The tragedies that rocked Islay

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Many people visit Islay off Scotland’s western coast for the distilleries, wildlife, rugged scenery or any combination thereof. My visit this week was for a rather different reason. I represented the Commission at the first of three commemorations of the tragic events of 1918.

  Commemorative event at CWGC’s Kilnaughton Military Cemetery on the Scottish island of Islay on 5 February

Commemorative event at CWGC’s Kilnaughton Military Cemetery on the Scottish island of Islay on 5 February

On 5 February 1918, the liner SS Tuscania was torpedoed off Islay and more than 200 American soldiers and Tuscania crewmen perished. The bodies were buried on the island until after the war when they were taken back to the United States or moved to the beautiful American cemetery in Brookwood in Surrey.   

  Headstone of Roy Muncaster of the 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers, US Army, in Kilnaughton cemetery  

Headstone of Roy Muncaster of the 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers, US Army, in Kilnaughton cemetery 

One US soldier remains on Islay in accordance with his family’s wishes. Roy Muncaster, along with crew members from the Tuscania, lies in our Kilnaughton cemetery. Commemorations were held here and at the American Memorial on the Mull of Oa overlooking the wreck site on Monday.

The story of the Tuscania is not just about the deaths of so many young American and British men, but also the response of the Islay community in rescuing survivors, caring for them, and working to identify and bury the dead.  

Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, former British Secretary of State for Defence, Secretary General of Nato, and CWGC Chairman, whose grandfather Malcolm MacNeill was the police sergeant in Bowmore, has written about how the community came together to help.  

“After the two disasters it was his responsibility to report what had happened, and to undertake the distressing job of logging the bodies, noting any distinguishing marks that could help identify the drowned men…. Many were identifiable only by their tattoos or the military tags they wore. One entry reads '25-year-old male. Tattoo of 'Mum' on right arm. No other identifying marks.' There were so many dead bodies that their descriptions filled 81 pages in his notebook.”

One of the many fascinating facts is the making of the Stars and Stripes. Believing it was right that the coffins of the American soldiers should be draped with their own national flag, a group of women sewed through the night to make one before the first of the Tuscania burials. The original flag still exists in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.    

That community spirit was very much in evidence this week. Attendance at both events, in spite of the cold and the strong winds, was very impressive. The Kilnaughton event included Gaelic reading, beautiful singing by the Port Ellen Primary School Gaelic Choir, Islay and American tributes, pipes and poems, as well as the wreath laying. I found it all deeply moving, and very encouraging.     

  British vessel the SS Tuscania

British vessel the SS Tuscania

Nine months after the Tuscania, tragedy struck again when the troopship HMS Otranto sank after a collision with another ship in the convoy. More than 400 died.

Many of the American dead were originally buried in the CWGC’s Kilchoman cemetery on the west coast. Today the cemetery holds the graves of more than 70 crew members, including the Otranto’s captain, Ernest Davidson.  

Ceremonies are planned for Kilchoman and the Oa memorial on 6 October. On 4 May, Islay WW100 is also planning a larger commemoration for both tragedies, centred around Port Ellen.

But the CWGC’s presence in Islay is not just about the Tuscania and Otranto. We look after nearly 200 servicemen from both world wars, in 13 locations. Our plot in Bowmore New Parish Churchyard contains 65 graves, including those of Wally Johnston of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Roy Jabour and Ernest Palmer, of the Royal Australian Air Force. They were killed along with six British airmen when their Sunderland flying boat crashed near their base in Bowmore in 1943.  

  CWGC plot in Bowmore New Parish Churchyard

CWGC plot in Bowmore New Parish Churchyard

One of the most poignant graves on the island is that of James Ritchie, from Merseyside, who was a cabin boy on the liner SS Andania. On 27 January 1918 the Andania was torpedoed by a U-boat in the North Channel. It sank slowly but James and six other crew members were killed. All seven are remembered on the CWGC’s Tower Hill Memorial, but James is buried in the Port Charlotte United Free Churchyard in the shadow of the Museum of Islay Life, whose collection includes the ship’s bell of the Tuscania. James was 14 years old.