Sea service tribute for soldiers killed in First World War ship sinkings

A service has been held at sea to remember around 700 First World War soldiers who lost their lives in the sinking of two US ships off the coast of a small Scottish island.

The SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto sunk off the coast of Islay within eight months of each other in 1918.

The Tuscania had almost completed its transatlantic voyage, carrying 2,500 British and US troops, when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

Lord George Robertson holds a wreath prior to the ceremony (Jane Barlow/PA)
Lord George Robertson holds a wreath prior to the ceremony (Jane Barlow/PA)

Most onboard were rescued by the Royal Navy but more than 200 men were lost at sea, with many swept up on the shore of Islay.

Another tragedy followed shortly after when the Otranto perished on October 6. Amid a strong storm, the ship crashed into HMS Kashmir while travelling in convoy.

Many US troops were saved by HMS Mounsey but those that could not escape the Otranto were swept toward an Islay reef that wrecked the ship. Around 470 men died.

Almost a century on, the British, US, French and Germany navies paid their respects to the dead in a ceremony above the wreck of the Tuscania.

Aboard HMS Raider on Thursday, Rev Dr Karen Campbell, national chaplain of the Royal British Legion Scotland, led a service while a wreath was laid at sea by Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, whose grandfather was the police sergeant on Islay and dealt with the aftermath of the sinkings.

Royal Marines bugler Steven Booth and Reverend Dr Karen Campbell on board HMS Raider (Jane Barlow/PA)
Royal Marines bugler Steven Booth and Reverend Dr Karen Campbell on board HMS Raider (Jane Barlow/PA)

HMS Raider was joined at sea by the USS Ross, FS Andromede (French) and FGS Lubeck, with the ships providing the backdrop to First World War commemorations held on Islay on Thursday and Friday with the Princess Royal and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to attend.

Legion Scotland's national chairman Charlie Brown said: "We stay true to our commitment and the words 'We will remember them' by ensuring that the sacrifice of over 700 US servicemen and British crew members is never forgotten.

"We also pay tribute to the bravery and selfless actions of those on board the Royal Navy Destroyer HMS Mounsey, who went alongside to save over 1,800 US servicemen who otherwise may have perished.

"It is heartwarming that in times of great tragedy and loss of life that the human spirit of comradeship and sense of belonging joins nations as one in the hope that peace will prevail over the loss of life."

Nick Hide, in the graveyard alongside Kilchoman beach on Islay where his grandfather Captain Ernest Davidson is buried (Jane Barlow/PA)
Nick Hide, in the graveyard alongside Kilchoman beach on Islay where his grandfather Captain Ernest Davidson is buried (Jane Barlow/PA)

Royal Navy Rear Admiral John Weale said: "We are gathered on Islay to commemorate all those who lost their lives defending the ideals that have stood the test of time. To remember not only those who lost their lives, but also to remember those lives saved on this island due to the heroic actions of service personnel and islanders.

"The shared sacrifices and commitments made by both the UK and US armed forces are particularly evident here as we commemorate the heroic actions of HMS Mounsey."

Wreaths will be laid at Port Ellen war memorial at midday on Friday.

The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Right Rev Dr Derek Browning said he will remember the heroism and kindness of Islay residents at the time of the tragedy as well as those who died.

"It is hard when the bitterness of war and death seem so dominant to look for light and hope, but it is light and hope that ultimately mark the events on and around Islay 100 years ago.

"The kindliness and compassion of the islanders after the loss of the troop ships Tuscania and Otranto in 1918.

"Islanders providing food, clothing and shelter to the survivors, without thought of repayment, remains an example of generosity and graciousness to people in need.

"In time of war, as in time of peace, it is the goodness of actions such as these that demonstrate humanity's truest qualities."

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