John Brown Wishart was born 22 May 1889 on Wallace Street in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire. He was fourth of eight children of John Wishart, a steel smelter from Carstairs, and his wife, Margaret Brown. By 1891 the family were living at 16 Bankhead Place in Rutherglen and had moved to 1 McAlpine Place ten years later. John’s first job after leaving school was as a grocer’s assistant and was still working in the grocery trade when war broke out in August 1914.
On 26 August 1915, John enlisted under the Derby Scheme (Group 7) in Glasgow and joined the Highland Light Infantry. He was posted to the 3/9th Battalion – a Reserve unit formed the previous March that was subsequently based at Ripon.
John received orders to proceed overseas on 18 July and embarked in Folkestone for Boulogne where he made his way to the 21st Infantry Base Depot at Etaples. Nine days after arrival he was attached to the 5th Entrenching Battalion – a temporary unit made up of men surplus to requirement for infantry duties that would have been engaged in digging trenches and other earthworks to assist units such as tunnellers, pioneers, railways, engineers and signals.
Regrettably, the battalion war diary does not appear to have survived meaning John’s exact location over the next few months is currently unclear. However, as recorded in his service papers, it is known that he was appointed acting lance corporal on 16 October and sent to the 101st Field Ambulance suffering from trench foot on 16 December. From there he was transferred to the 6th General Hospital in Rouen before returning to the UK on the 20th for further treatment and recuperation.
Six months later, on 12 June 1917, John embarked at Folkestone for the second time and arrived in Boulogne later that day. He was processed at the 32nd Infantry Base Depot in Etaples and assigned to the 9th (Glasgow Highland) Battalion, Highland Light Infantry on 26 August. During this period he was promoted to acting corporal (paid) and transferred to ‘D’ Company, 2nd Battalion HLI on 17 September. As part of a draft of 80 reinforcements, John joined his new unit in the trenches at Le Preol near the Bethune and La Basse Canal on the 24th.
On 20 November 1917, the British launched a surprise offensive near Cambrai that is noted for the first large-scale use of tanks. After initial successes, the Germans counter-attacked ten days later and retook much of the ground captured by the Allies. On 30 November John’s unit was based south of the Cambrai – Bapuame Road and about to face three German divisions who attacked to the north. A rather lively newspaper article about the ensuing battle published in the Fife Free Press on 2 March 1918 mentions John’s battalion in the battle. Naturally, the article would have been heavily censored and any negative commentary removed by the Army censor:
Heroism At Cambrai
Story Of HLI
THE GALLANT SECOND DIVISION. The heroism displayed by the Second Division in stemming the Huns’ attack at Cambrai on November 30 is especially described by Mr Percival Phillips, the special correspondent of the ‘Daily Express’ in France.
The fighting in the bed of the Nord Canal and on its banks was the strangest feature of the battle of Cambrai. It was a battle within a battle, and when our troops came back to their present line, a few days later, the floor of this disused waterway was covered with German dead and wounded.
The other troops of the Second Division were as industrious in the killing of Germans, for they dealt with the repeated waves of storm troops flowing southwards from Bourlon Village and the open country beyond.
The 99th Brigade, on the right, will always remember.
THE DAY OF SLAUGHTER
When that short whirlwind bombardment ushered in the German battle order on the morning of the 30th, they saw field guns galloping up to a slight rise immediately in front. One gun, I believe, fired three shots before it was silenced, and others were less fortunate. Then two battalions of grey infantry came out of the ruins of Bourlon Village in full marching order, as though on manoeuvres, and as the amazed riflemen watched these compact lines moving forward under heavy packs, someone made the remark which afterwards passed through the Division and was repeated to me at Headquarters, “They look for all the world as though they have come to stop – and so they have.”
Before the day was half spent the only survivors of those first waves of German infantry were dribbling through the line of the Second Division to the prisoners’ cages, dazed, and panic-stricken, still wearing their kit. The field guns and howitzers which had been planted so audaciously at point-blank range, lay wrecked and broken, with bodies around the shattered carriages.
