Killed in action near Marriéres Wood when facing overwhelming numbers of enemy soldiers is 7635 L/Cpl. Thomas Wishart of the 4th Regiment, South African Infantry.
Thomas had been at the front since December 1916 and left South Africa almost exactly two years before the day he lost his life. He was born in Aberdeen in 1894, the son of a cabinetmaker, and emigrated to South Africa at the age of 16.
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a series of attacks along the Western Front in an attempt to break through the Allied lines and end the war before the massed American forces, who were now arriving in France, could be fully deployed. The first few days of the ‘Kaiserschlacht’, which is also known as the Spring Offensive, was an overwhelming success to the extent that the Kaiser declared March 24th to be a national holiday, and many Germans assuming the war was finally coming to an end.
From the outset of the attack, the 4th South Africans faced overwhelming numbers of enemy troops and saw fierce fighting over the next three days, suffering crippling numbers of casualties. At dawn on the day Thomas died, the 1st and 2nd South African Regiments (which by then contained the remnants of the 4th) were holding a position roughly behind the northern point of Marriéres Wood, which was said to resemble a ‘splintered desert’. The terrain sloped eastward before rising again to another ridge about 1000 yards away. The strength of the entire brigade had been reduced to about 500 men, the majority of whom were exhausted through lack of sleep and the stresses of being involved in a continuous battle. Their position, although well placed for defence, was quite desperate, and allowed no avenue in which to retreat if needed.
Through the early morning fog, the Germans were spotted massing on the ridge and began to move forward at 9 am. An already deadly situation deteriorated when British artillery miscalculated their targets and bombarded the South Africans for the best part of an hour allowing the Germans to rapidly advance to a position about 750 yards from the front, which by now was smothered in dust and fumes which created problems in keeping rifles clean. The South Africans valiantly held their line, and by midday, the frontal attack had been temporarily held at bay, along with another German advance from the south. A new development to the north had also stalled wherein the enemy had set fire to the grass enabling them advanced to within 200 yards of the brigade position under cover of the smoke. Despite these temporary setbacks the German attack was succeeding in other areas, and the remaining brigades of the 9th Division (of which the South Africans formed part) forced back to the South African’s left. The situation became even more deadly due to German snipers picking off men through the choking haze that had enveloped the battlefield. The odds were stacked against the rapidly diminishing brigade, and the hope that they could hold out until after dark and attempt a withdrawal seemed almost impossible.
At 4:15 pm the Germans were observed massing again for a final push on the Allied position. By then, only 100 South Africans remained, some of who were already wounded. Ammunition had run out, and there was nothing else to do but surrender. Realising the hopelessness of the situation, three senior officers strode out in front of the line, and were surrounded by a group of Germans who shouted “Why have you killed so many of us?” and “Why did you not surrender sooner?”
The South African Brigade was no more, and during the day’s events, Thomas lost his life.
Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson (who was one of the three officers) later wrote:
It is impossible for me to do justice to the magnificent courage displayed by all ranks under my command during this action. For the two years I have been in France I have seen nothing better. Until the end, they appeared to me quite perfect. The men were cool and alert, taking advantage of every opportunity, and, when required, moving forward over the open under the hottest machine gun fire and within 100 yards of the enemy. They seemed not to know fear, and in my opinion, they put forth the greatest effort of which human nature is capable. I myself witnessed several cases of great gallantry, but do not know the names of the men. The majority, of course, will never be known. It must be borne in mind that the Brigade was in an exhausted state before the action, and in the fighting of the three previous days it was reduced in numbers from a trench strength of over 1,800 to 500.
The resistance of the South Africans was also highly regarded by the Germans, including the Kaiser who, while on the road to Le Cateau, stopped a party of British officers who had been taken prisoner. He asked if any present belonged to the 9th Division:
I want to see a man of that division,” he said, “for if all divisions had fought like the 9th, I would not have had any troops left to carry on the attack.
Thomas’s body was never recovered or later identified, and he is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial.
Arriving in Salonika to join the 1st Garrison Battalion Seaforth Highlanders is 39962 Pte. James Clark Wishart from Glasgow. The battalion had arrived in the area during August 1916 and in 1917 became part of the 228th Brigade of the 28th Division. James survived the war, married, and died in Perthshire during 1965. He forms part of tree WIS0158.