A year-long programme of events marking Islay’s contribution to World War One and the loss of two British troop ships carrying American soldiers to fight alongside the Allies have been launched today.
The sinking of SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto off the island’s coast saw around 700 US servicemen and British crew members lose their lives. As well as the valiant rescue efforts of the local community when the ships went down and its efforts to give the dead proper burials, the programme will remember the Ileachs (Islay people) that served and around 200 that lost their lives throughout the war.
Taking place on Friday 4 May, the WW100 Scotland Day of Commemoration, in partnership with Argyll and Bute Council, forms the centrepiece of the programme, with a service taking place at the American Monument on the Mull of Oa followed by a public service at Port Ellen War Memorial, where VIP guests will lay wreaths in honour of Islay’s war dead.
Community events will take place on Monday, 5 February and Saturday, 6 October, one hundred years to the day since the sinking of the SS Tuscania and the HMS Otranto respectively.
Islay piper Isobel Ferguson, who will play at the service remembering the sinking of the SS Tuscania, at the grave of Private Roy Muncaster of the 20th Engineers (Forest) regiment in the American Army. Private Muncaster, who lost his life in the disaster, is the only US soldier still buried on the island.
Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, whose maternal grandfather was the police sergeant on Islay at the time of the sinkings, commented: “My maternal grandfather, Malcolm MacNeill, had the distressing job of reporting what had happened and attempting to identify the bodies, noting any distinguishing marks that could help identify the drowned men. There were so many bodies that their descriptions filled 81 pages in his notebook.
“When they were finally buried, it fell to my grandfather to correspond with the families in the United States who were desperate to know more about the fate of their loved ones. They wrote with information which they hoped could be used to identify the bodies of their sons, husbands or brothers, and in an extraordinary example of compassionate public service, my grandfather replied to each letter, providing what information he could.”
WW100 Islay chair, Jenni Minto, said: “Every village on Islay lost men in the Great War but the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto disasters brought the war directly to Islay’s shores. In addition to remembering the soldiers and crew who lost their lives in these two tragedies the Islay 100 programme recognises the contribution made by the local community to the rescue of survivors and its dedication to respectfully burying the casualties.
“It is also an important opportunity to reflect on the loss of Islay’s own throughout the war. At the time, Islay had a population of around 6,000, approximately 1,000 of whom went to war. Sadly over 200 did not return and the impact on the community was significant. Our aim is to leave a lasting legacy that can be revisited by individuals and communities in the future.”
Professor Norman Drummond, chair of the Scottish Commemorations Panel appointed to oversee the WW100 commemorations on behalf of the Scottish Government, said: “The admirable actions of the men and women of Islay in the aftermath of the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto tragedies is a strong reflection of the compassion and courage of the island’s community at a time of great adversity. One hundred years on from these terrible events, we will reflect on the lives lost as well as remembering the deeply respectful actions of the local community in caring for the survivors and giving the casualties appropriate burials.”
On 5 February, a commemorative service will be held at the island’s American Monument on the Mull of Oa, followed by a ceremony at the graveside of Roy Muncaster in Kilnaughton Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, where many of the dead from the SS Tuscania were temporarily buried. There will be a Gaelic bible reading, piping by Isobel Ferguson, and singing by pupils of the Port Ellen Primary School Gaelic Choir. A reception will be held at No 1 Charlotte Street, where survivors of the sinking were billeted.
On 6 October, a service and wreath laying ceremony will be led by the local minister at Kilchoman Military Cemetery, where the HMS Otranto casualties were initially laid to rest and many of the crew still lie, followed by a reception at Kilchoman Distillery.
Carrying over 2000 US Army personnel to join the battlefields in Europe, SS Tuscania was on its way from New Jersey to Liverpool when it was torpedoed by German submarine UB-77, sinking between Islay and Northern Ireland on 5 February. On 6 October, HMS Otranto sank near Machir Bay, on the west coast of the island, after a collision with HMS Kashmir. Many lives were saved after heroic rescue missions, not least by the Royal Navy who on the fateful night of the sinking of SS Tuscania rescued some 1,800 US Servicemen. However hundreds of American troops and British crew members still perished – around 210 from the Tuscania and 470 from the Otranto, with many washing up on Islay’s shoreline.
After the war, the American bodies were reinterred at Brookwood American Cemetery and Memorial in Surrey or repatriated to the United States. The American Monument, a lighthouse-like stone tower which sits atop the Mull of Oa, was commissioned by the American Red Cross in their honour.
Keep an eye on our events page, where more information on the local and national commemorative programme will be shared as it becomes available.