204480 L/Cpl. Robert Henry Wishart (1888 – 1918)
Robert Henry Wishart was born during 1888 in Clifton Wood, Gloucestershire. He was the second of four children of Thomas Wishart, a surveyor from Cleish in Kinross, and his wife, Ellen Dalman. Robert was baptised on 3 May 1889 in St Peter’s, Clifton Wood and by 1891 had moved with his family to 1 Clifton Villas in Reigate, Surrey. Ten years later Robert lived in Hillingdon, Middlesex and had found employment with a local timber merchant as a shorthand typist and clerk.
Unfortunately, Robert’s service papers have not survived however based on his service number he probably enlisted in Uxbridge on or around 8 September 1914 and joined the 8th (Reserve) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. At some point during the war, he was transferred to the 1/6th (Territorial) Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment and by late summer 1918 was serving as a lance corporal. Between 29 September and 3 October the battalion were involved in the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, part of the Battle of the Hindenburg Line. Robert was killed in action on the first day and subsequently buried in the Jeancourt Communal Cemetery Extension (Grave IV. B. 3.)
After the war a book written by a committee of officers who served with Robert’s battalion was published and gives a useful first hand account of the battle in which Robert lost his life:
On September 27th the unit moved forward. A, B and C Companies went into the firing line, D Company remaining at Ascension Spur. The shelling in progress bespoke a coming attack of some magnitude and the initiative appeared to be with our gunners, of whom there were obviously many. The night of September 28th-29th was fortunately marked by good weather such men as might, slept well, a fact which may account in part for the high fettle in which the Battalion assembled on the evening of the 29th for the advance, in tin helmets, full battle order, life-belts and with the collapsible boats. The trenches were more than congested: they were so alive with bulky humanity, that movement was almost impossible or, when made, was barely perceptible. The hours passed slowly, as the solid mass of infantry gradually converged upon the starting line. The weather was magnificent; the night dark, but particularly clear. This itself inspired the highest hopes, and the brightness of the dawn, free even of the slightest mist, brought these hopes to the zenith. Then gradually the mist rose, and spirits were damped. In the Official account this mist, always increasing in intensity, is mentioned as being of invaluable assistance; and so no doubt it was. But at the time it seemed to be a misfortune. Optimists among the men even refused to believe it was a mist, or that the attack was to take place in alarming, impenetrable obscurity. They explained it away, as being a new and ingenious form of smoke-barrage, which might be relied upon to lift at the appropriate moment. It did nothing of the sort; it grew in intensity, as the unit stood, in an atmosphere of quiet and almost deadly stillness, waiting for” zero” hour-5.50 a.m.
The stillness was at last broken by the sound of the signal gun, a few minutes before” zero.” Immediately there was the terrific clatter of the opening bombardment, rapidly developing into the indescribable din of a barrage. With the roar of the guns was heard the incessant rat-at-at-at-at of machine guns. The leaders of the attack clambered out of their trenches upon ladders, the officers going first and waiting until all were out. They advanced” in waves,” at the pace of a slow walk and with a distance of three yards or so between each man. Thus they went for a distance of about 1000 yards, down a slope, then up, and then down again. Moving in this manner across Chopper Ravine, the successive waves came eventually to the Canal itself, taking about five minutes to cover each successive 100 yards, as it seemed, and certainly seeing no more than four yards ahead into the surrounding fog. The bullets of our own machine guns were passing little more than a yard or two overhead, and when the unit was halfway to the Canal the enemy bombardment, from guns of all calibres, began. On the near side of the Canal was found the first line of enemy trenches, sparsely held and easily overcome. These trenches were situated on an upward slope, and it was not until our men were over the crown of the slope and a hundred yards or so past this first line of enemy trenches that the water ahead of them was dimly seen. From close proximity it was found to be stagnant, fetid water, uninviting for an early morning” dip.” The sides of the Canal masonry were much broken; our barrage was now operating on the far side. At the near side the attackers paused, to reassemble and reorganise their forces in the thick blanket of mist. Orders had been issued for each man to enter the Canal as he came to it. From the one side the other side was invisible. The depth of the water appeared to vary, but to range about twelve to fifteen feet. The pausing attackers saw before them a sharp descent to the wall of the Canal, then a short, straight drop of a few feet, five or so. The water itself was disturbed only by the shells of the enemy guns, but into the water officers and men dropped, as they best could, those first to get in and through, encouraging the others with appropriate humour. The more skilful navigators threw a cable across to assist the less efficient; history does not tell us where the cables came from. Eventually all were across, soaked to the skin and with boots waterlogged. Captain Teeton came along the lines, standing on the wall, to ascertain what strength remained after the continuing casualties. These were not great, and the attack was now resumed, moving in one wave, up a slope, across an unoccupied line of trenches, which it was not considered necessary to ransack, and to the most heavily fortified line, which was of concrete structure containing formidable nests of machine guns. And here it was that the blessing of the mist was first appreciated. It must have been the saving of a vast amount of lives.
