Thomas Wishart was born shortly after midnight on 1 February 1894 at 26 Charlotte Street in Aberdeen. He was the only son of Thomas Wishart, a cabinetmaker, and his wife, Isabella McHardy. A year after Thomas was born his mother died of cervical cancer, and in 1898 his father emigrated to South Africa, leaving his son with his grandparents, who in 1901, were living at 15 Canal Street in Aberdeen. It seems likely that Thomas left the UK to join his father on board the SS German, sailing from Southampton for Cape Town on 12 November 1910.
During the war, Thomas served with the 4th Regiment, South African Infantry (South African Scottish) a unit that had been raised from the Transvaal Scottish (with whom Thomas previously served six months) and Cape Town Highlanders. Along with native South Africans (many of who were of Scottish descent) almost every company of the regiment primarily consisted of Scotsmen who had emigrated before the war.
Thomas enlisted at the military camp in Potchefstroom on 1 December 1915. At the time he was living at 55 Ford Street in Jeppes, a suburb of Johannesburg, and working as an amalgamator. His military career got off to an unsteady start when after a month he was admitted to hospital for an undiagnosed illness on 4 January 1916, and then, at the end of February, he suffered a compound fracture to his left forearm, which subsequently afforded him two-weeks leave.
On 25 March 1916 Thomas embarked in Cape Town and sailed for England, where he was taken on strength of the South African Scottish on 14 April. Within two weeks he had fractured his arm for the second time and admitted to the Frensham Hill Military Hospital in Surrey for further treatment.
Thomas spent much of 1916 in and out of hospital and was finally drafted overseas on 4 December 1916 when he embarked in Southampton for France. Upon arrival, he was sent to the 2nd Infantry Base Depot in Rouen for processing and eventually joined the 4th Regiment in the field on 30 December and assigned to ‘A’ Company. The winter of 1916/17 has become notorious for being the harshest of the war, with the South African Brigade (which was in the 9th Division and included the 4th Regiment) holding the trenches in front of Arras throughout the most bitter conditions.
Thomas’s first experience of battle came on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 when his unit went into action at Arras. During the attack, their objectives were achieved but at the cost of 57 killed and 186 wounded or missing. Three days later Thomas was in action again near Fampoux when the brigade attacked across open country towards the railway, however; on this occasion, the assault failed.
At the end of April Thomas was promoted to the rank of lance corporal (unpaid) and on 9 May while manning trenches near Arras, was buried by a shell and rendered unconscious for the best part of an hour. He was taken to the 27th Field Ambulance but sent on to No. 4 General Hospital in Camiers two days later. On the 16th the decision was made to evacuate Thomas back to England, and he was subsequently admitted to the South African Military Hospital in Richmond Park. A medical case sheet dated the day he arrived recorded that Thomas had succumbed to cuts on his face and injury to his nose, a cut in his left middle finger, great pain in his back – especially the loins, and that he was unable to sit up or move. He possessed an inability to breath having had his nasal bone displaced, and he had a superficial flesh wound on his right buttock. In short, Thomas was a mess and would spend several painful months recovering from his injuries.
He eventually returned to France at the start of November and after a spell back at the 2nd Infantry Base Depot, rejoined his unit at Middlesex Camp near Dunkirk on the 12th. Now part of ‘C’ Company, Thomas was back in the trenches in the Gouzeaucourt area on 5 December, however; two days later he was shot in his thumb and sent to the field ambulance, and then No.5 Casualty Clearing Station, for treatment. Two days later he was back in the trenches but would spend Christmas in hutments in the brigade reserve.
On 12 March 1918, the regiment had moved up to the front area in the sector east of Heaudicourt. The first weeks of the month were dry, bright and springlike. German concentrations far behind the enemy line were observed as early as the 14th, and the South Africans would have been warned of an impending attack. Germany had made plans to break the deadlock along the Western Front before American troops arrived in an offensive that was later known as the German Spring Offensive.
The eight days leading up to the attack (the commencement date of which was widely known to be the 21st) were described in a history of the South Africans during the war as being eerily quiet for the brigade. On the first day of the battle, fog concealed the movement of enemy troops up into the line, and signs that the assault had begun came when the outposts discovered that the Germans were in their rear, and found themselves overwhelmed before they could send back a warning. The South African Brigade held outposts at Quentin Redoubt (1st Regiment) and Gauche Wood (2nd Regiment) with the latter being the first to engage the enemy but subsequently forced to fall back due to the formidable numbers forging towards, and around them.
As the mist began to rise, the South Africans on the Redoubt were able to open up flanking fire on the advancing Germans, but like their comrades in Gauche Wood, took heavy casualties in the process. Thomas’s unit, positioned at Genin Well Copse (near Chapel Hill), brought flanking fire to bear on the Germans, and aided by a detachment of machine gunners at Revelon Farm, was able to stall further progress by the Germans towards the south.
