For pilots circling high above the Loos sector on the morning of 25 September 1915, momentary glimpses of massed allied troops segueing through communication trenches towards the front lines must have been an impressive, yet foreboding sight. On the ground, smarting from the chill of an autumn night, men of the 7th Cameron Highlanders peered across No Man’s Land towards their objective. The air was still, morning mist and smoke from British and German artillery barrages clung to the desolate landscape, partially obscuring their view. Despite the dawn of a new day, the stench of death was already upon them.
C.S.M. Thomas McCall of the Camerons wrote:
At 3 a.m. we marched up the communication trenches under a heavy shell-fire from the enemy guns. Nearing the front line, we began to step over dead and wounded, and knew that it was no picnic, and that some of us would never return.
Nearly 30,000 Scotsmen were involved in the Battle of Loos, which has been regarded as the greatest mobilisation of Scottish troops since Culloden. Conceived as an attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front, the assault also became notable as the first time gas was used as a weapon by the British army. Torrential rain over the preceding two days had flooded trenches, and the pre-attack artillery bombardment had created treacherous craters that would swallow a man without warning or means of escape.
By the day’s end one in three men listed as ‘Missing in Action’ were from Scottish units. The 7th Camerons were to suffer over 500 casualties; in their ranks was a young bank accountant from Orkney who was about to experience going ‘over the top’ for the first time.
James Andrew Wishart was born in the early hours of 15 January 1892 on Victoria Street in Kirkwall, Orkney. He was the eldest of five children of James Wishart, a joiner from Orphir, and his wife, Anne Wilson.
Between 1907 and 1910 James served an apprenticeship in Kirkwall at the Union Bank under a Mr. Cromarty, whose brother worked for another branch in Perthshire. It seems likely he was the contact that prompted James to leave the Orkney Islands in 1911 and take up full-time employment as an accountant at the bank’s Blairgowrie branch. Without any family in the area, James lodged with a local blacksmith at ‘Rowandene’ – a single-storey stone cottage on Perth Street.
Before the war James had served time with the 1st Orkney Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers) and was unsurprisingly eager to answer the call to ‘do his bit’ when war broke out in August 1914. He enlisted in Blairgowrie on 26 November and joined the 7th Cameron Highlanders – a Service Battalion who had been formed in Inverness two months earlier under Lord Kitchener’s New Army Scheme.
Within three days of arrival with his unit in Inverness, James found himself heading back down the road he’d just travelled up and onwards to Aldershot, where the Camerons were quartered in the Salamanca Barracks.
Christmas and New Year were spent in Aldershot, and on 15 January the Battalion marched to billets at Liphook – a large army base in Hampshire. Barracks life was to be short-lived; at the end of February the Battalion marched to Cirencester and were almost entirely billeted in private houses. Every day the troops marched eight miles to the training area and return that afternoon to home comforts not afforded to the many thousands of men also preparing for overseas service. After dinner, the battalion often fell in again about 9 or 10 pm for night operations.
By early spring the Camerons were based in Chiseldon on Salisbury Plain where they received instruction in musketry and moved to Park House, Tidworth during early May. The Battalion was noted as being at the peak of their fitness during this period with even Lord Kitchener, who witnessed a march on 15 May, commenting that the 7th was the ‘finest, from a physical point of view, which he had yet seen’. In June the Highlanders won the 44th Brigade Championship in Highland Games, and at the start of July orders to proceed overseas were received, which was said to have been the cause of much excitement amongst the men, who were eager to prove themselves in battle.
James was promoted to Lance Corporal on 5 June and embarked with his unit aboard the SS “Arundel” at Folkestone for Boulogne on 8 July. On arrival, the Camerons made their way to Les Brebis where they gained the distinction of being the first battalion of the 15th Division to enter a shelled area on the Western Front.
Colonel J. W. Sandilands later wrote in his history of the 7th Camerons during the Great War that on arrival at Les Brebis:
It was found almost impossible to keep the men in their billets, as, being much interested in this new experience, they would rush into the streets whenever a shell burst, in order to see the effect, and to collect fragments as souvenirs. They soon got very tired of this habit.
