Foreword of 'The Drowned and the Saved' by Les Wilson
Even for a Hebridean Island used to some foul weather and occasional wrecked ships, the events of 1918 in Islay must have been especially grim. To experience one major troopship disaster that February was traumatic enough for a small island community already hit severely by casualties on the distant Western Front. But to face another disaster only a few months later was unprecedently awful.
Islay was not rich, it was agricultural and it was quiet. The great boom in Scotch whisky drinking had not yet stimulated the small island distilleries and tourism was in its infancy. To this peaceful rural community was to come a visitation of brutal violence and profound sadness.
The torpedoing of the liner Tuscania, carrying 2,000 troops, in February 1918 brought to the island both deaths and survivors in huge numbers. It happened in the night, on the remote and inhospitable cliffs and rocks of the Mull of Oa, and it brought forth bravery, service, humanity and resource of a quite remarkable degree. Two hundred soldiers and sailors died. It was the biggest loss of American lives in a single day since their civil war. When news hit the US, the shock was considerable.
When the troopship Otranto fell victim to a collision off the western rocky shores of Kilchoman in October of the same miserable year, the last one of the so-called great war, the previous experience was useful. But the double shock was to leave lasting legacies of pain and mourning. Another 400 perished.
My maternal grandfather, Malcolm MacNeill, was the police sergeant on the island in 1918. With his three constables, he was in effect the public authority on Islay. Yet nothing in his training or experience could have prepared this son of a shepherd, from Inverlussa on the neighbouring island of Jura, for the challenges he faced on these grim days in the last months of the first world war.
Just a few years earlier, another police constable serving in Port Ellen, Norman Morrison, wrote in his autobiography:
The duties of a county constable on the whole are generally speaking, interesting and pleasant, particularly when one is stationed in a district which is free from crime. Routine work is easy and sometimes even fascinating. To the lover of the beautiful in nature, the life is really an ideal one.
Before patrol cars and an air service and the telecommunications we now take for granted, the scale of the difficulties Sergeant MacNeill faced was simply immense. He had to travel by bike in hellish weather to the remote extremities of the island. He had to organise the rescues, the handling of survivors, the recovery and cataloguing of the dead, the recording of events and the communications from and to the legion of top brass who eventually descended on the scenes of these disasters.
He was not alone in his endeavors, for the scale of the tragedy and its aftermath brought out the very best in a hardy, resilient and resourceful Islay population. The American Red Cross, on the scene in the weeks after each event, was unsparing in its praise:
It is quite impossible to say too much of the humanity of these peasant people, of their readiness to accept any hardship in the name of mercy, of the gently, steadfast nursing they gave the soldiers, virtually bringing them back to life.
One might quibble with the word 'peasant' but the sentiment speaks of what these American professionals found when they arrived on the scene. My grandfather, known to me by the Gaelic word Seanair, bearing the enormous responsibilities of the day, was systematic and diligent in his efforts. His notebook, in copperplate handwriting accounting for all the bodies, was found in a cupboard of his son Dr Hector MacNeill. It is now in the Museum of Islay Life and is a remarkable chronicle of profound sadness; his descriptions of often unidentifiably, battered corpses cannot leave any reader unaffected.
The reports he had to write each night after his travels (written twice to keep a copy) were to be followed by the painstaking follow-up letters to bereaved families. The internment of bodies, the organising of survivors, the identification of the islanders who had opened their homes and shared their food and clothing, the recording of the bravery and sacrifice – all fell to these few local members of Argyllshire Constabulary whose lives were changed for ever.
He himself was – exceptionally for a country police officer – to be honoured after the war with one of the first medals from the newly created Order of the British Empire. That MBE, the property now of his great grandson – another Malcolm MacNeill – is also on display in Islay's museum.
I was born in the police station in the Islay village of Port Ellen, my father having returned from second world war service to serve on the island where his father-in-law had served before him. I went from there via a life in politics to become Britain's secretary of state for defence and then secretary-general of NATO, the world's most successful military alliance. I saw conflict and witnessed how humanity deals with mass casualties. I am consequently filled with admiration at what my fellow islanders did at that time.
The stories in this book, collected brilliantly by Les Wilson, articulate the dramas of both disasters and how a rural community rose to the immense challenges of tackling them. From the kindness of islanders with so little, who gave so much. How they produced clothes and food for the survivors and tenderness and compassion for the dead. How coffins were made, graves dug, a stars and stripes made and sewed overnight by local women to ensure the fallen lay under their own flag.
When I made a BBC Scotland radio programme a few years ago about the two disasters, local Port Ellen fisherman and my friend Jim McFarlane related of being told of people openly weeping in the streets as the carts with bodies passed. I also stood in the home in Kilchoman of Duncan McPhee, the grandson of one of the two teenage McPhees who waded into the surf when the Otranto went down armed with a walking stick to reach and save two men from certain drowning. As we remembered that act of heroism I recalled what my grandfather had recorded of that night:
The oldest inhabitants in the neighbourhood of the wreck say that they never saw a heavier sea on the Machrie Sands and very seldom a higher tide.
But the Tuscania and Otranto and their lasting effect are not forgotten on Islay. Rising tall above the sheer cliffs and rocks of the Mull of Oa and at the closest point to the sunken Tuscania is the mighty monument to those who died a century ago. The cemeteries at Kilchoman and Kilnaughton may have lost the American graves, the bodies being solemnly repatriated to the US and to Brookwoods Cemetery near London, but British sailors still lie there.
In Kilnaughton Cemetery, by Port Ellen, there remain the only two American graves left on Islay. Roy Muncaster's mother wanted him to stay where he died. The other grave was marked till recently with the simple legend 'Unknown Negro. Known unto God. USS Tuscania February 1918.' Who he was, where he came from, why he alone was left behind, why his race was identified? A century on the mystery remains unsolved.
So many lives lost. So many lives saved. So many survivors looked after. A community rising to the tragic occasion, pulling together to counter what fate had thrown at it. In many ways it was the story of a special island and its strong, resilient, resourceful people. Out of tragedy came inspiration and out of misery and death came kindness, generosity and enduring humanity. A century has passed but the memories live on.
George Robertson is Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, former secretary-general of NATO
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