“Are you Staffords? ” our men had to shout, before they dealt with their victims. Parties of N.C.O.s and men overran the enemy trenches like locusts, after the now familiar manner of attack. German prisoners were captured in shoals, heavily protected dug-outs disgorging numbers of terror-stricken men. So far as time and language permitted, they told our men of their awful situation, cut off from support and even food, as they had been, for some twenty-four hours by the operations of our artillery upon their lines of local communication. Meanwhile, that same artillery was still dropping its shells some twenty-five yards ahead, and at the same time the mist was so far lifting that it was possible to see now for a distance of forty, or even sixty yards. The clearance of this trench line, not the halting point of our unit, was effected with rapidity, and movement forward at once continued. The ground was not entirely unknown in the days before it had been possible to see Bellenglise itself, and everyone had at least a rough idea of the direction and intervening spaces. While the advancing lines went forward, detachments were still capturing and sending back to Headquarters prisoners innumerable. The machine gunners would open fire into each big dug-out from its very entrance, so that the more active inmates had to issue forth, running the gauntlet of their fire. When the summons was understood, the fire would cease, and then batches would emerge into the light. One Lewis gunner is reported to have said to an emerging German, “You’re a dead ‘un, unless you have got some fags! ” and to have received at once the” hush-money” demanded. In the trenches themselves, a sergeant is stated to have rushed upon his officer, covered with blood and crying: “Have you seen any more Boches, sir? I’ve just killed five of ‘em.” For one NCO to extract single-handed, and secure, twenty–five prisoners from one dug-out was, apparently, not unusual, but characteristic of the affair. Meanwhile the advancing line had gone forward to the next German line, where the good work was busily continued, and when the rear lines had closed up, the whole unit, or that bulk of it which remained in action, halted according to plan, at 9.30 a.m.- 10 o’clock on that triumphant morning of September 30th. The 138th and 139th Brigades leap–frogged our 137th and passed on. The position of our unit was stabilised, under the fire of the enemy artillery, at this line, and in this line they stayed until October 2nd. The scenes of the battle which we have described were no finale, and if our narrative stops short of it, it is not to be supposed that the passing of the forty days between the triumph of Bellenglise and the splendid return to peace and quiet after November 11th was without its incidents and its trials; for on the very next day, October 2nd-3rd, there was a bitterly contested attack and counter-attack, at Ramecourt. Only at the point of the bayonet was that position held, and even then only at the expense of heavy casualties. But as the years pass, and the events of these terrific days recede into history, it seems ever more fitting to let the war narrative of the ” Sixth South Staffords ” end at Bellenglise, with our officers and men “turning in” to the German dug-outs, which but a few hours before had been considered impregnable strongholds. As it is recorded by our informant: “For short time occupied Bosche dug-outs; were disturbed by our sappers who, examining entrances, discovered time fuses due to operate ammonal charges in forty-eight hours. Destroyed.
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