The 8th Seaforth Highlanders had been relieved in the line by the 7/9th Kings Own Scottish Borderers when Second Lieutenant William Muir Wishart joined the battalion. On the evening of 19 March 1917, they had marched from Arras and taken up billets a short distance away in Duisans. Within a month the Seaforths would be engaged in the Arras Offensive, and the boundaries between hell and earth must have seemed blurred beyond all recognition. William’s war would soon be over – but at cost. Months of painful recuperation lay ahead, and the horror of 23rd April must have been deeply etched in his memory for years to come.
William Muir Wishart was born at 3 Mulberry Place in Edinburgh on 22 May 1885. He was the youngest son of Richard Wishart, a boot and shoemaker from Aberdour, and his wife, Jessie McGregor Roger. When William was five years old, he lived with his parents and four siblings at 2 Craigrossie Place in Edinburgh, and by 1901 the family had moved to 4 Kinghorn Place.
William was educated at the prestigious George Heriot’s School – an association that would serve him favourably when applying for the Officer Training Corps. On 15 September 1907 William’s father died, and by 1908 the family were living at 38 Gosford Place. Three years later in 1911, William’s time was divided between working as an insurance clerk and as a part-time student. He had been attending Edinburgh University, and on 26 November 1915, while employed as an actuarial clerk, William visited the recruiting office on Frederick Street and enlisted under the Derby Scheme with the 9th Battalion Royal Scots.
In an army medical examination, William was recorded as being 5 ft 5 ½” in height, weighing 10st 3lbs and with good physical development. He was passed fit for service and sent to the army reserve four days later.
On 14 June 1916, William joined the Edinburgh University Officer’s Training Corps and was ranked as a cadet private. A formal application to join an Officer Cadet Unit was made later that summer and in the application forms William’s moral character was certified by James M. Scott – the minister of Junction Road Church in Leith, whilst his educational suitability was certified by Charles McDonald, Organiser of Continuation Classes & Educational Advisor to the Leith School Board. His record of service from the infantry unit of the university contingent of the OTC indicated that William’s general efficiency was good, he had qualified at minimum range in musketry (exercised open range) and had gained the required signalling knowledge. The application was duly accepted, and William was sent to join the No.8 Officer Cadet Battalion at Lichfield on the 5th October.
William’s commission came through on 24 January 1917, and he was appointed the rank of second lieutenant in the 8th Seaforth Highlanders. The position was gazetted a month later on 26th February with overseas service following shortly afterwards with William joining his unit in France on 19 March. One week after his arrival, following an inspection by the commanding officer in their huts, the battalion marched to Arras on 26th March to relieve the 8/10th Gordon Highlanders. Working parties were quickly established, and throughout the night of the 31st, the battalion was employed in bringing gas projectors up to the trenches.
The Battle of Arras began on 9 April with a bombardment of enemy positions beginning four days earlier. On the morning of the attack, the Seaforths moved into battle positions and carrying parties were formed, with C and half of A company remaining in reserve. William’s role in the assault is unknown, however by the end of the day, the battalion had established themselves in several positions along the line, and suffered 47 casualties amongst the ranks. Two days later the Seaforths were on the move again and were ordered to move forward in support of 45th and 46th Brigades who were attacking at Feuchy at 5 am. They did not go into battle, and the following day they were relieved by the East Yorkshire Regiment and marched back to Arras where they were billeted in a school on Rue Pasteur.
A new attack was planned for 23 April with William’s unit moving up to the front system near Wancourt in preparation. A cold night preceded Zero hour, which was set at 4:45 in the morning. The Seaforths had moved into their “jumping off positions” shortly after 2 a.m. and prepared for a general advance on Guemappe Village. William had been assigned officer in charge of the Stokes gun and was positioned in the centre behind the last line of the reserve platoon (the ‘mopper’s up’ formed from “D” Coy.)
At first light one can only imagine the scenes William and his comrades must have witnessed. The battalion suffered heavy losses from the outset and were quite literally ‘mown down’ by the enemy. An Argyll & Sutherland Highlander writing an account of the attack in his diary referred to the 23rd April as ‘Black Monday’ and makes reference to the Seaforths as suffering ‘tremendous casualties’.
In 1919 William wrote:
I was wounded at Guemappe Village (France) in an attack on the 23rd April 1917 while officer in charge of a Stokes Mortar Battery and was admitted to hospital on that day suffering from wounds in Right Upper Arm and Left Thigh and Knee, and contused back (very severe) – a brick wall having been blown down on top of me, the result of a shell explosion.
It’s not exactly clear when William received his injuries; however, the battalion diary recorded that the Stokes gun failed to come into action and as soon as the team reached the line East of Guemappe Village all became casualties except for a sergeant and one other man. This was around mid-morning and during a period of intense enemy shell and machine-gun fire.
Further details concerning William’s injuries were recorded in a subsequent medical report. It recorded that on the day in question William received gunshot wounds in his right arm and left leg causing him to collapse to the ground, at which time, unable to move, a shell exploded nearby causing a brick wall to collapse on top of him.
William was taken from the field, and four days later was moved from an unspecified French hospital to Boulogne, where he embarked for Dover aboard the St. Denis. Back in the UK, he was sent to the Royal Free Hospital in London before being transferred to the Seafield War Hospital in Leith, where he was admitted on the 2nd June. On arrival, the wounds in his arm and leg had healed however his back was still tender, and William was not able to walk very far or ascend stairs without suffering considerable pain.
A medical board convened on the 3rd August made the decision that William required further treatment in an Officer’s Hospital. On 19 September the transfer was confirmed at another meeting, although it would be another two months before he was finally boarded out of Seafield and granted three weeks leave (after which he was ordered to report to the 3rd Reserve Battalion Seaforth Highlanders at Cromarty.) However, William found himself back in Seafield Hospital on 10 December and received further treatment to his spine. He remained a patient until the following spring when in late March or April 1918 he was transferred to the Craiglockhart War Hospital.
On 24 May 1918, over a year after being wounded, William was finally discharged from hospital and given light work with the Ministry of National Service as a statistical officer based at the Royal (Dick) College in Edinburgh. After the Armistice, the MNS decided that William was surplus to their requirements and he was required to relinquish his commission with effect from 1 January 1919.
Fifteen years after the war ended William married Elizabeth Masterton Richards on 31 August 1933 in Leith, and one year later their only child, a daughter, was born in Renfrewshire. He worked as an actuary with the Standard Life Assurance Company and died in Edinburgh aged 89 on 27 August 1974.