James Smaile Wishart was born north of Invercargill at Ryal Bush on 12 August 1892. His father, David, arrived in Australia on board the Duke of Athole with his parents in 1881 and like his two brothers, George and James, had settled in the Southland region of New Zealand. A sheep farmer by profession, David married a local lass from Lochiel named Mary Ann Smaile Forbes in 1891 and eight children were born between 1892 and 1910. James was the eldest of the siblings and when old enough, began working on his father’s farm – becoming accomplished at raising Jersey cattle which he exhibited at the annual Southland Show. He joined the Southland Pipe Band who wore Highland uniforms and were well-known in the region – attending numerous events and occasions throughout the year and was also a member of the Ryal Bush Bible class. By all accounts, James was both popular and well-respected in his community and served with the 8th (Southland) Regiment – a Territorial unit, before the war.
James enlisted on 1 June 1916 and joined ‘D’ Coy, 17th Reinforcements at Trentham and sent to Featherston Camp for training. Shortly after arrival he fell ill with influenza and spent just over a week recuperating in hospital. With the ANZACS fighting furiously along the Western Front it wasn’t long before the 17th received orders to proceed overseas and embarked in Wellington on the Pakeha on 23 September. Like his cousin James, James disembarked in Devonport and marched to Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain – arriving on 18 November. Similarly, he left for the continent after about a month’s training and stepped foot in France on 9 December and assigned to the 2nd Battalion Otago Regiment in Étaples. James spent Christmas at the depot and made his way with the draft of reinforcements to the front on 7 January 1917 and joined 8th Company in the Cordonnerie Sector. He would have spent the winter, which at the time turned into the most severe experienced in several decades, in and out of the line in various sectors around Armentières. In March, the battalion moved into Flanders and James was likely present at the Battle of Messines in June.
During July 1917 he was taken ill and following a short spell at the 9th Australian Field Ambulance, was well enough to rejoin the battalion in time to see action at the Third Battle of Ypres. At the start of August, he would have been based at La Basseville, near the Lys River, occupying one of the garrisons of the forward posts which were subject to heavy enemy shelling. Early in the morning of the 5th an intense box barrage rained down on the sector and followed by intermittent shelling throughout the day that claimed the lives of five men and wounding 12 others. James was slightly injured while manning a machine gun but chose to remain at duty and was promoted to lance corporal (unpaid) the following week.
On 12 October the 2nd battalion led an attack on Bellevue Spur, a gentle slope leading towards the village of Passchendaele. The preceding weeks had seen continuous rainfall; consequently, the ground over which James was to attack had been reduced to a deep morass, and confronted with strong enemy fortifications along the crest of the rise; the odds were stacked against the New Zealanders. 8th Company alone faced the challenges of advancing towards four pill-boxes hemmed in by swathes of barbed wire. Almost immediately after emerging from the trenches, the Otago men fell like skittles. Those who did manage to make ground found themselves blocked by vast belts of uncut wire that in places was 30 or 40 yards deep and had escaped the preliminary artillery barrage. It was a hopeless situation, during the day’s events over 800 New Zealanders were killed, and 1900 more wounded. Tragically, James was among the former, and ‘fell for Liberty’ as a newspaper obituary described it. It was a dark day in New Zealand’s history and the men, who would have undoubtedly seen the uncut wire, and futility of their actions, are rightly recognised for their bravery.
James’s body was either not recovered or later identified, and his life commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial.