501 Sgt. Robert Watmaugh Wishart (1895 – 1988)
Robert Watmaugh Wishart was born on 19 September 1895 in Macorna, Victoria. He was the second oldest of seven children of Alexander Wishart and his wife, Lilian Peacock.
Like many of the Macorna Wisharts, Robert was employed in farming when war broke out, and he enlisted in Kerang on 17 September 1914 with his cousin Gordon Alexander Wishart. At the time he was described in his medical examination as being 5ft 7” in height with fair complexion, grey eyes and light brown hair. He was passed fit for active service and assigned to ‘C’ Squadron of the 9th Light Horse Regiment – a mounted infantry unit that formed part of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. The 9th was a composite regiment with two squadrons made up by recruits from South Australia and the Broken Hill region of New South Wales while ‘C’ Squadron consisted of men from Victoria.
After a period of training in Broadmeadows, ‘Bert’ and Gordon sailed from Melbourne on 11 February 1915, on the HMAT (His Majesty’s Australian Transport) Karroo. After over a month at sea the cousins arrived in Alexandria, Egypt on 15 March. During April their squadron was stationed at the 1st Australian Division camp in Mena where Robert was admitted to No.2 General Hospital on the 14th suffering from influenza. He was discharged to duty on 11 May and sailed for Gallipoli from Alexandria with his unit six days later.
The regiment landed at Anzac Cove during the afternoon of the 21st, arriving on a torpedo boat that came under enemy shrapnel and aircraft fire as it approached the shore. The 9th had been deployed without their horses and relieved the Auckland Mounted Rifles on Walker’s Ridge at 11 am on the 22nd. Robert remained on the ridge until 8 June when fell ill with bronchitis and was sent to No.15 Stationary Hospital in Mudros on the hospital ships Newmarket and then Grantully Castle. He returned to Gallipoli on 25 June and was probably involved in various assaults on Turkish lines throughout the summer, including the attack on Hill 60 (Kaiajik Aghala) on 27 August. In the attack, the Light Horse attempted to bomb their way in darkness towards the enemy lines where they engaged the Turks in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. Casualties were high; however, despite this, they were unable to gain ground and were forced to withdraw.
Exhausted and under-strength, the 9th played a defensive role until it left Gallipoli on 20 December. Robert had been promoted to the rank of provisional corporal on 7 October but reverted to lance corporal on arrival back in Egypt on 27 December. The regiment made their way to Heliopolis, where they camped on the racecourse. Robert fell ill again and spent almost three weeks in hospital during January 1916, after which on 27 February he marched with his unit to Serapeum where the Light Horse joined the forces defending the Suez Canal from the Turks, who were advancing across the Sinai Desert.
Robert fell ill again several times during April and May 1916 and also spent time at the base hospital in Ismailia recovering from a fractured left arm. At the end of June, he was discharged from hospital and returned to duty with the 3rd Light Horse Training Regiment in Tel-el-Kebir. On 1 August he transferred again to the 3rd Light Horse Brigade Machine Gun Squadron at Moascar before returning to his old unit in Bally Bunnion a couple of days later. The 9th Light Horse then began their advance across the Sinai, pursuing the Ottoman army as they retreated across the desert towards Palestine and on 23 December were involved in the capture of El Arish and Maghdaba. Robert, in a letter to his mother dated 28 December, gave an account of the action:
Things have been a little more exciting since I last wrote to Nell a week or more ago. We left our old bivy and outpost work behind us on the 20th and started out to look for scrap. Just as we were packed ready to move out, we were dished up with Xmas billies and good things of every description. Our mounts were more like pack horses than ever. I also got half-a-dozen letters, which I was unlucky enough to miss a few days before, on mail day. Perhaps I had better say here that I am now in hospital once again with a bullet hole through my left thigh. You received a wire to this effect no doubt ages ago. It was on the 23rd December I stopped it, and am doing tip-top even now.
To proceed with the story. We set off on a 30-mile ride through the night, making El Arish our objective. This is where we reckoned to have a holy go. We had looked forward to capturing this place for months past, but reckoned the casualties would be very heavy. You may imagine our surprise then when daylight broke and we found ourselves looking down into the city a mile beneath us. We rode in at once without a shot being fired, and found to our secret joy the Turks had evacuated the day before. We at once proceeded to have a look around. The main building in the place is a big mosque. It was well worth going through. The remainder of the buildings are all mud affairs and as square as a block of blue. All the windows are up against the roof. About a thousand of the population remained behind. Our A.S.C. has to feed all these now, as we grabbed hold of everything in the eating line. Crops figs and dates seem to be their main industry. The wells that are here, and there are scores, are great for a water supply. All our horses, can be watered in less than no time.
Now, of course the “big heads” were not satisfied with a bloodless victory, and must start looking for old Jacko to give him a spin. They were quite satisfied when it was finished. The place they wanted was a Turkish garrison some 22 miles away. This meant another all-night ride. We always travel at night so the Taubes won’t spot us. Anyway, we arrived there safely and had a four mile gallop, just by way of getting livened up to the job and to get right round the garrison. The country round El Arish, by the way, is all hard and very level in places. To cut a long story short, the Turks were strongly entrenched and were holding the water supply, which we must capture before dark or ride back to where we started, and this would be rather much for our ponies. However we dismounted for action and started the attack from about a thousand yards. We kept on till about 200 yards away, then fixed bayonets and at them. I was knocked over before I had got properly going. The white flag was next, and so we won just as the sun went down. Shortly afterwards a sledge of the ambulance picked me up and carted me into the Turkish hospital.