On 2/3 August the 7th had their first experience of life in the trenches when they took over the extreme right of the line at Maroc, opposite the Towers of Loos, and subsequently took part in the battle there on 25 September. On that day James moved off with his unit about 4:45 am. The gas was turned on at 5:50 am, and owing to the lack of wind, was said to have caused an unwelcome amount of British casualties. The assault on enemy lines commenced at 6:30 am with the 7th Camerons in support of the 9th Black Watch and 8th Seaforths.
Thomas McCall wrote:
Arriving at the trench, it was over the top and the best of luck. Then we got our first taste of the real thing. Men of different battalions were lying about in hundreds, some blown to pieces lying mangled in shell holes. The platoon I belonged to arrived at a German trench, where about nineteen to twenty Jerries were shouting for mercy, after pinking some of us as we came forward. Someone shouted, “Remember the Lusitania!” and it was all over with Jerry.
We moved on towards the village of Loos, where machine guns were raking the streets, and bayonet fighting was going on in full swing. Prisoners were being marshalled in batches to be sent under guard down the line. The most of the houses were blown in, but their cellars were strongly built and it was in these cellars that many Germans were hiding.
Colonel Sandilands recalled:
The Camerons, following, were very shortly streaming through the village of Loos, having crossed the third German line of wire and trenches which had been regarded as impregnable. Unfortunately, traces of the gallant part played by the Camerons in cutting this wire, which was almost untouched by artillery fire, were too evident, the ground being strewn with dead and wounded. The houses in Loos were practically battered to pieces. Germans were being bombed out of the cellars, others bayoneted, dozens were surrendering, but nothing seemed to stay the advance of the 44th Brigade.
It is unknown what part James played in the attack; however, he was shot in the knee and eventually made it back to the British line. Colonel Sandilands mentions the wounded that night, and it’s hard not to imagine James having a similar experience:
Not many that came out that night will forget it. In drenching rain, pools of mud, and incessant shelling, they (Camerons) picked their way amongst the dead by the light of burning houses, and they plodded wearily on, powerless to take any notice of the wounded who lay waiting for stretcher-bearers.
As day broke the following morning, the British trenches were reputedly blocked with wounded and quite literally running with blood. James’ service papers do not record the evacuation route he took back to England other than that he returned to British soil on 30 September.
Between 30 November and 8 December 1915, James was attached to the 8th Cameron Highlanders and based at Richmond Camp. During this period he was given several days furlough and returned to Kirkwall to see his family for what would be the last time.
On 9 December, James returned to France and rejoined his unit eleven days later while they were billeted in Allouagne. The Battalion were back in the trenches at Loos on 14 January 1916, and one can only imagine how James must have felt when he saw the slopes of Hill 70 looming over the horizon.
On 17 February James was promoted to the rank of Corporal but a month later, whilst in the reserve line of the Hulloch Section, he was shot in both an arm and a leg and taken to No.9 Casualty Clearing Station where he was assessed and sent to No. 23 General Hospital in Etaples.
After a month recuperating at the Division Base Depot, James returned to the front line in the Quarry Sector on 27 April. Mining operations in the area had turned the trenches into a series of craters, and on 4 May engineers exploded three more mines in the Hairpin Craters following which the Camerons successfully repelled a German counter-attack.
The next day while James and a sergeant were resting in a shelter, the Germans fired several trench mortars and rifle grenades into the British line, one of which burst immediately above the two men and fatally wounding both. James was stretchered off to No.45 Field Ambulance where he died of his wounds early in the morning of 6 May.
Later in the month his personal effects were gathered together and recorded as being a whistle, 9 cigarettes, a notebook and a wallet containing a photograph and correspondence. These eventually found their way back to Mr. W H Cromarty, James’ old boss in the Union Bank in Blairgowrie, who received them on 2 October.
