Remembering the SS Tuscania

Today was a prominent day in Islay's history. The 5th of February marked 100 years since the sinking of the US troop ship, the SS Tuscania.

Destined for Liverpool, the passenger ship was travelling between Rathlin and Islay with over 2000 men on board. They were to join the ongoing war effort when the ship was hit by a torpedo, released by a German U-boat. The boat began to sink. Three destroyers came to assist, but most men were forced to lifeboats, to take their chances against the sea and the cliffs of Islay's south coast.

An Ileach, Duncan McDonald, was aware of the dangerous coastline and elected to keep his lifeboat out at sea. He knew there would be a greater chance of reaching safety during daylight hours. They arrived into Port Ellen the next day.

For many of those aboard the Tuscanian, it was their first time at sea. Lacking knowledge of the terrain, their boats crashed against the rocky beaches surrounding the Oa. A few scrambled to raise the alarm with local families. What followed was nothing short of heroic.

Whilst many men were washed ashore, dead or dying, the islanders searched for survivors. There are reports of men who waded into the sea to rescue those stranded on rocks, or freed those who were trapped on cliffs. The on-shore effort was fronted by women baking, using the last of their short supplies. Small houses were crammed full, soldiers were clothed, and nothing was expected in return.

Many of those who hosted the US soldiers, had brothers, husbands and sons away fighting. The event was said to 'bring the war to Islay's doorstep'.

For days, the coast of Islay was littered with men being washed ashore. At least 210 lives were lost. Many were unaccounted for.

The crew of the Tuscania were eventually laid to rest in Kilnaughton cemetery near Port Ellen. The soldiers buried on Islay were later re-interred back in America or in a military cemetery in Surrey, with the exception of one man. Roy Muncaster's parents were certain that he was exactly where he should be and left him to rest where the islanders had buried him.

A harrowing story though it is, the overwhelming message is of bravery. Those with little to give, offered everything. In the last year of the first World War, when society was fractured, there were only stories of kindness and generosity.

The American Red Cross later raised a monument down the Oa. It was there that many from our local community gathered today to remember the men who lost their lives. Around 100 people braced the cold winds to lay wreaths. A further hundred joined at Kilnaughton cemetery.

This commemoration was the first in a host of events organised by the WW100 Islay committee. May 4th will see more elaborate activities planned. For more details of the commemorations, visit http://ww100islay.com

Information for article from Sinking of the Tuscania: February 5th 1918

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