Islanders, and descendants of American soldiers and British crewmen who lost their lives when HMS Otranto sank off Islay, gathered to pay their respects on Saturday ( 6 October) at a commemoration on the island to mark the centenary WW1’s worst convoy.
HMS Otranto, a former luxuryliner that had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the war, was the flagship of a 13-vessel convoy bringing thousands of US troops to the conflict on the Western Front. But, caught in Force 11 gale and unsure of her position, the Otranto collided with another ship in her convoy, HMS Kashmir. While the Kashmir managed to limp to the Clyde, the powerless Otranto was driven by the storm towards the treacherous coast of Islay.
British destroyer, HMS Mounsey, commanded by Lieutenant Francis Craven, dashed to rescue 600 men from the Otranto, but nearly 500 men were still aboard when it struck a reef off Kilchoman Bay, on Islay’s west coast. Local shepherds and farmers rushed to the shore and pulled survivors from the pounding surf, but, of the men still on board the Otranto when it struck the reef, only 19 survived. The islanders tended the survivors and, although many of Islay’s able men had already been killed or were still at war, scoured the rugged coast to recover bodies and did all they could to identify them and bury them with honour. Continue reading....
400 perished... Tribute by Lord George Robertson
The First World War was not kind to Islay. But it was not a kind war anyway.
Even as it ended, the appalling death toll – of mainly young men was compounded by the felling of a hundred million souls by the ravages of a deadly flu pandemic.
Islay had sent most of its fit young men to fight on the war’s many fronts. 200 were not to return and others came back home affected in mind and body.
But that was not to be Islay’s only contribution to what was called the Great War. The torpedo which sank the mighty Tuscania on 5 February in 1918 hit this small, remote, island community with the same pole axe impact as the downing of PanAm 103 at Lockerbie and the destruction of the Twin Towers of New York.
This remarkable island, with few of today’s resources at hand, rose to the urgent challenges it faced. Its people – already depressed by the casualties in the War, tended to the survivors, buried the dead, honoured the drowned and the saved and eventually drew breath.
And then, a hundred years ago today, in one of the worst storms in generations, fate threw another blow at the already traumatised Ileachs. In yet another catastrophe involving American soldiers, the collision involving the troopship Otranto, only yards from where we stand today, was to deliver a another hammer blow to an island still reeling from the Tuscania only months before.
Four hundred troops and sailors perished that miserable October day, only 36 days from the Armistice which would bring the war to an end. From far corners of the distant United States, these young men had come to help win the conflict but were instead to meet their maker on Islay’s rocky shores.
Even my experience and knowledge of conflict does not sufficiently allow me to appreciate the situation facing Islay for the second time in that year of 1918. Few can imagine what went through the islanders’ minds but the fact is that nobody hesitated and no one held back.
Survivors were pulled from the water. Heroism in the face of towering waves and crushing debris was the norm. The McPhee boys risking life and limb, and Captain Craven on the Royal Navy destroyer Mountsey defying the sea’s anger and saving hundreds. And there were many more examples of raw courage.
Poor people sharing and giving and sacrificing and mourning too. People with so little, giving so much and bringing survivors virtually back to life.
Four hundred were victims of the collision, all of them itemised in brutal yet moving detail by my Grandfather, Sergeant Malcolm MacNeill, in the copperplate writing of his preserved notebook.
Few were saved, but those who were, were lovingly tended.
In the comfortable lives we lead today, how can we possibly begin to imagine what the Otranto disaster meant to this island?
The dramatic shock of the event, made so much worse by the miserable fact that it was happening for the second time in only eight months, must have been both sobering and sickening.
What we can do, though, is to remember and commemorate and honour those who died in our service, those who were saved and their descendants alive today because of it, and of course those remarkable folk from our strong, resilient, generous and spirited Islay who did so much for so many a hundred years.
