Islay ceremony remembers hundreds killed in First World War ship sinkings

A commemoration ceremony has been held to remember about 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.

While carrying 2,500 British and US troops, the Tuscania was torpedoed by a German U-boat and began to sink.

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.

On Friday, the Princess Royal laid a wreath at the war memorial in Port Ellen during a ceremony which included speakers such as MSP Fiona Hyslop.

Also attending the event were US ambassador Robert "Woody" Johnson, Scottish Secretary David Mundell and about 1,000 people paying their respects.

Mr Johnson and Ms Hyslop were also among those to lay a wreath.

Speaking at the service, Ms Hyslop said: "Let us, all together, be mindful of the loss of so many young Americans on the Tuscania and the Otranto, and the merchant seamen who died with them.

"Let us all together be mindful of the people of this island who save the lives of those who could be saved and recovered as many as possible from the sea."

United States Ambassador Robert 'Woody' Johnson and Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop lay wreathes (Jane Barlow/PA)
United States Ambassador Robert 'Woody' Johnson and Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop lay wreathes (Jane Barlow/PA)

She added: "Let us all together be mindful of the men of Islay and Jura, who went to war and never returned."

A parade of the state flags, produced by the Islay Quilters, were carried by children from the island's schools to start the WW100 Scotland Day Commemoration.

Leading the procession was Marian Senior, who helped stitch a replica of a US flag created by islanders to fly while burying those who died in the Tuscania sinking.

As well as speeches, music was played throughout the ceremony by military bands and others.

People leave after a service at the American Moment at the Mull of Oa on Islay (PA/Jane Barlow)
People leave after a service at the American monument at the Mull of Oa on Islay (PA/Jane Barlow)

Lament for the Brave was sang by the Islay Gaelic Choir and Royal National Mod Gold winner Alasdair Currie sang Amazing Grace.

Towards the end of the event, four Royal Marine buglers played the Last Post.

The Princess Royal later visited the town's Ramsay Hall to meet with islanders, dignitaries and descendants of people who had been caught up in the two sinking events.

Earlier in the day, a small rededication service was held at the American monument on Islay's Mull of Oa.

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.

Lord George Robertson holds a wreath prior to throwing it in the sea close to the wreck of SS Tuscania (PA/Jane Barlow)
Lord George Robertson holds a wreath prior to throwing it in the sea close to the wreck of SS Tuscania (PA/Jane Barlow)

More than 100 people went to the 10-metre high tower to pay their respects, including descendants of those who lost their lives in the Tuscania and Otranto tragedies.

It followed a similar service which saw the British, US, French and Germany navies pay their respects to the dead in a ceremony above the wreck of the Tuscania.

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