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Happy Odyssey Paperback – 1 May 2007
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Adrian Carton de Wiart's autobiography is one of the most remarkable of military memoirs. He was the son of a Belgian barrister, Leon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart (1854-1915). He, himself, was intended for the law, but abandoned his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1899 to serve as a trooper in the South African War. Carton de Wiart's extraordinary military career embraced service with the Somaliland Camel Corps (1914-15), liaison officer with Polish forces (1939), membership of the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia (1941), a period as a prisoner of war (1941-43), and three years as Churchill's representative to Chiang Kai-shek (1943-46). (Churchill was a great admirer.) During the Great War, besides commanding the 8th Glosters, Carton de Wiart was GOC 12 Brigade (1917) and GOC 105 Brigade (April 1918). Both these commands were terminated by wounds. He was wounded eight times during the war (including the loss of an eye and a hand), won the VC during the Batlle of the Somme, was mentioned in despatches six times, and was the model for Brigadier Ben Ritchie Hook in the Sword of Honour trilogy of Evelyn Waugh.
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There is no world leader or military leader who he did not meet in the first half of the twentieth century, yet he doesn't name drop for kudos, he is extremely humble. For his rank, it was unusual that he was in the thick of fighting at the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele and Cambrai; four major WW1 battles - you just wouldn't want to be stood next to him as inevitably he would get wounded, he actually kept his own dressing gown and slippers at a military hospital in London because he was such a regular visitor.
If you had to invent a comedy character who was completely unbelievable (as Evelyn Waugh did), then de Wiart would be your blueprint. He is completely un-PC and gives great insight into life, the army and the class system of post- Victorian Europe. He is extremely humble for a man who achieved so much - this book is a must read and is a refreshing change from all of the WW1 history books, biographies and novels.
This book was written in 1950 and has no pretensions to literary merit; it is a straightforward memoir from a military man from a different age. Some of the things he describes - and the way he describes different nationalities - are definitely from another era, but this does not detract from the sheer audacity of the man. By the end, I'm not sure I liked the man, but I certainly respected his outlook on life, his perseverance, and his achievements. His antics seem unbelievable at times, but they do check out, and I'm not sure that the man who comes out of the pages would have felt the need for invention. Indeed, there are some elements he doesn't even mention; for example he was married for forty years and had two children, yet his wife and family are not even mentioned in the book. Having read it, I struggle to work out how they fit into the story at all.
Overall, this is an easy, fun read, about a man from an age long gone.
But this covers off stuff like the assassination of Lee Stack, the Cairo Conference, a charming description of the Pinsk Marshes and a whirlwind tour around the heady days of High British Imperialism, as well as many other memorable moments but without that banal veneer so misapplied by modern authors.
It's also just wonderfully written.
No denying this individual had a significant impact on various war efforts and his heroics (perhaps not actual leadership) are to be commended and celebrated but the novel doesn't really bring home this message in an overly exciting way and therefore I felt this was a missed opportunity.
It is a fascinating rendition of a bygone era. Our wars are no longer fought in this manner today. But I have to admire the author's courage and humour in adversity. I found the book a fascinating read.
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What an inspiration.