Service of remembrance for the loss of the Otranto
The commemoration happened at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Kilchoman, where the victims were buried by the islanders. The US dead were later removed to American cemeteries but many of the British crew still lie there, including the Otranto’s captain, Ernest Davidson. Captain Davidson’s grandson, Nick Hide, who attended the service, said: ‘When you think what these Islay families went through having to bring those bodies ashore and bury them with dignity – it didn’t just happen over one day, but went on for weeks. It’s an amazing story and that’s what I think is remarkable about Islay.’
Walking up to Kilchoman Military Cemetery
Jenni Minto said, “One hundred years ago the people of Islay were faced with the horrors of war arriving on their shores for the second time that year. Again they worked with compassion and humanity to ensure those who survived the Otranto tragedy were cared for as though they were their own, and those who sadly died were buried with dignity and respect. Today we paid tribute to those selfless acts and remember those who were lost.”
The service, led by The Rev. Valerie Watson, got under way after the crowd, carrying the flags of many nations, walked in procession to the walled cemetery. After prayers, those present heard a tribute by Lord Robertson and a Gaelic bible reading by Alasdair Currie; young Harry Pearce played The Last Post; a respectful two minutes silence ensued; piper, Neil MacTaggart played the Flowers of the Forest; wreaths were laid and the islay lifeboat set of flares in Machir Bay, visible below the hill. Libby Morris plaintively sang “In Memory of the Otranto”.
After the service Kilchoman Distillery hosted a gathering where descendants of victims, survivors and Islay’s rescuers were able to connect and share a dram.
Antony Wills, founder and Managing Director of Kilchoman Distillery handed over a cheque for over £16,000, raised from the sale of a vintage cask of Kilchoman whisky, for the WW100 Islay Legacy Fund. Anthony said, “Kilchoman Distillery is delighted to make this donation to the legacy fund so future generations remember the tragic sinking of the Otranto and the bravery of locals who went to the aid of the US soldiers on board and the British crew”
The Islay Quilters also handed over a hand sewn Stars and Stripes to Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen for onward presentation to US Ambassador Robert Johnson. Marian Senior, Islay Quilters, said, “It has been a privilege to follow in the footsteps of Islay women,100 years on, who sewed a flag overnight so that American soldiers could be buried with honour under their own banner”.
Coisir Og Ile sang Tuireadh nan Treun (Lament for the Brave) and Ella Edgar’s Highland Dancers performed their specially choreographed dance in memory of the events 100 years ago.
The previous evening, in the Round Church Bowmore, the story of the Otranto was told in words and music. Written by Les Wilson, it was narrated by Iain Gibson, supported by Islay High School pupils, Anwen Baker and Elizabeth MacMillan-Currie. The Islay Community Pipe Band, Islay High School Choir, Islay High School Feis Trad band and singers Tilly Skinner and Lewis Davy all took part. Libby Morris and, Mod Gold Medal Winner, Alasdair Currie, sang Gaelic war laments and the evening concluded with Alasdair singing Amazing Grace. The connections between Scotland and America were celebrated through traditional fiddle music from both sides of the Atlantic played by Alistair Savage and Iain Crawford.
The Tuscania flag, which was sewn overnight on Islay for the funeral of drowned US soldiers, is to remain at the Museum of Islay Life for a further two years. The flag has been a major draw for the museum over the 2018 centenary year. Originally, the flag was on loan from the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institute, until September – a period that was later extended to include the centenary of the loss of the Otranto. And now the Museum has negotiated with the Smithsonian to extend the loan to 2020. Malcolm Ogilvie, Chair of the Museum of Islay Life said “It has been such a privilege having the Stars & Stripes in the Museum this year and we would like to thank the Smithsonian for agreeing to allow the flag to remain here for a longer period.”
Lord Robertson added, “It is wonderful that one of the island’s most precious relics will be on display in the Museum for a longer time”.
The extension comes with stringent conditions about security and about storage during the museum’s close season. However, the very generous support from the Dunlossit and Islay Community Trust has meant that the in to cost of meeting these requirements has been covered.
The flag was sewn overnight before the first mass funeral of American soldiers from the troopship SS Tuscania. Following the funerals the flag was presented to US President Woodrow Wilson and was later placed in the care of the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
Published with kind permission of the Ileach Newspaper