As zero hour approached on the morning of 5 November 1916, men of the 9th Durham Light Infantry waited stoically in the frontline trenches, serge uniforms heavy with rain, feet planted uncomfortably in several feet of water and mud. Faces looked at each other for reassurance; prayers muttered under nervous breaths while friends shook hands in a final act of solidarity. In their ranks was 325091 Pte William Wishart, a twenty-four-year-old miner from High Spen in Durham who had enlisted with the Territorial Force in 1913. The Somme campaign had entered its final act, the objective stood in front of the attacking troops, daring them to ascend its treacherous slopes. Commanding Officer of the 9th Durhams, Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford, later wrote that “The Butte de Warlencourt had become an obsession, everyone wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of the soldiers in the forward area, and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. The newspaper correspondents talked about “that Miniature Gibraltar”. So it had to be taken.”
At 9:10 am the officer’s whistles blew, and William hauled himself over the slippery parapet and headed towards the German lines, which unknown to the advancing troops, were heavily fortified and double their normal strength. Men were said to crumple like ‘snow in summer’, and those who were not killed outright risked drowning in shell holes that pockmarked the landscape. Casualties that day numbered in the hundreds, William was amongst them, although providence looked kindly upon him, and within a month he was back in the trenches.
William Wishart was born with his twin brother Robert on 1 January 1892 at 47 Ramsey’s Cottages in High Spen, Durham. He was the son of George Wishart, a local coal miner and Ellen Bradley. In 1901, when William was nine, he was living with his parents and six siblings in a brick terraced cottage at 22 Severn Terrace in Chopwell Village. Ten years later the family had moved to a similar property at 36 Townley Terrace in High Spen, William had joined his father working for the Consett Iron Company in the local mine as a putter (someone who transports the coal or mineral away from the workings and out of the mine.)
On 27 May 1913, with war a little over a year away, William enlisted with the 9th Territorial Battalion Durham Light Infantry at Chopwell and following the outbreak of war, was mobilised for active service on 5 August 1914 and ordered to report to battalion headquarters in Gateshead. Following a period of training, he was subsequently transferred back into the Army Reserve on 14 November. At the time, local newspapers carried reports that mining companies had been left with a workforce of old men and boys following the rush to enlist, and so it might have been that William’s skills as a miner may have been of more use to the country. However, by the spring of 1915, William had returned to the military and selected for overseas service.
William left Southampton on 27 June for Le Havre where he entrained for Rouen and along with a draft of 183 other men joined the 9th at Locre on the 10 July. One week later the battalion marched overnight to Armentieres and relieved the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry in trenches facing Chapelle d’Armentieres which, although regarded as a ‘quiet’ sector, was not without its dangers and prone to regular enemy sniper fire.
In his book, ‘The Gateshead Gurkhas’ Harry Moses gives an insight into how William’s first experience of trench life might have been at that time:
Flies were proving to be a considerable nuisance and a threat to good trench hygiene, which the Durhams always practised. The country around the trenches was littered with refuse, a wonderful breeding and feeding ground for these most maddening of creatures.
As 1915 drew to a close, and the weather deteriorated, much of the Durham’s time became consumed by repairing the trenches, which regularly collapsed due to heavy rainfall. Although no large-scale offensive actions took place, there were regular casualties (mostly due to heavy shelling), and by mid-November, the Division had moved out of the trenches in Armentieres and began a period of rest in the Merris-La Creche area. The constant rain turned to much colder weather, a corporal of the 9th writing to his brother on 28 November said “…it’s just like being at the North Pole. In fact, I think this must be the place where Capt. Scott lost himself, when he was on the North Pole expedition.”
On 18 December, and following a period of relative calm, the battalion left the ‘quiet area’ for the ‘killing grounds’ of the Ypres Salient, and several days before Christmas found themselves firmly entrenched in the front line, often waist-deep in mud and exposed to heavy shelling. Later described as a ‘miserable time’; exposure to the elements coupled with an outbreak of scabies and the ever-present lice meant for a very challenging end to the year. Like many of his comrades, William was not immune from the harsh living conditions and was admitted to a field hospital suffering from myalgia (a chronic and severe muscle pain, caused by trench life) on 4 April 1916.
William rejoined his unit in late April and left the Salient with the battalion in late summer. They were sent to the Somme and took part in the Battle of Flers–Courcelette – attacking Starfish and Prue Trenches in mid-September. Losses were heavy, and although hard to decipher, William’s service papers record that on 29 September he was included in the casualty report as suffering from ‘shell shock’. The previous night he appears to have been in one of two parties who had been tasked with digging trenches, the first a fire trench called Blaydon Trench, the other a communication trench named Chopwell Avenue. The intelligence report made by Lieutenant Colonel Bradford the following morning recorded that both parties came under heavy enemy artillery and rifle fire; with the men involved in digging Chopwell continuously exposed throughout the night.