Things were in a bad way, I can tell you. The wounded were coming in all roads, Turks and all. The latter were horribly knocked about, owing to our artillery mostly. That night the division moved back to El Arish and left the hospital staff behind. Next morning a Taube had the nerve to bomb us, luckily without any damage being done. The garrison was quite a handy turnout-hospital, stores of every description, a big pumping plant, also seven guns, saying nothing of rifles, etc. The following day at 12.30 we were slung on board camels, two per camel, and started for El Arish. This we reached at 2:30 in the morning – fourteen hours of torture to anyone badly wounded. Cacalays is what they call the packs on the camels. My luck was in during the ride. I was dead tired, so soon dropped off to sleep when darkness came. We spent three nights in the city waiting for the sea to calm so we could go by boat round to Port Said. This the sea refused to do, so we came by hospital train to Kantara last night, after a long ride in sand carts.
Our Xmas fare was dead funny, nothing but bully beef and bread for three days. The hospitals never expected to receive so many wounded. From here we are either going to Port Said or Cairo to a general hospital, so am looking forward to a decent time. All the time we were in El Arish it was raining heavily. I was snuggling up in my bed trying to be sorry for the boys away on outpost or patrol.
Robert was eventually transferred to Port Said on the hospital ship Niagara to recover and admitted to No.31 General Hospital on New Years Day 1917 before being sent to No.14 Australian General Hospital in Cairo.
Within a month he had been taken back on strength of the 3rd Light Horse Training Regiment at Moascar and marched with 33 other men back to the 9th Light Horse on 11 February. At the time the regiment was based at Hod Masaid and later in the month, Robert was promoted back to temporary corporal. On 5 April he wrote another letter to his mother from Deir al-Balah on the Gaza strip:
This, I’m afraid will be rather a brief attempt at letter writing as we are frightfully busy trench digging no less. Since last writing, things have been just a little bit exciting as we are up against a nice swarm of Jackos. We are now permanently across the frontier by a good number of miles, much to our satisfaction, so we are all feeling more cheerful. Should you be able to see us now you would think we were a pretty lot of rascals, in fact you would take us for a mob of Bedouins, We are quite dirty and all unshaven, Bread is a stranger to us and to take ones clothes off is almost a thing of the past, that is at night time. Our old friends the “highfliers,” have been very active lately but the aircraft-gunners make them keep quite a respectable distance thank goodness. The beach is still within riding distance although we rarely get a chance for an “Uncle Jim.”
We can generally buy plenty of oranges and eggs in the villages round about. I always eat five eggs boiled as hard as stones each meal, chocolate is what I’m looking for though. Plenty, of livestock grazing around makes it possible to get fresh meat now and then. While on patrol a few weeks ago part of our troop was chased by a body of Turkish cavalry. Exciting is not the word for it, it was a case of ride for the devil and Turko take the hindmost. We were chased half a mile when Jacko pulled up. It was unpleasant to see a 12ft. lance coming a few yards behind you. Stan Gundy got away with only inches to spare. Nearly everyone lost his hat in the hunt and one of our cobbers was caught. His horse was a shade too slow. Those sort of things only occurred in books I had always thought. In our last scrap a few days ago, our squadron got in a corner and had to fight a rear guard action to get out. It was some go I can tell you, horses going all roads as shrapnel was coming down pretty heavy. My old horse was shot in the rump, but kept going thank goodness. These little affairs break the monotony nicely and make us realise there is a war on.
The regiment had taken part in an abortive attempt to capture Gaza in March and shortly after Robert wrote his letter, made another on 19 April. Gaza eventually fell on 7 November, after which the Light Horse pursued the Turks to Jerusalem and were present at the capture of the city. Robert had risen to the rank of corporal (29 May 1917) and following the battle was temporarily attached to 21 Signal Coy, Royal Engineers on 6 December, after which he returned to the 9th, who by then were based at Suffa.
At the start of 1918, Robert’s unit marched from Gaza to Deir El Belah, which is close to the Egyptian border in Palestine. Robert was sent to the Port Said Rest Camp on 22 March and transferred to the 3rd Light Horse Training Regiment at Moascar on 13 April. He spent time at the Imperial School of Instruction in late May, where presumably he underwent some form of NCO training. He eventually returned to his regiment on 19 August, while they were based at Ain Ed Duk in the Jordan Valley.
Robert was in action again on 20-21 September and took part in the capture of Jenin and then Sasa on 29 September. Two days later the 9th entered Damascus and were heading towards Homs when the Turks surrendered. Robert was finally promoted to sergeant on 19 November, and while waiting to be sent home, was recalled with his unit back to operational duty to help quell the Egyptian mutiny that broke out in March 1919. In mid-July, and following another spell in hospital with gastritis, Robert received orders to proceed to Alexandria and embark for the UK on board the HT Magdalena. After several weeks in England, Robert boarded the HMT Port Denison, which left Plymouth for Australia on 25 September. Over four years after he left, Robert finally arrived back in Australia on 13 November when the Denison docked in Port Melbourne. He was discharged from service a month later on 13 December.
After the war, Robert returned to Tragowel near Kerang and returned to farming. On 7 October 1925, he married a local lass named Hilda Paynter, and two children were born of the marriage. By the 1940’s he had moved to 49 Nolan Street in Kerang and was working as a truck driver – a job, he continued with until retirement.
Robert died aged 93 on 21 October 1988. Hilda died sixteen years later in 2004, she was 103.
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