John Watson Wishart was born on 9 April 1888 at Rose Cottage in the Feus of Caldhame near Luthermuir, Kincardineshire. He was the second of eleven children of John Wishart, a local slater, and his wife, Margaret Watson. In 1901 John was living with his family at Waterside of Caldhame – a farm south of Caldhame Mill, and by 1911 had left home and was working in Glasgow as a savings bank clerk. He lodged at 43 Buccleuch Street in the parish of Barony, however later that year he contracted rheumatic fever and returned to Kincardineshire to recover. Sadly it was this particular bout of illness that would have a tragic effect on John’s health several years later.
In 1912 John joined the 5th (Deeside Highland) Volunteer Battalion, which was based in Banchory and following the commencement of hostilities in Europe, John enlisted with his younger brother Albert at Banchory on 9 October 1914. In an Army medical examination, he was described as being 5ft 3 ½ inches with good physical development and normal vision. His military character was recorded as being ‘very good’, and that he appeared to be of a ‘diligent and painstaking nature’. John’s previous employer added that he had been a neat and efficient clerk.
John was posted to the 7th (Deeside) Battalion, Gordon Highlanders – a local unit and natural heir to the 5th Volunteer Battalion that had been raised in Banchory during August, and formed part of the Gordon Brigade in the Highland Division. Training was conducted south of the border in Bedford with John eventually rising to the rank of lance corporal on 6 April 1915 (subsequently full Corporal at the start of August.) On 29 April the Division received orders that they were to leave Bedford the following day and embark for France. John boarded a train with his unit during the evening of 2 May and travelled to Folkestone, where they boarded the H.M.T. Onward; disembarking at Boulogne at 3 am the following morning. Three days later after some arduous marching and cramped conditions aboard one of the region’s notoriously slow troop trains, the Highlanders reached Saint-Quentin. The war diary records that it was the first time the locals had seen a Highlander before, and seemingly did not altogether approve of their kilts.
Shortly after arrival in France the 1st Highland Division was renamed the 51st (Highland) Division with the 7th Gordons forming part of the 153rd Infantry Brigade. Upon arrival in the area the battalion received orders to hold itself in readiness for an attack on the Neuve Chapelle – Fromelles front, however by that evening, and despite hearing the pre-attack bombardment, the order to advance was not forthcoming, and the brigade moved on to Lillers for training.
John’s first taste of trench life was on 22 May, when his battalion took over the line at Le Touret from the 5th Gordons and in mid-June, they were based near Festubert where an attack had been planned for the evening of the 17th. John’s role in the battle is unknown, however, the operation faltered along some heavy wire entanglements and was repelled by heavy machine gun fire, causing three killed and seven wounded. In the early hours of the following morning, German soldiers dressed in British uniforms crossed no man’s land and entered the trenches where they began killing the wounded from the previous day. One man was even observed shooting one soldier, bayoneting another before using his rifle butt to kill a third.
In addition to battalion movements, the battalion war diary over the next few months often mentions other such incidents, giving a brief snapshot of what John’s life might have been like in the trenches. The dangers from snipers and shellfire are fastidiously noted, and occasionally enhanced by small details such as the following entry from October 1915, in which the author describes an unusual tactic to draw out the British soldiers by the Germans while the Gordons were in the line at Authville:
During the forenoon, a mechanical figure was observed in the German trench. It was made to represent a man hammering in a post. Our men were not taken in and did not expose themselves to fire.
In an observation dated 28 November, the author commented on another German attempt to drawn the Highlanders into view:
During last night a German was heard shouting ‘Hullo Jock’ and ‘Come on the Gordons and Black Watch, come over and we’ll fight you, you Scotch bastards.’
As autumn turned to winter and conditions deteriorated, John’s health began to take a turn for the worse. The damage to his heart several years before was exacerbated by the constant stresses and privations of life at the front. During November the war diary makes regular comment on the weather and the atrocious state of the trenches, which by this point were invariably filled knee-deep with mud.
On 23 February 1916, John was taken out of the line and left France two-days later on board the hospital ship Oxfordshire. At that time the battalion was at Maricourt and exposed to the most challenging of conditions, so one can only imagine the relief John felt leaving the trenches. Back in the UK, he was transferred to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Dublin suffering from what was diagnosed as VDH (Vascular Disease of the Heart.) With treatment, his condition improved sufficiently to allow him to walk for short distances however he soon suffered from palpitations following the slightest exertion. The hospital also noted that the VDH was probably a sequela of the rheumatic fever he suffered in 1911.
On 31 July John appeared before a medical board and was found to be permanently unfit for service with his condition not due to, but aggravated by his time in France. He was officially discharged from service on 15 August 1916 and returned home to Luthermuir, where he was unable to work and saw out the rest of the war living with his family.
As 1918 and the war drew to a close John fell ill with influenza. His weak heart coupled with an inability to muster the strength to fight the disease meant his body gave up at 11:20 pm on Christmas Eve.
It would be a huge understatement to refer to Christmas 1918 as a sombre affair in this particular Wishart household. In addition to another son named James who died in 1915, John and Margaret Wishart had lost their three surviving sons to the war within twelve months.
John was buried in Marykirk Churchyard on 28 December 1918 and is commemorated on the Marykirk War Memorial.