At 11 pm on 4 August 1914 (12 am on the Continent) a state of war existed between Britain and Germany. Mobilisation was ordered the following day with the first elements of the British Expeditionary Force arriving in France on the 7th and the main bulk disembarking from the 13th. Among those crossing the Channel on the 12th were men of the 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers, who formed part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division. Before embarking for France, the battalion had been based in Bordon, Hampshire and had managed complete mobilisation within two days of receiving orders. By 23 August they had reached a position south east of the Belgian town of Mons and participated in the subsequent retreat, fighting a rearguard action to an area south-east of Paris. Of the many reservists who had rejoined the colours at Bordon, was a thirty-year-old chauffeur from Chippenham named John Waddie Wishart. John had enlisted in 1904 and has the distinction of being the first Wishart to set foot on foreign soil during the Great War.
He was born at 74 Sewerby Street in Moss Side, Lancashire on 19 June 1884 – the sixth of seven children of John Wishart, a commercial traveller from Montrose, and his wife, Helen Wedderburn Ogilvie Anderson. John’s father sold stationary and frequently made business trips to Bristol where he subsequently settled with his family in the late 1890s. In 1901 the family were living at 16 Dean Street in the St. Paul’s district of the city. They were an industrious family, with all members of the household in employment at that time. John was a bookseller’s apprentice while four of his five older sisters were schoolteachers. His mother ran her own business as a photographic artist along with John’s other sister Ethel.
In 1903 John left home and found work in Bristol as a clerk for Mr J.C. Bailey. The following year, on 13 January, he visited the local recruiting office and enlisted with the 4th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry – a territorial unit based in Bath. In a medical examination he was recorded as being 5ft 4” in height with brown hair and eyes, fresh complexion and weighing 105 lbs. 49 days later he left the Somersets and joined the South Wales Borderers (possibly the 2nd Battalion) on 9 March.
John’s movements over the next six years are unknown. At some point, he went into the Army Reserve, and in the autumn of 1910, he married Emily Louisa Williams at St Paul’s Church in Cheltenham. At the time of the marriage, John had been working as a domestic chauffeur for a doctor and living at 26 Market Place in Chippenham, though after the wedding the couple moved to No. 5 Timber Street where they were still resident in 1914 when war broke out.
As a reservist, John was mobilised for service as soon as war with Germany was declared and ordered to report to his unit in Bordon. Drafts began arriving on 6 August, and incredibly all were in place by the following day, eagerly awaiting their orders to move. After several days training the Borderers made their way to Southampton on 12 August and embarked on the Gloucester Castle for Le Havre, where they arrived around midnight and marched to camp about 4 ½ miles away. The conditions over the next week were described as ‘hot and trying’, with the men eventually getting used to marching with their full kit. On 23 August the Borderers reached the village of Peissant, south-east of Mons, where they relieved the Welsh Regiment. John would have heard the battle raging around Mons and was perhaps among the first companies of the Borderers to come under enemy fire that afternoon. A general retirement was ordered the following day to ‘lead the Germans on’ and draw them across the French front. John had been on the move continuously since arriving in France and was probably relieved when the battalion was ordered to dump their packs in the early hours of the 25th. With the Germans in close pursuit and rations for the following days running extremely low, the battalion was forced to pick up tins of bully beef, tea, sugar and biscuits left by the roadside by preceding troops. The battalion war diary records the seriousness of the situation:
Villages can be seen burning to the north and Germans in column of route coming in our direction. The Germans shell us whilst digging with shrapnel, we have no casualties. An English aeroplane comes down in our lines and the pilot borrows C Coy Commanders pony and gallops to the General with news. He returns and flies off warning our men to keep their heads down.
By the 29th John’s unit had put sufficient distance between themselves and the enemy to allow them the ‘luxury’ of a much-needed rest day at Bertaucourt; however the relief was short lived with orders coming through at 11 pm for the battalion to continue the retirement and act as a rearguard to the Division. The battalion war diary records:
This is sickening news; we were all hoping that at last we shall turn about and go for the enemy. The weather is very hot and the improvised sunshades (the bottom part of a leg of trousers sewn into rim of cap) are a Godsend. Very few men fall out and in nearly every case they are those who were too lazy to make the sunshade.
In the evening of 30 August, the battalion were bivouacked about four miles south of the town of Soissons. The Germans were reportedly advancing in large numbers, with an enemy prisoner commenting that “the Russians can’t shoot, nor can the French, but the English can shoot and kill.” During the night John would have heard the intermittent sound of the Royal Engineers blowing up all the bridges over the River Aisne in an attempt to slow the enemy advance. In addition to the exhausting effect the constant marching was having on the troops, the horses were also starting to suffer:
This long retreat is begging to tell on the horses and we have no more spare ones left for the heavy wagons, but our doctor found one wandering about and we found it shelter and fodder.
Four days later the battalion were making their way eastwards along the River Marne. The confusion surrounding their objectives was illustrated in the diary entry dated 2 September:
Orders come in to say that the Battalion will march Southwards, up to the present we had been retreating daily. Now though firing in the same direction it is a march not a retreat. Nobody seems to know what we are supposed to be doing, everything is secret. There is no news of the enemy and the weather is exceedingly hot. There is a rumour about that we shall go back to the Paris defences. However we got news and are sent off to billet at Coegy. It has been a long day and a weary one. Orders come at midnight to move at once and we think we are in for some fighting.
