At 3:58 a.m. a young private of the 7th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers named John James Wishard became the 190th casualty in what would eventually become an ill-fated group of 306 men of the British Expeditionary Force who were shot at dawn and would never return home from overseas service, whose providence had been pre-determined by those superior in rank, and in this instance a man who was to pay the price of his actions that had been borne out of desperation for news of a sick child.
Born in in Gortmore Townland, Omagh in 1893 he was the eldest child of Hugh Wishard, a private in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers from County Tipperary, and Sarah McKenna who was the daughter of a local labourer. Hugh fought in the Boer War and after returning in 1902, moved with his family to Belfast where they lived off the Falls Road and then by 1911 the Markets area of the city, which at the time consisted of small two and three roomed terraced houses that were mostly inhabited by poor Catholic working-class families.
Between 1909 and 1913 John found himself in trouble with the law on several occasions – the last when he stole a gun from Smithfield Market and was spotted making an escape across the roof. Unfortunately for John he lost his footing and crashed through a plate glass panel onto the market below. His head and legs were bandaged and his hands cut when he was arrested at his home shortly afterwards, and he was subsequently sent for trial at the Belfast Spring assizes. During all the depositions John was not cross-examined and at the trial itself, remained curiously silent. The judge evidently took pity on John and discharged him – stating that he had been ‘sufficiently punished’. John’s motives for stealing the weapon are not known however he may have been involved with a group as there were rival political factions in and around that area of central Belfast with occasional (religious) sectarian motivated attacks. On the night prior to the crime John was reputedly involved in some kind of fracas, and it is possible that in stealing the weapon he was acting out of desperation to defend himself.
Following the incident John appears to have put his troubled past behind him, and within a year life began to take a turn for the better when he became involved with a local girl named Maggie Byrne. The circumstances as to when and where they met are not known, however they were married on 30 January 1914 by the Reverend G. Mackay in St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church. Maggie subsequently moved into John’s house at 60 Stanfield Street and her new husband took up a respectable job as a porter. Nine months later, a son named George was born in the maternity block for poor and destitute women at the Belfast City Workhouse. John and Maggie’s joy at becoming parents soon turned to sadness when George’s life came to an abrupt end just over a week later on 20 October, and they buried their infant son in the city cemetery on the 24th. George’s death may have had a profound effect on John, and perhaps memories of his son became one of the contributing factors that influenced events that were to unfold over two years later whilst he was serving overseas in France.
The war was only a month old when John’s father rejoined the colours, and was assigned to the 6th (Service) Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Based on his service number, and a will written in April 1916, it seems probable that John enlisted during September 1915 and joined the 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Shortly afterwards, and whilst based at Buncrana, he deserted his battalion for an unknown reason, but was subsequently arrested and found guilty at a court-martial held on 3 January 1916. He received 112 days detention – after which he was sent to France, and posted to the 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. At the time Maggie was heavily pregnant with their second child, and after John left a daughter named Susan was born in Belfast on 31 May.
Winter 1916/1917 was recorded as being a particularly miserable experience for a soldier on the Western Front with ‘doubt and disillusionment’ a common state of mind. It is unsurprising that during this period a telegram from Maggie informing John that Susan was sick would affect him dramatically, and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to his eventual death. At his court-martial in May 1917 John told how upon hearing the news about his daughter he had tried to procure a pass enabling him to return home, however his request was denied.
New Year 1917 came and went without any further news from Maggie. The interminable rain had been replaced by snow and frost and John’s misery must have seemed palpable. Cooper Walker wrote of that winter “with very few exceptions, the NCO’s and men who had come out with the battalion had been granted leave to the United Kingdom, and after all, one couldn’t look further than that to keep up the morale of the troops.” Clearly John, who had arrived in France two or three months after the main battalion, was one of the few who remained at the front.
As winter eventually bled into spring, the lack of news from home must have been crippling. On 30 March John formed part of a small draft of men who had proceeded from Etaples to rejoin the battalion, and had spent the night in the rest camp at Hazebrouck. The following evening the draft paraded on Hazebrouck station and a roll call was taken, John was present however as the men climbed aboard the ‘horse wagons’ it was noticed that he had disappeared. On arrival in Bailleul, about eight miles away, another roll call was taken and John did not answer. He was heading north towards Boulogne, which, as other men in a similar situation had previously decided, gave him his best chance of returning to Ireland. John remained at large for three weeks before he was spotted in Boulogne by Lance-Corporal Slowgrove of the military police, who later deponed that:
On the 20th April 1917 at about 9 p.m. I was on patrol duty at PONT MARGET, I was standing beside L/Cpl HAMILTON when he was talking to the accused. He asked him to give an account of himself and he was not able to do so.
John was taken to the military police guard detention room and subsequently escorted back to his regiment in Hazebrouck by Lance-Corporal McLean, and handed over to Sergeant Hogan who was in John’s platoon. On arrival orders were then passed on to escort John as a prisoner of his company to the Locre Area from Zouafsques.
Two days after very publicly arriving back where he had started, John took the decision to make a second attempt to return home. On the night of 29 April he went to sleep in his billet as usual but during the dark hours slipped away unnoticed. Lance-Corporal Hughes, who had been sleeping next to him, only noticed that John was missing the next morning, and that also his revolver had been taken.
Eleven days passed before John was picked up in Boulogne by another military policeman. Lance-Corporal Knee stated that:
At about 10am on the 11th May 1917 I was on Police duty at the Grand entrance Bassin Loubet, I saw the accused who was in civilian clothes, being suspicious of him, I ordered him to produce his pass. Being unable to do so and also not able to give a satisfactory reply to my questions, suspecting him of being a deserter I handed him over to the Dock M.P.
Returning back to his unit John was charged on two counts of desertion and a court-martial was set for the 31 May – his daughter Susan’s first birthday. John pled ‘not guilty’ and stated that:
About December 1916 was the last time I heard from home. I received a telegram during December from my wife saying my child was ill. I tried to get a pass for home but could not do so. I was down at Etaples for a week but did not get home. I was very worried.
His statement in mitigation of punishment read:
It was only worrying about my child that made me absent myself. It was not through cowardice.
Evidence as to John’s character was given by Lance-Corporal C. N. Walker who stated that:
I have known the accused for 4 months in the trenches he has always been a good character and willing and has always done well in the trenches.
Stephen Walker writes,
The fusilier’s story did little to impress the court martial of three officers – two of whom were from Wishart’s own battalion. Such familiarity did the fusilier no favours, and he was found guilty of two charges of desertion and sentenced to death.
John was executed on 15 June in the village of Merris, near Hazebrouk. His body was buried in the churchyard, however after the war the exact location had become unclear and he was consequently commemorated in Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery near Arras.
John’s story lay dormant for many years. His daughter Susan recovered from the illness that beset her in 1916, and she eventually married a British soldier in Belfast during 1940. She died in Southeast London in 2005 leaving behind two children and several grandchildren.
Much has been written about the Shot at Dawn campaign and as a result of their efforts John was given a posthumous pardon under Section 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 which stated that “The pardon stands as recognition that he was one of many victims of the First World War and that execution was not a fate he deserved.”
This article is an abridged version of a biography due to be published in the first of a three-volume series of books detailing the lives of all men and women named Wishart who served in the Great War.