Islay prepares to honour war dead

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Islay schoolgirl Isobel Ferguson this week played at the grave of Private Roy Muncaster of the 20th Engineers (Forest) regiment in the US Army, as national and local commemorations for the First World War were launched.

Private Muncaster is one of hundreds of soldiers and crew who died when the British ship SS Tuscania, carrying American troops, sank off the coast of Islay. He is the only US soldier still buried on the island.

Islay will host a year-long programme of events marking the island’s contribution to the First World War and the loss of two British troop ships carrying American soldiers to fight alongside the Allies. The sinking of SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto off the island’s coast saw around 700 US servicemen and British crew members killed.

Taking place on Friday May 4, the WW100 Scotland day of commemoration, in partnership with Argyll and Bute Council, forms the centrepiece of the programme, with a service taking place at the American monument on the Mull of Oa followed by a public service at Port Ellen war memorial, where dignitaries will lay wreaths in honour of Islay’s war dead.

Community events will take place on Monday February 5 and Saturday October 6, 100 years to the day since the sinking of the SS Tuscania and the HMS Otranto respectively.

As well as the valiant rescue efforts of the community when the ships went down and efforts to give the dead proper burials, the events will remember the Ileachs who served and around 200 who died during the war.

Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, whose grandfather was the police sergeant on Islay at the time, 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. 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.’

WW100 Islay chairwoman Jenni Minto said: ‘Every village on Islay lost men in the Great War but the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto disasters brought the war directly to Islay’s shores. In addition to remembering the soldiers and crew who died in these tragedies, the Islay 100 programme recognises the contribution made by the local community to the rescue of survivors and its dedication to respectfully burying the casualties.

‘It is also an important opportunity to reflect on the loss of Islay’s own throughout the war. At the time, Islay had a population of around 6,000, approximately 1,000 of whom went to war. Sadly, more than 200 did not return and the impact on the community was significant. Our aim is to leave a lasting legacy that can be revisited by individuals and communities in the future.’

Professor Norman Drummond, chairman of the Scottish Commemorations Panel appointed to oversee the WW100 commemorations, said: ‘The admirable actions of the men and women of Islay in the aftermath of the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto tragedies is a strong reflection of the compassion and courage of the island’s community at a time of great adversity.

‘One hundred years on from these terrible events, we will reflect on the lives lost as well as remembering the deeply respectful actions of the local community in caring for the survivors and giving the casualties appropriate burials.’

On February 5, a commemorative service will be held at the island’s American Monument on the Mull of Oa, followed by a ceremony at the graveside of Roy Muncaster in Kilnaughton Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, where many of the dead from the SS Tuscania were temporarily buried. There will be a Gaelic bible reading, piping by Isobel Ferguson, and singing by pupils of the Port Ellen Primary School Gaelic Choir. A reception will be held at No 1 Charlotte Street, where survivors of the sinking were billeted.

On October 6, a service and wreath-laying ceremony will be led by the minister at Kilchoman Military Cemetery, where the HMS Otranto casualties were laid to rest and many of the crew still lie, followed by a reception at Kilchoman Distillery.

Carrying more than 2,000 US troops to Europe, SS Tuscania was on its way from New Jersey to Liverpool when it was torpedoed by German submarine UB-77, sinking off Islay and Northern Ireland on February 5.

On October 6, HMS Otranto sank near Machir Bay after a collision with HMS Kashmir. Many lives were saved after heroic rescue missions, not least by the Royal Navy who on the fateful night of the sinking of SS Tuscania rescued some 1,800 US servicemen. However hundreds of American troops and British crew members perished – around 210 from the Tuscania and 470 from the Otranto – with many of the bodies washing up on Islay.

The Americans were reinterred at Brookwood cemetery and memorial in Surrey or repatriated to the United States. The American monument, a lighthouse-like tower above the Mull of Oa, was commissioned by the American Red Cross.