Francis Kenneth Wishart was born on 17 July 1857 in the township of West Flamboro in Wentworth County, Ontario. He was the fourth of eleven children of a farmer and innkeeper from Aberdeenshire named Kenneth McLean Wishart, and his wife, Louisa Van Every.
In 1876, when Francis was 19-years-old, he joined the 77th Wentworth Regiment with his brother Charles. The regiment was a Canadian Militia unit consisting of volunteers who would undertake military training one week a year. Francis would later state that he served ten years in the militia, and in 1879 he and Charles moved to Winnipeg and started a grocery business. However, just before they left, Francis married Jean Jardine who was eight years his junior. Six children were born of the marriage with the last, named Earl, born in 1891 – a year after the family left Canada for Minnesota. Frank (as he was more commonly known) found work as a commission man and settled with his wife and children in Duluth although by 1910 they moved again to Chicago.
Before the war, Frank worked as a farmer, land broker and prospector and must have felt strongly that after hostilities with Germany began he should play a part, however, as his adopted country did not immediately join the conflict, Frank made the decision to return to Canada and enlisted in Prince Rupert, British Columbia on 27 January 1916. Joining the 102nd Battalion CEF at Comox on Vancouver Island he went through basic training before leaving for Vancouver on 10 June with his unit on board the SS Princess Charlotte. Upon arrival, the 102nd entrained for Halifax, Nova Scotia and eventually left for Liverpool, England ten days later on the SS Empress of Britain. The voyage took eight days and after a night anchored in the Mersey, Frank and his comrades disembarked the following day and made their way to camp at Bordon in Hampshire. A week later Frank was transferred into the 67th Battalion (Western Scots) which had recently been converted to a pioneer unit and would leave for France from Southampton on board the HMT (His Majesty’s Transport) 460 on 13 August. Arriving at Le Havre during the early hours of the following day the battalion began the long journey towards the front, which for the 67th was south-east of Ypres near Dickebusch. As a pioneer battalion, Frank’s duties over the next month would have involved repairing and maintaining trenches, building dugouts and filling and stacking sandbags to create parapets.
At the end of September, the battalion moved back into France and made their way to the Somme region where Frank remained until the start of December when he was taken to the 94th Canadian Field Ambulance suffering from a ‘debility’. From there he found himself transported to No.8 Stationary Hospital in Wimereux and eventually discharged to Base Details in Boulogne on the 8th. He had been suffering from myalgia, a chronic and severe muscle pain, which in Frank’s case was age-related and brought on by exposure to the elements while based in the trenches. A medical officer told a medical board that in his opinion, due to his years, Frank was not able to stand the strain any longer and recommended he be returned to England to recuperate. Frank left France on 30 December and was admitted to a hospital in Hastings before being discharged from service on 1 February 1917. Twenty days later Frank sailed back to Canada on board the SS Northland and arrived in Toronto at the start of March.
Frank’s life then took an unexpected turn when, as the ‘Grandaddy of the Somme’ he became something of a celebrity and was invited to tour the American Midwest giving lectures about his time at the front. Although he undoubtedly had experience of life in the front lines, sometimes his stories appear to have been embellished to appeal to what must have been enthusiastic audiences. For example, on one occasion in Iowa, he told members of the Rock Island Rotary Club that he ‘went over the top’ with 1200 other men of the 67th and returned with only 58 survivors. The battalion war diary makes no mention of this attack, and throughout his time at the Somme, it seems more likely Frank was labouring behind the front lines. However, a month earlier, in Chicago, he gave a talk in the Orchestra Hall in which he described how his uniform had been torn from his body by a shell blast and that he had been gassed, wounded by shrapnel, buried alive and shot by a sniper. No injuries relating to these incidents have been recorded in his medical records and seem unlikely to be true. With the United States declaring war on Germany earlier in 1917, Frank’s tales were clearly designed to drum up interest in the conflict and aid recruitment.
After the war, Frank returned to Chicago where he worked as a groceries broker and moved to Evanston when he retired in the 1930s. Jean died in 1938 and Frank went to live with his daughter Helen until his death on 13 May 1942.