William Davidson Wishart was born on 31 May 1899 in Dundee, Forfarshire. He was the only son of William Wishart, a local postmaster, and his wife, Harriet Elliot Davidson, who was an assistant schoolteacher. In 1901 William was living with his mother on Albert Street in Dundee (his father was boarding in Leith) and when of school age, attended Harris Academy. He was also a keen Boy Scout, and after he left school, he studied farming at Glenballoch in Rattray, near Blairgowrie.
William enlisted in Blairgowrie on 13 February 1917 and eventually mobilised for military service on 9 July. At the time he was recorded as being 5 feet 8 inches in height, 122 pounds in weight and of good physical development. He was just over eighteen years old and had been working as a ploughman.
On 11 July William was posted to the 42nd Training Reserve Brigade in Bridge of Allan and transferred to the 39th TRB four months later on 12 November. Less than a month passed before he moved again on 7 December and joined the 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who were based in Edinburgh.
In May 1918 William received notification that he was to be drafted overseas, and embarked at Dover for France on the 18th. He arrived the following day and proceeded to ‘M’ Scottish Base Depot in Calais and eventually taken on strength of the 10th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders in the trenches near Boiry St Martin on 16 June. The Battalion War Diary notes that during this period there had been ‘considerable inconvenience’ caused by enemy heavy trench mortars. Two days after arriving at his new unit, William was ‘slightly wounded’, possibly by such an attack, and was out of the line for a short spell while he recovered in hospital.
At the end of July, and after a period of drought, the weather turned, at which point William had likely returned to the trenches. On 5 August the 10th Argylls had the honour of being inspected by The King at Watou before being sent into the action at Parvillers five days later and then again at Herleville on the 19th. The Germans were in retreat, and at the start of September, the battalion had reached Misery on the banks of the Somme, which they eventually crossed at Brie Bridge on the 5th. William had been promoted to the rank of lance corporal (unpaid) on 20 August and then acting corporal (unpaid) on 14 September. The battalion saw further action at Holnon Wood on the 10th, and it seems likely William was involved in all three of the attacks since early August, during which time the Argylls had lost three officers and 45 ranks killed, 16 officers and 339 ranks wounded.
On 28 September, while northwest of Beauvois at Tertry, the Argylls drew battle stores and prepared to move at short notice. Heavy rain slowed progress as the battalion made their way along congested roads up to the Hindenburg outpost line, passing large numbers of German prisoners trudging in the opposite direction.
At 5:50 am on the 29th, a pivotal moment in the war began with the Battle of St Quentin Canal, when the combined forces of the America, Australian & British armies engaged in a spearhead attack against the German Siegfried Stellung of the Hindenburg Line. The Argylls crossed the canal during mid-afternoon and by 5:30 pm had advanced to the forward Brigade assembly area northeast of Magny-Le-Fosse.
With failing light, and after some consultation, it was decided that three companies of the battalion should move on the Fonsomme system – a series of strongly held trenches and concrete fortifications, and the last organised system to be attacked by the British before open country was reached. William, who was in ‘A’ Company, took part in the assault which began during the night of the 29th/30th. Despite heavy rain and facing withering machine-gun fire, enough ground was taken to successfully establish a salient along a sunken road on the southern confines of Joncourt; however, this came at a cost. Over sixty officers and men were killed in action, including William’s entire platoon.
Official records give his date of death as 1 October; however, his father had been informed that his son was killed on the 30th. Correspondence between William Snr., who had made numerous enquiries about his son’s personal effects to the war office in 1918/19, include the following statement from the chaplain who discovered William’s body. He wrote on 3 March 1919 that:
The case of Corporal Wishart is distinctly within my recollection. He was one of thirty or forty of A & D Coys found killed in the sunken Road at Joncourt and among the first to be handled by Cpl Wilks and myself.
Unfortunately a sizeable portion of the statement has been destroyed by fire during WWII, however it is clear that the chaplain believed the position was overrun by the enemy during the night, and the bodies of the dead Argylls were robbed of anything of value, including watches and cigarette cases and official documents.
William was buried in Joncourt British Cemetery, Aisne (Grave A2) on 5 October.
In 1921, upon receipt of his son’s medals, William was disappointed to see that they had been inscribed with the rank of private rather than ‘lance’ or ‘acting’ corporal, as the memorial scroll had been. The Infantry Record Office replied:
20 August 1921
With reference to your letter of the 18th inst. regarding the inscription on the medals of your late Son, S/23260 L/Cpl. W. D. Wishart, I have to inform you that according to War Office regulations only substantive ranks (e.g. full Cpl., Sgt., etc.) are to be stamped on the British War and Victory Medals.
Although your Son held the appointment of unpaid L/Cpl. On the date of his death, his substantive rank was Private, and the inscriptions on the medals are correct. It is true that L/Cpl. Wishart acted as Corpl. For a short period, but this was only a provisional appointment and not a permanent promotion. I quite understand your very natural desire to think of your Son by his highest rank, but you will understand, I trust, by the foregoing explanation how it is that his medals are inscribed with his substantive rank only.
Will you therefore please be good enough to sign and return to this office the attached receipt form.
William replied two days later:
Your letter of the 20th inst. To hand; I shall be obliged if you will do me a favour? Will you please let me have my first letter (or a copy) which I sent you on the 18th inst.
The mentality of the framer of the regulation is hard to grasp. I have spoken to several people in the course of business and like myself they describe the matter as ludicrous and some say heartless.
I do not wish to give you more trouble than necessary. I would just draw your attention to the 2nd Par 1st Clause of your letter “The inscriptions on the medals are correct.” If so, then inscription on the scroll is incorrect on which my son acted as Corporal on the date he died and incidentally it may be stated that he was informed by his Comdg Officer that after serving as Corpl for one month he (L/C W) was to be sent to a preparatory school with a view of qualifying as an officer.
Thank you for the sympathetic expression in regard to my natural desire. The poignant fact remains my boy acted as Corporal at the request, your command of the Military Authorities. He fought and died as such yet cold blooded regulations designate him as Private.
I feel hurt, but of course you will understand I do not mean any personal reflections towards you.
I have not signed the receipt form, shall I return the medals meantime?
On receipt of my first letter I am in the first instance at least, to communicate with the War Secretary.
On 24 August the Infantry Record Office acceded and requested William send in the medals for alteration, which he duly did.