Is­lay re­mem­bers Otranto

The Oban Times - - NEWS -

Is­landers and de­scen­dants of Amer­i­can soldiers and Bri­tish crew­men who died when HMS Otranto sank off Is­lay gath­ered to pay their re­spects on the cen­te­nary of the First World War’s worst con­voy disas­ter.

Car­ry­ing Amer­i­can soldiers to fight along­side the Al­lies, HMS Otranto sank on Oc­to­ber 6, 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 buried the dead.

A day of com­mem­o­ra­tion was or­gan­ised by the com­mu­nity to mark the cen­te­nary of the Otranto sink­ing, start­ing with a cer­e­mony led by the Rev­erend Valerie Wat­son at 11.30am at the Com­momwealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­tery at Kil­choman, where the Otranto dead were buried.

Although the US dead were later re-in­terred at Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies, many of the Bri­tish crew re­main on Is­lay, in­clud­ing Cap­tain Ernest David­son of the Otranto. His grand­son, Nick Hide, who was in at­ten­dance, said: ‘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 is­landers who did so much for the sur­vivors. Lord Robert­son is the grand­son of Mal­colm MacNeill, the po­lice sergeant, who led the ef­forts.

He said: ‘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, chair­woman 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. 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 died were buried with dig­nity and re­spect.’

Af­ter the ser­vice, Kil­choman Dis­tillery hosted a gath­er­ing of de­scen­dants of vic­tims, sur­vivors and Is­lay’s res­cuers.

An­thony Wills, founder and man­ag­ing direc­tor of Kil­choman Dis­tillery, pre­sented a cheque for more than £16,000 – raised from the sale of a vin­tage cask of Kil­choman whisky – to the WW100 Is­lay Legacy Fund.

An­thony said: ‘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 Robert­son 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 added: ‘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.’

Coisir Og Ile sang Tuireadh nan Treun (Lament for the Brave), and Ella Edgar’s High­land dancers per­formed.

The cer­e­mony paid trib­ute to the dead from the Otranto and to the is­landers.

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