Some people are born soldiers. They consider any other lifestyle a waste of time. It matters not who they fight for, where they fight, and often what the cause may be, but if there is a bit of bother they wish to be involved. This does not necessarily indicate callousness or brutality, in fact the best soldier takes good care of his men and not just for the sake of their efficiency. The subject of this book was a man born for soldiering.
His war involvement is impressive. He ran away from Oxford and a boring Law Degree to get shot in the Boer War, after recovering he returned to action and later spent a few years in India hunting pigs! Physical fitness after he was shot became his life's priority, he hunted, rode, played Polo and any other sport, exercising at every opportunity. Like many who had been to the 'right schools' and universities, even if they failed, he met friends and influential people who arose at various intervals in his life. The 'old school tie' always helps, though not if it was mine I can tell you! His eagerness for action saw him head to Somaliland to put down a rebellion and then find himself disgusted that the Great War had broken out as he was half way there! He helped put down the 'Mad Mullah,' (funny how Islamic fights affected Britain so often then) and lost an eye and a bit if ear while doing so. He managed to rise through the ranks while serving on the Western Front in spite of having one eye. He passed the medical, which he hated, by promising to wear a glass eye, an eye he chucked out of the taxi on his way home and wore an eye patch ever since.
During 1915 he was wounded in the hand, pulling his fingers off after the doctor refused to remove them, at the Somme he was shot in the ankle and also the back of the head, at Passchendaele he got one in the hip, one through the leg at Cambrai and one in the ear at Arras. He was a regular at a Park lane nursing home where I suspect he was almost one of the staff!
All this time De Wiart was not British! His father was Belgian, his mother Irish and it was King George who insisted he became British!
During the attack on La Boiselle as part of the Somme 'push,' he commanded the 8th Gloucester's. This attack on the night of the 2/3rd July met with fierce resistance. During this he met a man cowering and he requested the reason, the soldier indicated he had been hit four times before and couldn't face any more, De Wiart pointed out he had been hit more often and they both continued the advance! In this book the author mentions almost casually the situation pointing out they took the village, a mere jumble of rubble, after others had failed, The author mentions heavy casualties but fails to mention that he was the highest surviving officer from three battalions and his work, in the open under heavy fire, directed the operation and resulted in his receiving a Victoria Cross. This he omits from the book.
At the end of the war De Wiart admits he had 'enjoyed the war,' and sounded rather sad that it was over.
In between the wars the now high ranking officer liaised with the Polish government, distrusted by London, as it fought five wars at once. His attempts at providing aid via London against Lloyd Georges wishes brought him friends in Poland and once he resigned his army duties he lived an idyllic life in a free house in the Pripet Marshes. Had 1939 not brought another war he may well have remained there happily shooting wildfowl and anything else that passed by!
1940 saw the Acting Major General De Wiart given command of the failed Norway expedition. Too far for air support, badly equipped, lacking support, even the French troops prepared for winter fighting had no straps for their skis, the whole sad operation was doomed from the start. Quickly they returned home under heavy fire and much criticism. Because of this Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, and the war was, eventually, won.
However while acting as liaison with Yugoslav forces De Wiart travelled to Cairo by Wellington Bomber, one of the more successful aircraft. Before they left Malta where they stopped to refuel a mechanic claimed to have checked the engines personally, was he a spy wondered our author as later he swan for shore as the plane crashed a mile of Libya. For the next two and a half years De Wiart spent his time as a prisoner of the Italians. While treated well it was an embarrassment to him and his fellow captives. One escape plan did work for them and he spent eight days on the run before returning to his prison and friends. In August 1943 however the hero of our tale was transferred to Rome. The Italians wished to seek an armistice and he accompanied, dressed in an excellent Italian suit, a General Zanussi to Lisbon from where he made his way home.
The importance of De Wiart to the British government was seen in when he was sent to represent Churchill in China with General Chiang Kai Shek. He became effective in his new role although most of the time he was ready to rush to any war zone and enquire as to the situation. He would have joined in even in he was older than me! By 1947, aged 66 and in spite of an offer from Chiang to stay his time was up and retirement neared. However he managed to fall down stairs while visiting in Rangoon and broke his back and other bits also! Back in London he recovered but surgeons operating on him found many metal bits from previous wars while they removed! He then retired to Ireland, hunting and fishing.
The book is written more as a diary than a racy narration. He constantly refers to people who he met, most likely by use of his diaries, if that is he kept one, and the whole appears almost cursory when regarding the dangers he faced. It appears to me this was how he lived his life. He faced danger, and was not keen to be hurt or indeed killed, but that was what his job was. Understanding the dangers he was not a man to become obviously emotional about them, the 'stiff upper lip,' writ large. His ability to get on with people, especially in Poland and China must have existed while in charge of Battalion, Brigade or army. I suspect his men regarded him well, but possibly not in Norway! Hi character is revealed in that neither his Victoria Cross nor his wife appears in the book, such things are either taken for granted or not relevant. I suspect there would be much to like about this man if we met him in real life, unless be objected to shooting animals of course!
He died in 1963 and is buried in Ireland. His wealth was a few thousand pounds, money meaning less than his 'sport,' which is typical of the man.