James Wishart was born on 26 June 1890 at Boreland Farm in Dysart, Fife – the youngest of eight children of Peter Wishart, a farm servant from Cults, and his wife, Elizabeth Lumsden. During the next decade, Peter worked on farms in Wemyss and then Duddingston before settling in Kirkcaldy, where he became a storekeeper dealing in hay and grain. The family rented a terraced stone cottage at 38 Salisbury Street, and young James got his first job nearby as a bread vanman for Mr John Stewart of Dunniker Road (afterwards with Mrs Alexander of Links Street.)
In spring 1914, James, who was later described as a ‘big, stalwart young fellow’, moved to Edinburgh and joined the City Police Force. After the outbreak of war, he enlisted in Edinburgh during early October and joined the 9th (Service) Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, who were part of Kitchener’s Second New Army and had been raised in Aberdeen during September.
The 9th Gordons, who were in the 44th Brigade, 15th (Scottish) Division, trained at Aldershot before moving to Haslemere where they were designated a Pioneer Battalion, which meant that in addition to being trained infantry they also provided skilled labour for the division and were sometimes seconded to the Royal Engineers. In February 1915 the Gordons moved to Perham Down and then to Andover in May for final training before proceeding overseas.
James embarked in Folkestone with is unit just after midnight on 9 July and arrived in Boulogne shortly before dawn. He very likely saw action at the Battle of Loos in September when the Gordons suffered casualties of over 250 men. Much of James’ time during the remainder of 1915 would have almost certainly involved the construction and maintenance of trenches, which, owing to worsening weather conditions, would have been a battle in itself.
The battalion remained in the Loos sector throughout the winter and into the spring of 1916, with all companies working on the Hohenzollern Craters either mining, wiring or building trenches and machine-gun placements during May. The work was dangerous, and at some point, James was wounded, with his name appearing in the casualty list for 12 June. The nature of his injuries is unknown although it does not appear that he was away from the front for very long, and may have returned to the battalion by the time they arrived on the Somme in early August. In the campaign, the 9th played a vital role opening up communication trenches, often under heavy fire, and providing essential logistical support for attacking companies from other regiments; occasionally having to take up arms themselves. James’s role at the Somme is unknown; however, it was later reported that he had ‘seen much hard service’ and his name appeared in the casualty lists for a second time during late September, though this time his status was reported as ‘wounded: shock – shell’.
In the absence of any surviving service papers, it cannot be ascertained when James returned to the front, although at some point between October 1916 and June 1917 he was promoted to sergeant.
By the summer of 1917 the Gordons were based in Flanders, and during the early hours of 29 June 1917, while James was leading his platoon down a shallow trench, the men found themselves coming under heavy enemy artillery fire. James turned back to assist with the wounded and was himself struck in the arm, chest, stomach, and above the left eye. He was conveyed in an unconscious condition to a clearing station but died a few hours later.
His officer wrote that his death “was a great blow to the whole Company. He was a grand soldier, and loved by everyone.”
A chaplain added that: “As at home, so here, he was a great favourite. His comrades loved him; he was so good-natured and kind, and affectionate. He was a fine soldier – brave, faithful, and competent – one who never turned his back on duty. As a sergeant, he was a great success, and few men were loved as he was.”
James was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinghe, West-Vlaandeen, Belgium. (Grave XIV.C.6).