Representatives from the U.K, U.S.A., France and Germany today gathered together on the small island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, to remember the island’s contribution to World War One and the loss of two British troop ships carrying American soldiers to fight alongside the Allies.
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. Over 200 Islay and Jura men died during World War One.
At the WW100 Scotland National Day of Remembrance service at Port Ellen War Memorial descendants and locals were joined by dignitaries including HRH The Princess Royal, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Secretary of State for Scotland, United States Ambassador to the UK, The Consul General of France in Scotland, the Acting Ambassador of Germany and the Consul General of Germany in Scotland.
Conducted by Rev Valerie Watson, the Minister for North and West Islay and Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the service included singing by The Islay Gaelic Choir and by Alasdair Currie, Royal National MOD, Gold Medal Winner 2017. Wreaths were laid by HRH The Princes Royal, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, the United States Ambassador, the Acting Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Consul General of France, the Vice Chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Brigadier General Christopher Short, US Air Force.
GP Dr Angus McTaggart delivered reflections of Islay and Malcolm MacNeill, the great grandson of Sergeant Malcom MacNeill, the police sergeant on Islay at the time of the sinkings and Lord George Roberston’s grandfather, gave a reading.
Lord George Roberston of Port Ellen, commented: “At the time of world War One, Islay had a population of around 6,000 and a thousand of those went to war. More than 200 of them never returned. For a small island community, already hit hard by casualties on the distant Western Front, to experience one major troopship disaster that February was traumatic enough but to face another disaster only a few months later was unprecedented and awful.
“A peaceful, rural community rose to the immense challenge of the tragedies. From the compassion of islanders with so little themselves, coffins were made, graves dug and a ‘Stars and Stripes’ was stitched together overnight by local women to ensure the dead lay under their own flag. Unable to bury their own fallen, the islanders tenderly laid the Americans to rest.”
“When they were finally buried, it fell to my grandfather to correspond with the United States families 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, my grandfather replied to each letter, providing what information he could.
“I am immensely proud of his efforts and of the whole community who gave so valiantly.”
US Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson, said: “It is humbling to come to Islay to honor the soldiers and sailors who lost their lives here in the service of our nation.
“The American people will always remember their great sacrifice, just as we will always remember the solidarity of the people of Islay who stood beside us in that time of tragedy.
“A hundred years later, that same spirit of friendship lives on – in good times and in bad, America and Britain stand side by side together.”
At the service, local schoolchildren from Bowmore, Keills, Port Charlotte and Port Ellen Primary Schools and Islay High School, paraded through Port Ellen, led by the Islay Pipe Band, with flags representing the 41 States who lost men in the sinkings of the TUSCANIA and OTRANTO. Organised by Islay Quilters, the flags were sewn by them, the community, school children, the Guides, Brownies and Rainbows. Included in the parade was also five figurines from an art installation on display in Ramsay Hall. Islay Visual Arts’ concept saw schoolchildren make 1,000 figurines representing those lost in the troop ships’ sinkings and the local Islay and Jura men who lost their lives in World War One.
Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said: “As we remember this 100 years on, we all reflect on the tremendous resilience shown by the people of Islay and Jura, particularly the compassion they showed to the American troops and British crewmen caught up in the sinkings of the TUSCANIA and OTRANTO.
“The way the islanders coped with these tragedies was truly remarkable, and the legacy it leaves today is reflected in the international representation we have seen during these commemorations. I am confident this is a story that will continue to be told long after this centenary.”
Earlier in the day a rededication ceremony was held at the American Monument on Islay’s Mull of Oa against the backdrop of warships. A wreath laying at sea yesterday was held on-board Royal Navy patrol boat HMS RAIDER, joined by warships HMS MONTROSE (British), USS ROSS (American), FS ANDROMEDE (French) and FGS LÜBECK (German) over the wreck of SS TUSCANIA.
Professor Norman Drummond, chair of the Scottish Commemorations Panel appointed to oversee the WW100 commemorations on behalf of the Scottish Government, said: “Today has been a very fitting tribute to those that were caught up in the tragedies of 100 years ago and it has been an honour to welcome an international audience to this very special commemorative event.”
Lord Provost of Argyll & Bute, Len Scoullar, added: “Today is about remembrance, gratitude and pride. Remembrance and gratitude for the sacrifice made by so many for the benefit of others. Pride in the bravery and compassion shown by the people of Islay in all they did to save and support our American partners. I am delighted to see islanders, descendants of those involved in the events of 1918, and visitors come together to pay tribute.”
Jenni Minto, chair of WW100 Islay, said: “Every village on Islay lost men in World War 1 but the SS TUSCANIA and HMS OTRANTO disasters brought the war directly to Islay’s shores. The impact on the community was significant and when confronted with these unforeseen tragedies the community rose with kindness, compassion and respect. Our aim, from our year-long commemorations, is to leave a lasting legacy that can be revisited by individuals and communities in the future.”
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.