‘Devoutly thankful’ was the prevailing mood as “D” Company (previously “I” Coy), 1st Highland Light Infantry wound their way into India’s Simla Hills. On 4 April 1914 they had marched out of Ambala bound for Solon in what was later recorded as ‘perfect conditions’, however, their sense of wellbeing was to be short-lived.
As they neared Kalka, the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse, and it was a ‘bedraggled crowd’ that emerged from the remains of battalion encampment the next morning. Conditions lifted long enough to lure the Highlanders into a false sense of security before descending again while the battalion was bivouacked in Dharampore, and it was a sodden group of soldiers that gathered itself for the final leg of the journey.
In Solon, the mastery of the surrounding terrain, exotic to new recruits, was familiar territory to 10046 Pte. James Wishart – a twenty-six-year-old Scot who had seen continuous military service on the Indian subcontinent since the start of 1906. Within six months Wishart and his comrades would exchange the majesty of the Punjaub for the killing grounds of Festhubert on the Western Front, which in Wishart’s case, would end his life.
James Dowd was born on 14 May 1888 at 3 Albert Street in Lochee, Dundee. He was the illegitimate son of Helen Dowd, an uneducated jute mill worker from Sligo, Ireland who had settled in Dundee sometime during the previous decade. In 1891 at the age of three, he was boarding with his mother at 6 Wilson Street in the house of James McBain, a hawker from Aberdeen.
Exactly when Helen met a local yarn dyer named Edward Wishart is unknown; however, it seems probable they worked in the same mill and were married at Edward’s family home at 29 Mid Street Terrace in Lochee on 5 April 1895. Shortly after the turn of the century, the Wishart family (James had adopted his stepfather’s surname) were living at 165 South Church Street. James was still at school and one year away from becoming a millworker himself.
On 26 September 1904 James visited the recruiting office in Dundee and enlisted with the 3rd Black Watch. In an Army medical examination carried out at the time he was described as being 5ft 2” in height, 109 lbs in weight with light brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion. James gave his age as 17 years ten months – almost a full two years older than his real age and perhaps further indication that he was keen to escape his domestic life (evidence on his attestation forms suggest that he had been beaten in the past). During the next twelve months, James completed 49 days camp and musketry training and on 5 January 1906; he was transferred to the 1st Highland Light Infantry, who were based in Dinapore, India.
On arrival with his unit James was assigned to “I” Company and by 1910 had built himself a solid reputation in inter-company athletic meetings, regularly winning cross-country and sprint races. For example, on 18 March 1910, when the battalion was based at Bibiapur, he came first in a cross-country race consisting of eighty-eight runners. A year later, while the Highlanders were stationed in Lucknow, James was one of over 100 runners who took part in the annual Allan Cup and came first in what was noted as ‘an easy win’. Sporting successes continued throughout the next two years, and by May 1913 James had also joined a winning six-a-side company football team.
The battalion left Lucknow in October 1913 for Ambala where they were based until the following April. James’ last ‘sporting’ accolade came shortly after arriving in Solon when he came second in the ‘Nappies Race’ with a Private Storrie. This curious activity was described as thus by the Highland Light Infantry Chronicle:
“This was a very amusing and novel event. One man stood still, and the other ran to him from a distance of 50 yards and lathered his partners face with soap, then shaved him with a piece of stick, and when completed they linked arms and ran to the winning post.”
On 8 August, shortly after war with Germany was declared, the battalion received the order to mobilise and travelled by rail to Bombay ten days later. On 20 August, along with 914 other men and officers, James boarded the S.S. Sumatra in Bombay for Suez. The battalion disembarked on 9 September and proceeded to Cairo where they relieved the 2nd Gordon Highlanders in Kasrel-Nil Barracks three days later. After several days in a camp at Heliopolis, the HLI was sent back at Suez, where, in anticipation of a threatened invasion of Egypt by Turkey, they were tasked with canal defences until 20 November.
A letter written by Captain J. Inglis on 12 November contained the following details about this period:
For the past seven weeks, we have been doing outpost to Egypt and protecting land from any raids or damage. We had two companies here and two at Suez, with three Indian battalions (two Ghurka and one Napier Rifles) protecting the ground between. There have been frequent rumours of Bedouins (officered by Germans) coming, but so far they have not come within fifty miles of the Canal. It is rather monotonous work for our men sitting out in the desert, and very exasperating for them seeing transports coming from India filled with troops, for either France or England, passing through. Still, our time of relief is close at hand now, as they are sending a division from India to do the work we have been doing with one brigade.
Relief came eight days later after the Captain wrote his letter when half the battalion travelled by sea to Alexandria and joined by the remaining half the following day. The battalion had received orders to make their way to France where they would join the BEF along the Western Front.
James left Alexandria for Marseilles with his unit on board the ‘Sardinia’ on 23 November where on arrival, he was re-equipped with a ‘European’ uniform and re-armed. The journey to the front took him from Marseilles to Orleans and then onto billets at Vielle Chapelle where the battalion arrived on 7 December. Five days later James entered the trenches near Festubert where he was initially engaged in trench work; however, the situation was about to change with disastrous consequences for many men in the battalion.
At 9 pm on 18 December orders were received for ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies along with half a battalion of Ghurkas to attack the German line near Givenchy. James, in ‘D’ Company, was not part of the action, however, two days later the Germans attacked the position held by James’ unit, firstly with a heavy bombardment that blew in most of the front line, and then with a bayonet charge and a frenzy of bomb throwing. The fighting was intense, and the company took heavy casualties. They had been split into two parties; one, under Lieutenant Barry on the extreme right, had only returned with one man. Overall, between 19 and 22 December, the Battalion lost 54 N.C.O.’s and men killed with a further 63 wounded and 226 missing.
Writing on 1 January 1915 Captain Inglis described the events of 19-22 December:
We had rather a bad time at the end, and lost very heavily between 19th and 22nd. On the former day we attacked and took two lines of German trenches, but couldn’t hold them, as we were unsupported and the brigade on our right failed to make any progress. The following morning the Germans retaliated by blowing in our front trench in six places, and, following this up with a shower of bombs, rushed the trench. Practically not a man got back – only two small parties on the extreme flanks. Our second line stood firm, though the Indian right fell back. Luckily we had the Seaforths on our left, but the Indian regiment beyond them also fell back. We held the line for another 36 hours before being relieved, the Germans luckily failing to realise our weakness.
James was officially recorded as being killed in action on 21 December. He has no known grave but is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial in Pas de Calais.