Two weeks after James died, the Reverend W. D. Niven, at the close of his forenoon sermon, delivered the following eulogy at the St. Andrew’s U.F. Church in Blairgowrie:
The sad report which reached us last week has proved to be only too true in its essentials, and we have to pay our tribute of loving esteem to the seventh of our own gallant band of soldiers who has fallen in service, Corporal James A. Wishart, 7th Cameron Highlanders.
I am not yet certain as to the exact date of his death, but it was about the 5th May. He was resting in a shelter on which a bomb dropped, and, though everything was done for him, he died a few hours later.
His career as a soldier was rather full of hardship. He was severely wounded at Loos last September. Then a few weeks ago he was wounded slightly a second time. He had been only a short time back in the trenches when he received the third and fatal wound.
We knew him as a young man of great promise. That he came from an excellent home, and cherished what he had learned there, was plain. In all duties he was faithful; in all things he was manly, thoughtful, cheerful and helpful.
He made a good soldier. His Captain says of him – “He was an excellent soldier, and as a man his outlook was clean and straight.” And one of his comrades, in a most touching letter, says – “He is sadly missed, for he was ever willing to do anything asked without a grumble, ever ready to help a comrade, and was a tower of strength to his platoon.” That is what all who knew him would expect, for he was a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
We feel deeply his loss, and we feel deeply for those in the distant Orkney home who mourn a son and a brother well-beloved. May the peace of God which passeth all understanding keep their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, till the day break and the shadows flee away.
Captain H. Bruce Johnston, writing to James’ parents on 12 May, said:
I write on behalf of the officers and men of ‘C’ Company, offering you their deepest sympathy in your sad loss – a loss, I can assure you, that will be felt by all. He was an excellent soldier, and as a man, his outlook was clean and straight. It is so sad that he should have been killed so soon after his return to the Battalion. We go through a hard time out here, but I think not half so hard as those who are forced to sit at home and wait while all that they may hold dearest is facing the danger consequent on such a terrible war as this. As you have been given strength to give your son to this country, I trust you may be given strength to bear your irreparable loss.
Lance-Corporal John A. Ross, a close friend of James, wrote to his parents in a letter dated 8 May:
My Dear Mr & Mrs Wishart, It will be as sad for you to read this note as it is for me to intimate the tragic death of your beloved son Jim. I come now as a good chum of Jim’s to condole with you in your great loss, and although I may not say much, it is with a heavy heart. I met James in Aldershot in our early training, and since then we have been constant friends. I missed him when he was wounded at Loos. He then came out again, just the same dear lad, wounded again, slightly; and some eight days ago he and I had our usual feed at night, and a talk of all that had happened during his absence. It then came our turn to do the trenches, and after the fifth day, in the afternoon, a shell or trench mortar burst on top of the shelter where Jim and another Sergeant were having a rest. Both were seriously wounded and were carried down post haste to the nearest dressing station, however, it was God’s will Jim died a hero’s death a few hours afterwards. The Sergeant died yesterday. He is sadly missed, for he was ever willing to do anything asked without a grumble, ever ready to help a comrade, and a tower of strength to his platoon. He was a great soldier and died a hero’s death. I feel to-night I can’t write more. I am still in the trenches; our spell is not finished. James is buried in a graveyard in a village near the firing line. His other chum, Tom Shumacker, and I intend in two days to rect a cross over our chum, and in another letter I hope to give you the exact place where he lies. He must assuredly be a great loss to you both. I know he is happier than us now, and oh! that he should have lingered on with his terrible injuries. May God spread His wings of comfort over you this night, and help you to bear this awful cross. It may be a comfort to you that each one of us out here is willing to die to save the Hun from reaching our dear shores. Whose turn might it be next? Shumacker and I send our deepest sympathy to you, and earnest wishes that you will bear up, and forgive this crude and rough intimation of the death of a hero.
James was buried in Vermelles British Cemetery (Grave Reference III. H. 4.) He is commemorated on the Blairgowrie and Kirkwall War Memorials and also the Roll of Honour at St. Andrew’s U.F. Church in Blairgowrie.