The diary’s author, Captain C. J. Paterson, was correct in thinking that they were on the cusp of engaging the enemy, though not before some more foot-blistering marching, sometimes through villages that had recently been occupied and then destroyed by the Germans:
…we pass through villages that are in a fearful state, houses are demolished and the contents all over the road.
John’s first experience of full-scale battle occurred on 14 September at the Aisne. During the morning the Borderers marched from Bourg to a crossroads about ¼ mile south of Vendresse where they were ordered to reinforce the left flank of Vendresse Ridge. Upon leaving the crossroads, they came under heavy shellfire and eventually made it to the fir wood at the southwest corner of the ridge, from which point they attacked about ¾ mile north of Chivy and subsequently took up a position along the Beaulne-Chivy road. By late afternoon a further set of orders were received informing the battalion that they were to advance towards the slopes of the Chemin des Dames Ridge. Captain Paterson writes:
Swarms of Germans on the ridge, rather massed. Our guns open on them at 1,800 yards, and one can see a nasty sight through one’s glasses. Bunches of Germans blown to pieces. We again suffered some casualties and eventually had to retire, or rather the companies, which have gone out, have to come back to our ridge again. Here we stay firing and being fired at for some eight hours and then another effort. Meanwhile, our guns are having a high duel. Not much success, and the Germans are too numerous to really push back properly. Richards is hit in the arm and the leg. Nothing very bad I fancy. Several men killed. At dusk we were ordered to move up the valley towards the town of Troyon, which we did.
The fighting continued after dark with another enemy attack occurring as the battalion (a company of which had become estranged from the others) reached the ridge at the head of the valley. As dawn broke the following morning, large numbers of Germans were again seen advancing towards the Borderers and were successfully repelled; however, their position was still precarious and they soon came under enfilade fire and told to “hang on at all costs.” Described as ‘a very bad business’ Paterson makes a very personal entry that reveals his fears and indicates the seriousness of the situation:
I am thankful that I and my particular friends have not taken a knock yet, but there is lots more to come. However, we have done and shall continue to do, please God, what we have to do, and that is all about it.
Throughout the night the field ambulances battled with the overwhelming number of casualties, which by the 16th had numbered 20 confirmed killed, 77 wounded and 122 missing within the battalion.
Paterson’s diary entry for 16 September reads:
Here I sit outside our Headquarters trench in the sun. The rain which we have had without break for the past two days has now stopped and the world should look glorious. The battle has stopped here for a bit although in the distance we can here the 2nd English Army Corps guns and their battle generally. As I say all should be nice and peaceful and pretty. What it actually is, is beyond description. Trenches, bits of equipment, clothing (probably blood-stained), ammunition, tools, caps, etc., etc., everywhere. Poor fellows shot dead are lying in all directions. Some of ours, some of the 1st Guard Brigade who passed over this ground before us, and many Germans. All the hedges torn and trampled, all the grass trodden in the mud, holes where shells have struck, branches torn off trees by the explosion. Everywhere the same hard, grim, pitiless sign of battle and war.
I have had a belly full of it. Those who were in South Africa say that that was a picnic to this and the strain is terrific. No wonder if after a hundred shells have burst over us some of the men want to get back into the woods for a rest. Ghastly, absolutely ghastly, and whoever was in the wrong in the matter which brought this war to be, is deserving of more than he can ever get in this world. Everyone very cheery and making the best of things. Men of course wonderful, as T. Atkins always is. I must try and write to mother now.
On 21 September the Borderers withdrew from the position they’d been holding and sent two companies to secure trenches around the quarries on the Mont Faucon Ridge. Barely a week would pass until John was back in action again with a significant enemy assault occurring shortly after dawn on 26 September.
Captain Paterson wrote that the 26th was the ‘most ghastly day of my life and yet one of the proudest because my Regiment did its job and held on against heavy odds.’ In a war history of the Borderers, C. T. Atkinson recorded that the Germans broke through the British line at the quarries en masse, causing a great deal of desperate hand-to-hand fighting with men practically picking up anything they could to repel the advance – and one Borderer reputedly using a table fork as a weapon. Paterson logged that they ‘fought like Englishmen’ and held their position to the extent that the Divisional Commander later compared the defence of the quarries to that of the Regiment’s stand at Rorke’s Drift in the war with the Zulus. Holding the position was costly with battalion casualties for the day numbering eight officers and 200 men.
The following day the Borderers were relieved by the 1st Camerons and marched to billets in Coilly. By 20 October, John was based near Poperinghe on the Ypres salient and likely took part in the attack on Poelcappelle on the 21st. He was last seen around, or shortly after this assault, and recorded as missing. With no news forthcoming, he was officially assumed to have been killed in action before 7 January 1915. The exact nature or date of his death is currently unknown, and his body was either not recovered or identified.
Whatever the circumstances, John never returned and was mourned back in Chippenham, where he subsequently had a street named after him. He is also commemorated on Le Touret Memorial on the south side of the Bethune-Armentieres main road, along with 158 men of the South Wales Borderers.