Tenderly We Laid Them Low

On the peaceful sward full daisied,
Where the winds of ocean blow,
Shrouded in their own loved banner
Tenderly we laid them low;
And the few that Death had spared us,
To the utmost love can know;
They were tended well and bravely,
As our Gaels were wont to show.

Translated from the Gaelic poem
by Charles McNiven (Kilchoman, Islay, Scotland)

On the shore of the Isle of Islay, Scotland, the residents of the small settlement of Kilchoman—comprised of a single church, three dwellings, and a schoolhouse—watched the H.M.S. Otranto disaster unfold. Reverend Donald Grant, who first saw the Otranto out on the reef, sent word to others on the island to come through the storm—nearly hurricane strength—and help.

As described by Lord George Robertson, Police Sergeant Malcolm MacNeill from Bowmore later reported to his superiors of their heroic efforts: [2]

Sir, The following people took an active part in the rescue of survivors from the water, and afterwards materially assisted them in recovering from the effects of their long and terrible exposure. The first persons on the scene so far as I am able to ascertain were David McTaggart, farmer Kilearan, who had previously to this dispatched horse and van for life saving apparatus and Donald McLachan, ploughman. These two men brought three survivors out of the water with the aid of a long broom handle. One girl, Kate McLellan, Coulerach, in my opinion deserves special mention. She happened to be on the rocks when the McPhee boys rescued the first three survivors, one of whom was scantily clad. The girl at once in the midst of hail and sleet stripped off her own overcoat and wrapped it round the rescued soldier.’

In another report he filed on the wreck, my grandfather made a point of commending the ordinary folk of Islay who—though they themselves had so little to give—gave so generously to help the men cast upon their shore. He praises the many elderly women who provided soup and other food to the survivors despite ongoing food shortages caused by the war effort.

Lord George Robertson

Only 21 of the 489 men on the Otranto when it broke apart made it to shore alive. Two of those died soon after.

The next day, the islanders began searching the cliffs and water for more survivors and bodies. Everyone on the island who was able participated. Two Red Cross groups and 30 British soldiers arrived over the next week to help. 20 America soldiers arrived and were assigned to build coffins.

Red Cross and Soldiers search for Otranto Victims, Machir Bay, Isle of Islay, Scotland, Courtesy U.S. National Archives.

No more survivors were found—only bodies, hundreds of bodies amongst enormous piles of wreckage, almost all of which was jammed into deep gullies at the base of the cliffs.

Search for bodies of Otranto Victims, Machir Bay, Isle of Islay, Scotland, Courtesy U.S. National Archives.

Over the coming weeks, the bodies of 315 Americans were recovered on Islay. Several weeks later, one more was recovered on the nearby island of Muck.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time Islay faced such circumstances, and responded heroically. On 5 Feb 1918, just eight months earlier, the SS Tuscania was torpedo by the German U-boat UB-77 off the coast of Islay. 210 troops and crew were lost. Over 2,000 were rescued. Many of the same residents of Islay assisted its survivors also. Islay, with a population of around 6,000, also lost over 200 of its own sons during World War I.

On 11 Oct, a funeral was held on Islay for the first 46 British and French sailors and 120 Americans recovered. 52 of them were unidentified. They were buried on top of the cliff that overlooks the reef where the Otranto broke apart. Rev. Donald Grant, who first sounded the alarm across Islay, conducted the funeral.

There were only three coffins on the island at this point. One was used for the Captain of the Otranto, the other two for two officers. The rest were buried under a light layer of dirt.

Six days later, on 17 Oct, a second funeral was held. The 172 from the first funeral were reburied in coffins along with another 108 recovered after the first funeral.

As other bodies were found, they, too, were brought to the churchyard, examined, and taken to the growing cemetery for burial. Reverend Grant officiated at all of the funerals, sometimes conducting services for six or eight, then three or four, and later for only one at a time, until –– in the end –– 315 American soldiers had found a resting place in the rocky soil of Islay.

R. Neil Scott, Many Were Held by the Sea

On 11 Oct, another funeral was held in Belfast, Ireland, for 17 men who were rescued by the H.M.S. Mounsey but subsequently died. After a procession through the city, they were interred in City Cemetery, Belfast.

Funeral possession for 12 Otranto Victims, 11 Oct 1918, Belfast, Ireland.

Lord Robertson describes Police Sergeant MacNeill’s correspondence with the families of the deceased in the United States and England: [4]

… it was his responsibility to report what had happened, and to undertake the distressing job of logging the bodies, noting any distinguishing marks that could help identify the drowned men.

His notebooks, which I have donated to the Museum of Islay Life, make powerful reading. In them, in meticulous copperplate, he records descriptions of the bodies washed ashore, savagely battered by the rocks. Many were identifiable only by their tattoos or the military tags they wore. One entry reads ’25-year-old male. Tattoo of ‘Mum’ on right arm. No other identifying marks.’ There were so many dead bodies that their descriptions filled 81 pages in his notebook.

When the bodies were finally buried, it fell to my grandfather to correspond with the families in the United States, who were desperate for news of their loved ones. They wrote from Georgia, from the Midwest and from the northeastern states, providing information about birthmarks or prized watches, which they hoped could be used to identify the bodies of their sons, husbands or brothers. My grandfather, in an extraordinary example of compassionate public service, replied to each letter, providing what information he could. Often, sadly, there was little information that he could pass on.

His work was applauded by the American Red Cross and at the end of the war he was awarded the MBE for his actions on those terrible nights.

MacNeill also cataloged the personal effects of each man, and these were sent to each man’s family.

In 1919, the American Red Cross erected the American Monument on the Isle of Islay to commemorate the loss of the Tuscania and Otranto. The monument is built in the shape of a lighthouse, and stands on a high cliff on the Oa Peninsula, overlooking the spot where the Tuscania sunk.

American Monument to the Tuscania and Otranto, Isle of Islay, Scotland.

In 1920, all but one of the 315 Americans buried at Kilchoman were returned to the United States. Private Thomas Sirmons’ body was one of those recovered, initially buried at Kilchoman, and later returned to Georgia.

73 British sailors and marines, and one British merchant sailor from the Otranto and Tuscania remain in the Kilchoman Military Cemetery, of whom 71 were from the Otranto.

Military Cemetery, Kilchoman, Isle of Islay, Scotland.

PVT Thomas Jefferson Simons (1892-1918) is 3rd cousin 3x removed of MKS in the Knight branch.

PVT Ralph Roswell Knight (1889-1918) is 2nd cousin 4x removed of MKS in the Knight branch.

Note: This is post 2 of 4 today about the H.M.S. Otranto disaster.

Acknowledgement: This post is primarily based on and liberally borrowed from these excellent references. The Ray City History Blog has many more posts about the Otranto.

[1]  Charles McNiven’s Gaelic poem from Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of the HMS Otranto, by R. Neil Scott, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 18 Jun 2012.
[2] Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of the HMS Otranto, by R. Neil Scott, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 18 Jun 2012.
[3] The Wreck of the Otranto: 6th October 1918, WW100 Islay Article.
[4] The Loss of the Troopships Tuscania and Otranto, Islay Blog.
[5] Burial of the Otranto Victims, Ray City History Blog, 15 Oct 2010.
[6] Islay Remembered Otranto Soldiers at Christmas Time, Ray City History Blog, 24 Dec 2012.
[7] The Long Trip Home, Ray City History Blog, 29 May 2011.
[8] The Passing Legions—How the American Red Cross Met the American Army in Great Britian, the Gateway to France, by George Buchanan Fife, The MacMillan Company, 1920.