At 5:30 p.m. a company from the 4th were ordered to retake Chapel Hill, which had fallen during the day. They were also able to take the crest and trenches on the southern slopes, establishing a link from the ridge back to the Genin Well Copse. During the evening the brigade was forced back to the Yellow Line, which was the reserve position of the battle zone. Thomas remained at Chapel Hill, which had now become the advanced post.
As dawn broke on the second day, fog again obscured the battlefield and provided further cover for the Germans to make a second attack. On Chapel Hill Thomas would have sheltered from a heavy bombardment that opened up at first light and provided cover for the enemy to close around the regimental position; the defence of which was described as ‘gallant’, but ultimately unsuccessful in halting the onslaught. The remnants of the 4th were able to withdraw from the hill while covered by accurate supporting fire from the 2nd Regiment and by late afternoon the entire division had fallen back to the Brown Line, which was the last line of the battle zone. The Germans had observed the withdrawal and pressed forward in formation, eventually circumventing around Heudicourt and occupying the high ground southwest of the village. Thomas’s unit now occupied the centre of the newly formed line; however the brigade’s right was hopelessly outflanked, and the South Africans were forced to fight both frontal and rearguard actions while being continuously fired on by low flying enemy aircraft. The scene was later described as:
The whole countryside seemed to be in flames; Heudicourt was spouting like a volcano, and everywhere was the glare of burning stores and bursting shells.
Unable to withdraw to the south or the east, the brigade was forced to head in a northerly direction before striking west. A series of providential chances allowed those who were still alive to make it through the Green Line and establish a position along the Nurlu-Peronne road, southeast of Moislains.
At dawn on the 24th, the 1st and 2nd Regiments (which contained Thomas and the remnants of the 4th) were holding a position roughly behind the northern point of Marriéres Wood which resembled a ‘splintered desert’. The terrain sloped eastward before rising again to another ridge about 1000 yards away. The strength of the brigade had been reduced to about 500 men, the majority of whom were exhausted through lack of sleep and the stresses of being involved in an almost continuous battle. The South African’s position, although well placed for defence, was quite desperate, and allowed no avenue in which to retreat if needed.
Through the fog, the Germans were spotted massing on the ridge and began to move forward at 9 am. An already deadly situation deteriorated when British artillery miscalculated their target and bombarded the South Africans for the best part of an hour. The Germans quickly forged ahead to a position about 750 yards from the front, which by now was smothered in dust and fumes causing the men problems keeping their rifles clean. By midday, the frontal attack had been temporarily held at bay, along with another German advance from the south. A new development to the north had also stalled wherein the enemy had set fire to the grass and advanced to within 200 yards of the brigade position using smoke as a screen. However, the Germans were succeeding in other areas, with the remaining brigades of the 9th Division being forced back to the South African’s left. The position had become even more deadly when German snipers began picking off men through the choking haze that had enveloped the battlefield. The odds were stacked against the rapidly diminishing brigade, and the hope that they could hold out until after dark and attempt a withdrawal seemed almost impossible.
At 4:15 pm the Germans were observed massing again for a final push on the Allied position. Only 100 South Africans remained, some of who were already wounded. Ammunition had run out, and there was nothing else to do but surrender. Realising the hopelessness of the situation, three senior officers from the Brigade strode out in front of the line, and were surrounded by a group of Germans who shouted “Why have you killed so many of us?” and “Why did you not surrender sooner?”
The South African Brigade was no more, and during the day’s events, Thomas lost his life. Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson (who was one of the three officers) later wrote:
It is impossible for me to do justice to the magnificent courage displayed by all ranks under my command during this action. For the two years I have been in France I have seen nothing better. Until the end, they appeared to me quite perfect. The men were cool and alert, taking advantage of every opportunity, and, when required, moving forward over the open under the hottest machine gun fire and within 100 yards of the enemy. They seemed not to know fear, and in my opinion, they put forth the greatest effort of which human nature is capable. I myself witnessed several cases of great gallantry, but do not know the names of the men. The majority, of course, will never be known. It must be borne in mind that the Brigade was in an exhausted state before the action, and in the fighting of the three previous days it was reduced in numbers from a trench strength of over 1,800 to 500.
The resistance of the South Africans was also highly regarded by the Germans, including the Kaiser who, while on the road to Le Cateau, stopped a party of British officers who had been taken prisoner. He asked if any present belonged to the 9th Division: “I want to see a man of that division,” he said, “for if all divisions had fought like the 9th, I would not have had any troops left to carry on the attack.”
Thomas’s body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial.