Islanders and descendants of American soldiers and British crewmen who lost their lives when HMS Otranto sank off Islay gathered on the centenary of WW1’s worst convoy disaster to pay their respects.
Carrying American soldiers to fight alongside the Allies, HMS Otranto sank on 6 October 1918 near Machir Bay, on the west coast of the island, after a collision with HMS Kashmir. Around 500 men – US soldiers and British crew members – were thrown into the water, of whom only 19 survived. The tragedy came just eight months after the SS Tuscania was torpedoed near the island, with around 200 men perishing. On both occasions the people of Islay rescued and cared for the survivors and respectfully buried the dead.
A day of commemoration was organised by the local community to mark the centenary of the Otranto sinking, starting with a ceremony will led by The Rev. Valerie Watson at the Commomwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Kilchoman, where the Otranto dead were buried. Although the US dead were later reinterred at American cemeteries, many of the British crew remain at the cemetery, including Captain Ernest Davidson of the Otranto.
His grandson Nick Hide who attended commented: “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.”
Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, the Islay-born former UK Defence Minister and Secretary General of NATO, also paid tribute to the dead, and to the islanders who did so much for the survivors. Lord Robertson is the grandson of Malcolm MacNeill, the police sergeant, who led the efforts of the islanders.
He 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.”
Jenni Minto, Chair of WW100 Islay, 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.”
After the service, Kilchoman Distillery hosted a gathering where descendants of victims, survivors and Islay’s rescuers were be able to connect. Anthony Wills, founder and Managing Director of Kilchoman Distillery, presented a cheque for over £16,000 – raised from the sale of a vintage cask of Kilchoman whisky – to the WW100 Islay Legacy Fund.
Anthony commented “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 flag to Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen for onward presentation to US Ambassador Woody Johnson. The gesture is in tribute to the five islanders who worked overnight to produce a US flag so that the Tuscania dead could have it flown at their funerals.
Marian Senior of the Islay Quilters commented: “A hundred years on, it has been a privilege to follow in the footsteps of the Islay women who sewed a flag overnight so that American soldiers could be buried with honour under their own banner”.
Local choir 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.