found that when “vodka hits the right spot it warms you up and makes for great conversation” which, he added, “might explain why Poles are such great interlocutors”.
The British soldier’s time in the east came to an abrupt end in July 1939. With war clouds gathering over Europe his country called on him once more and he was appointed head of the new British Military Mission to Poland.
As the German and Soviet forces squeezed the life out of Poland he escaped with the British mission to Romania, narrowly escaping death, yet again, when the Luftwaffe attacked his convoy.
Carton de Wiart served in Norway, Yugoslavia, was a POW in Italy and was also posted to China and Singapore during the war. In the 1950s he retired from the army to live in Ireland, where he died in 1963 aged 83.
But throughout his adventures and travel he retained a love for Poland and his life in the marshes.
“In 1939, the Bolsheviks came to Prostyń, taking everything I had: shotguns, fishing rods, clothing and furniture,” he wrote. “However, they did not manage to take my memories. I saved them and I relive them all the time.”