Although partially legible, William’s entries for this period suggest that he returned to his unit on the 14 October when they were based at Henencourt Wood. By the month’s end, with continuous heavy rainstorms and shellfire turning the landscape into a knee, and in places, thigh-deep quagmire, men of the 9th were already preparing themselves for an attack on the Butte de Warlencourt set for 5 November.
The advance began at 9:10 am and faced stiff enemy opposition from the outset and despite capturing The Butte, enemy counter-attacks in the afternoon forced the Durham’s back. After the battle Lieutenant Colonel Bradford wrote:
It is wonderful, when one considers the difficulties under which our men were working and the fearful fire to which they were exposed, that they held on for so long as they did. And it makes you proud to be an Englishman.
William suffered an unspecified wound to his left hand during the battle and at some point was admitted to the 2/2nd Northumbrian Field Ambulance. He rejoined his unit on 11 December and spent the remainder of 1916 billeted in the Warloy area.
In April 1917 the battalion saw action at Arras in the Second Battle of the Scarpe. Major Crouch, who was Second in Command of the 9th Durhams, wrote:
By its (the battalion’s) quick delivery, led by the Colonel in the front wave, it outflanked the enemy, who immediately surrendered. This action was one of the most successful carried out by us. Having regard to the results obtained, casualties were extremely small. The line was re-established and remained firmly in our hands. We captured over 300 prisoners, two large howitzers, which the enemy had destroyed, and many machine guns, thirteen of which were serviceable.
On 28 September William was admitted sick to the 3rd Northumbrian Field Ambulance and subsequently sent to the battalion base depot in Rouen, before being transferred to No. 51 General Hospital in Etaples where he received treatment for a venereal disease between 4 October and 7 November.
He rejoined his unit in the field at Toronto Camp near Brandhoek on 22 December, and after spending Christmas in billets, the Durhams were sent back to the line on New Year’s Day in conditions that echoed those of the previous year. Harry Moses:
The ground was frozen and covered with snow which hid much of the battlefields ugliness. The field, again, was a line of shell holes that were very cold and wet, and so cramped that little movement could be made. Shelters were cut into the walls of the shell holes, and ground sheets provided the only cover against the elements. Wooden floorboards were available which provided some comfort, but mud, which slipped constantly down the sides of the holes, made an attempt at revetment impossible. The troops shivered in these holes wet and numb with cold. Many of the shell holes around the positions were occupied by the dead in various stages of decomposition.
In the second week of 1918, William was given 28 days Field Punishment No.1 for neglect of duty, which considering the harsh winter conditions, must have been an agonising experience. On 10 February William was given respite from trench life when he returned to the UK for the first time since arriving in France two and a half years earlier. Perhaps his front line experiences fuelled a reluctance to return to duty, and William overstayed his two-weeks by eleven days and given a further 28 days F.P. No.1 for the affray; however, events later in the month suggest that the full term of punishment was not carried out.
During this period, and as it seems much to their chagrin, the 9th Durhams were redesignated a Pioneer Battalion and joined the 62nd (West Riding) Division. When the German spring offensive began on the 21 March, the 62nd Division was in the Arleux-Acheville sector. Five days later the battalion was based in support trenches south of Bucquoy when the Germans attacked and overran the British front lines which in turn meant the position held by the Durhams became the new front line. William was heavily involved in the action over the next few days and won the Military Medal for his efforts.
The Blaydon Courier of 8 June 1918 reported:
William & Emmerson Wishart, sons of Mr. & Mrs. George Wishart, of Townley Terrace, High Spen, have both won the Military Medal. William gained his distinction on the same day as Pte. Young won the V.C.
The ‘Pte. Young’ mentioned in the article was Thomas Young (1895 – 1966) another High Spen lad who had repeatedly gone out under heavy enemy fire to bring back wounded comrades. It’s likely William knew Thomas before the war as they lived in the same row of terraced cottages, and probably worked in the same pit.
Taking into account all his wartime experiences, William’s life at the Front came to a surprisingly un-dramatic conclusion on 3 June while he was sitting on some boxes enjoying his dinner. The boxes gave way, and he fell onto his face and cut his left eyelid, which judging by the number of blood transfusions he received must have been a considerably deep wound. He was sent to the 2/1st West Riding Field Ambulance where the injury was assessed to be accidental rather than self-inflicted and transferred to the 3rd Canadian General Hospital before returning to the UK aboard the Hospital Ship Warilda five days after the incident.
After recovering from his injury, William spent time at the command depot in Catterick and eventually transferred to the 4th (Reserve) Battalion Durham Light Infantry, who were part of the Tyne Garrison at Seaham Harbour. He was demobilised in early 1919 and like many men from High Spen, returned to his pre-war life working in the colliery.
William lived out the rest of his days with his younger brother George at 36 Townley Terrace and died of pancreatic cancer on 13 November 1972 at the Shotley Bridge Hospital in Consett. He never married and died without issue.