The Scottish Isle of of Islay is best known these days for its world famous peaty single malt whisky but a century ago, this normally tranquil place which sits on the western coast of the U.K and facing the fierce north Atlantic was for just a few short months at least, anything other than tranquil.
Rather unexpectedly, one hundred years ago, Islay was on the frontline in the battle at sea during World War One as it found itself indundated with casualties and death from two major shipping disasters in 1918.
The island coped with mass casualties from two major troopship disasters just eight months apart. Between them, the sinkings of the SS Tuscania in February and HMS Otranto in October, claimed the lives of about 700 men in the last year of the war.
As with most of Britain by 1918, Islay was already suffering from the most horrendous death toll in the Western Front in WW1 with around 150 men and boys being killed out of a total population of only 6,000. The grief of households for the loss of men killed far away was to be supplanted by the death and carnage of strangers and on a terrible scale.
The Tuscania had almost completed its transatlantic voyage amidst a convoy of ships that travelled together for safety and it was carrying American troops on their way to WW1. As the ship turned into the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland on the 5th February 1918, it was unaware that danger was near. A German U-boat was stalking the convoy and when the moment was right, fired two torpedoes at the Tuscania with one of these ripping a huge tear in its side.
The Tuscania was carrying almost 2,500 US soldiers and British crew and its appearance above shows how before the war it had been a luxury ocean liner but had been converted to aid the war effort.
It wasn’t long before the Tuscania disappeared beneath the waves but incredibly the majority of those on board were resuced by the Royal Navy but sadly for many of those who escaoed on lifeboats their ordeal was not over for they were swept towards the cliffs and rocks of Islay’s Oa peninsula and shipwrecked for a second time.
Private Arthur Siplon was thrown into the sea when his lifeboat capsized and his son remembers his account of the event.
“He thought he was going to die but at last he grabbed hold of a rock and when the sea receded he managed to hang on and climbed to the shore.”
Private Siplon was rescued by one of two Islay farmers who risked their own lives pulling men to safety.
Robert Morrison and Duncan Campbell gave food and shelter to dozens of survivors and were later awarded the OBE or Order of the British Empire.
Even today Islay is remote, hard to reach and on the periphery of these islands but back then with no electricty, few motorised vehicles and no air aircraft, it was an incredible disaster to cope with and would rival a disaster like 9/11 today.
Then as now, the island of Islay was virtually crime free and the only civil authority to speak of was Malcom MacNeill who was a police sergeant who relied on his bicycle to get around. Sadly Sgt MacNeill and his three constables had to recover, identify and bury the remains of almost 200. It must have been an unimaginably grim job for a policeman in the remote community of Islay,
Despite their trauma, the islanders worked tirelessly to bury the dead with dignity. They did not have an American flag for the funerals, so a small group of locals worked late into the night and hand-stitched one from the materials they had to hand.
That flag has been preserved by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, which is sending it home on loan to Islay for the centenary.
The Smithsonian’s Jennifer Jones is impressed by the care the islanders showed for the American soldiers washed up on their shores.
“It was very heartfelt, that people went out of their way to respect those who had recently lost their lives” she said.
Islanders pulled together to respond to the Tuscania sinking.
What they could not know is that this was only a preparation for a much bigger disaster to come.
Like the Tuscania, HMS Otranto was carrying US troops across the Atlantic in a convoy when disaster struck.
But it wasn’t an act of war that sank the Otranto on 6 October 1918, within weeks of the armistice. It was a navigational error in a storm.
As the convoy approached the west coast of Scotland in near hurricane conditions, there was confusion over their exact position and the Otranto was rammed by another ship in the convoy, HMS Kashmir. The collision resulted in the hill of the Otranto being ripped wide open.
The Kashmir and the rest of the convoy sailed on, under orders not to give assistance for fear of U-boat attack which could have resulted in a disaster many times greater than the one that was unfolding.
Despite the ferocious weather, the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Mounsey came to the rescue under the command of Lieutenant Francis Craven and despite trechaerous seas and danger above and below the waves, succeeded in rescuing hundreds of men.
But HMS Mounsey wasn’t able to rescue everyone and when the ship was forced to leave the scene, there were still hundreds of men aboard the sinking Otranto and their only remaining hope was to be swept towards one of the beaches of Islay.
Their best hope was to be swept towards one of the beaches on Islay’s Atlantic coast. But that wasn’t to be. However it was only to be a hope as the Otranto was seized by a massive wave that lowered it onto a reef that broke the back of the ship and shred it into a million pieces.
Only 21 men made it ashore alive. Some were pulled from the sea by shepherds who used their crooks to reach survivors. A distance more then their traditional wooden staff would likely condemn a man to his death.
In reality the it was largely a recovery operation with bodies washing up along the shoreline.
Sergeant MacNeill who woke up on a normal peaceful morning finished his day with hundreds of bodies laid out before him. He painstakingly recorded the details of every body washed ashore, in a notebook which now has pride of place in the Museum of Islay life.
The majority were buried on Islay though some bodies were never found. It as decided after the war that the remains of the American soldiers should be exhumed and repatriated with the grave of only one man remaining, his family having decided he should lay where the people of Islay buried him.
After the war, the remains of the American soldiers were exhumed and returned home.
Despite being amongst the biggest losses of life at sea in WW1 for the Americans, the events are largely forgotten. Many of the victims were from the US state of Georgia, which is planning its own commemorations later this year. However on Friday 4th May, Princess Anne led commemorations on Islay to mark the centenary of these twin tragedies; to honour those who lost their lives at sea and also those islanders of Islay who did so much to help them.
If you enjoyed this post, please do have a look at my WW1 history book, Lest We Forget which is published by Endeavour Press.