Repeatedly the German “Group” Commander sowed the fields in front of the Second Division with fresh troops, and as promptly our men harvested each crop with their machine guns. You may judge the spirit of the soldiers by the fact that even when wounded they kept fighting rather than miss a chance of firing at live targets which they could not miss.
I was told of some wounded men of the 2nd Highland Light Infantry who were propped up by their comrades and given rifles. One of them, when approached by the stretcher-bearers, told them in simple soldierly language to go elsewhere, as he “wouldn’t give up such a rare chance of killing Huns.”
The story goes that one wrathful Jock, who had been shot in both legs, had to be pulled away by main force, and was borne out of the trench cursing vividly because the bearers would not leave him at his work.
Any man in the Second Division will tell you that the German attack in mass – close waves of infantry pushing over No Man’s Land, as they are now being trained to do – is a spectacle to gladden the eyes of British troops most concerned in such an operation.
As the Londoners, who were there with the Highlanders as part of the Fifth Brigade; the 17th and 24th Royal Fusiliers, or the 2nd Oxford and Bucks, who kept them company in November, if November 30 was not one of the most satisfactory days they have had since they took to fighting as a profession.
If you meet any of these men, I advise you not to suggest that a German offensive can possibly bring disaster save for the unfortunate Huns who are forced to undertake it.
Although not quite as colourful in its use of language, the battalion war diary does make mention of the massed advance of the German troops, and that the Allied firepower managed to repeatedly ‘disperse’ the enemy who are referred to several times as being ‘determined.’ Despite the frantic fighting, battalion casualties could be considered relatively low compared with previous engagements and its strength was reduced to almost 850 men (from about 1000) during the seven days they were in action.
On 19 March 1918, while at La Vacquerie, John was awarded fourteen days leave to the UK. His timing was perfect as two days later the Germans began what was subsequently known as the Spring Offensive. Before returning to the front, John spent almost two months with the 6th (Reserve) Battalion at Ripon and granted five more days leave on 26 May, after which he departed for France.
It’s not known precisely when John arrived back with his unit however in mid-July he spent several days in a hospital for an undocumented reason and was promoted to corporal on the 31st. During the summer of 1918, the battalion fought in numerous battles on the Somme followed by the Battles of the Hindenburg Line in the autumn. For his actions on 23 October during The Battle of the Selle, John was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The London Gazette of 28 November 1919 and The Scotsman (9 December 1919) reported that:
331780 Cpl. J. B. Wishart, 2nd Bn., H.L.I. (Glasgow). During the operations just north of Vertain on 23rd October, 1918, he displayed magnificent courage and dash. On crossing the River Harpies, he saw an enemy post ahead doing much damage. He rushed single-handed through our barrage, killing one and capturing the remainder of the garrison. Later, when his section was held up by an enemy machine-gun post, he left his section to draw the enemy’s fire and try and snipe them while he in dead ground crawled up to their flank. He rushed them with bayonet and bomb by himself, capturing eighteen prisoners, one heavy and one light machine gun.
On 6 November, shortly after John’s valiant actions, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. At the time the battalion was billeted east of Cambrai in St. Python and moved to Villers-Pol two days later. It was a clear, frosty day when hostilities ceased at 11:00 am on 11 November with the war diary recording that the pipes and drums could be heard playing through the villages.
From France, the Highlanders were ordered to Germany and form part of the Army of Occupation. The 228-mile march took the Highlanders from Villers-Pol to Worringen, which is just north of Cologne on the Rhine River. John remained with the battalion until the end of March when he returned to the UK and was demobilised on 1 May 1919.
Less than a year after leaving the military, and while he was working as a grocer’s salesman in Carluke, John married a telephonist named Rose Kenna on 7 April 1920 at 49 Cathcart Street in Rutherglen. He eventually became the manager of the local cooperative store and was described as being very quiet and self-effacing – never talking about his wartime experiences. In 1924, while living on Market Road, he was one of six men ordained as deacons in the St. John’s U.F. Church. During WWII he served as senior warden in Carluke (Sector 13) with the Home Guard (‘Dad’s Army’.)
After the war, John and Rose moved to Northamptonshire where he died in Corby on 2 April 1951. At the time he had been living at 71 Carlton Park, East Carlton.