William Wishart was born at 5 am on 29 July 1896 at 9 John Street in Aberdeen. He was the son of James Wishart, a carter from Peterhead, and Elizabeth Farquharson. In 1901 when William was four, he was living with his family at 6 Menzies Road and at 110 Gerard Street ten years later in 1911, when he was working as a van boy delivering goods to the railway for Wordie & Co.
Regrettably, William’s service papers have not survived, however, based on his service number it seems probable that he enlisted in Aberdeen on 12 August 1914 and joined the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion Gordon Highlanders – a training unit based in the city. At some point, William was transferred to the 8th (Service) Battalion Gordon Highlanders and was posted overseas on 18 August 1915. The battalion war diary records a draft of 30 men arriving on 13 September while they were billeted in Beuvry. William’s first experience of battle occurred less than two weeks later on 25 September when the Gordons assaulted the Hohenzollern Redoubt at the Battle of Loos. During the attack the battalion achieved their objectives, passing through the German wire and establishing themselves on the outskirts of Haisnes. The speed of their advance had surprised the Germans, who were not sufficiently prepared for the attack; however, that is not to say that the Gordons did not encounter any enemy fire, which they did endure – albeit mostly enfilade. For a variety of reasons the Gordons had to hold their position without sufficient support, and valiantly fought off successive enemy counter-attacks but were eventually forced to withdraw. Battalion casualties over the next two days numbered 17 officers and about 500 men.
In late October William heard the sad news that his older brother Joseph, a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, had been killed at Ypres and his thoughts must have turned to his parents and other siblings – of whom another brother was serving at the front while his father was on board a minesweeper.
On 20 December the battalion marched to billets in Steenwerck where they spent a wet Christmas engaged in a training programme. William and comrades saw out 1915 with a cinema show and concert, before plunging back into training almost immediately after the new year.
In early May orders were received for the ‘8th’ to join the 15th Division and amalgamate with the 10th Gordon Highlanders, who were part of the 44th Brigade. The Battalion War Diary notes other changes to Scottish battalions at this time, with its author commenting that:
The reasons for this breaking up of Scottish Battalions are not hard to find. In every engagement in this war, the Scottish regiments have taken a prominent part and have suffered casualties out of all proportion to the male population of Scotland, as compared with England and Ireland. In many parts of Scotland, especially in the North, the male population has been badly depleted, and is now quite exhausted. It is, therefore, most advisable to reduce the number of Scottish Battalions.
The amalgamation occurred on 11 May at Bethune, and the new unit soon found themselves in action later that month at Vermelles. During August the Gordons arrived at the Somme and saw action numerous times throughout the campaign, including at Flers-Courcelette and Le Transloy. In the absence of any supporting evidence it is not known whether William was present at all or some of these battles, and so without this, his story can be resumed in the spring of 1917, when he was almost certainly with his unit.
On 10 March 1917, the battalion arrived in billets at Arras and relieved the 6th Cameron Highlanders in the trenches the following day. Described as being in a ‘bad state’, efforts to maintain the line proved challenging, with enemy shelling rapidly undoing any improvements made. By the end of the month, the strength of the battalion was calculated to be 23 officers and 810 other ranks. Following five days in billets at Habarcq, William moved back up the line to Arras and took up battle positions during the evening of 3 April in preparation for an assault that would later be known as the First Battle of the Scarpe (a phase of the Battle of Arras.)
William’s unit moved forward into the assembly trenches in the small hours of 9 April and began their advance towards the German lines behind a creeping barrage that started at 5:30 am. In return, and within thirty seconds of zero hour, the Germans put up an SOS signal and retaliated by shelling British front line and communication trenches three minutes later. As soon as the Allied barrage lifted onto the enemy support lines, the Highlanders dashed forward and took the German front trenches. After a period of almost two hours, the battalion advanced again towards their second objective which was about 1000 yards further into enemy territory, however machine gun fire from Railway Triangle temporarily halted the attack after 150 yards. The arrival of a tank allowed the men to push forward again, and the second objective was taken. The Gordons consolidated their position while the 46th Brigade advanced to attack the Division’s third objective, which was near the river Scarpe.
That night snow fell heavily on the newly formed allied trench system, with men of the battalion doing their best to shelter from the biting wind that tore across the landscape. The next day the Gordons proceeded to the western end of the village of Feuchy and took up billets in a series of battered houses where they gained light relief from the elements.
At 1:30 am on 11 April the battalion was again ordered to move up into attack positions, this time in support of the 45th and 46th Brigades who were assisting the 12th Division in an assault on Monchy. The Gordons established a setting off point about 2-300 yards in advance of the third objective that had been taken two days before, and attacked at 5 am with the 7th Cameron Highlanders. After advancing about 200 yards, the battalion came under heavy machine gun fire from both Monchy and woodland to their left, across the River Scarpe. In the absence of artillery support, and no hope of progress under current conditions, the Highlanders were forced to find refuge in shell holes until mid-afternoon when a snowstorm blew up. The attack continued through the blizzard with a further 600 yards of ground covered before it was eventually halted, and the battalion ordered to hold their position until they were relieved.
During the day’s events, William was killed in action. His body was either not recovered or identified, and he is commemorated on both the Arras and Aberdeen War Memorials.