Standing on the gently sloping grassy hills overlooking the picturesque white sand beach of Machir Bay on the western coastline of Islay in the Scottish Hebrides, with the dark granite cliffs of Creag Mhor at your back as you look out over the calm flat waters of the mighty Atlantic that reach out unbroken for three thousand miles until they lap at the shores of America it is easy to become hypnotised by the tranquil scene that lies before you.
But how different it would have seemed if you were stood in this same spot on the 6 October 1918 when a massive storm raged and battered the coastline before you. Heavy churning seas driving up onto the rocks around the bay.
It was these heavy seas that contributed to the demise of the HMS Otranto and which ultimately caused the deaths of 431 souls and which became the worst America maritime disaster of the First World War.
Launched in 1909 from a Belfast ship yard the 12,124 tonne ship was commissioned as a passenger liner but at the outbreak of war was requisitioned by the Admiralty as an armed merchant cruiser and troop ship. She was involved in the 1914 Battle of Coronel in the South Atlantic, a battle that brought about the biggest defeat the Royal Navy had suffered in over 100 years.
Following this she carried out various other duties until she joined the convoy named HX50 and sailed out of New York bound for Glasgow and Liverpool in October 1918. On board were over 2,000 raw recruits, mostly from the state of Georgia and crew.
The voyage across the Atlantic was an extremely difficult one for the young recruits. Plagued by dreadful weather and by accidents many of them suffered with influenza and dreadful seasickness and then the ship became hopelessly disoriented in the heavy seas by the kind of storm that is not uncommon off the coast of Islay, and she collided with another ship, the SS Kashmir, another liner turned troopship.
Holed on her port side forward the 535ft Otranto began to list and when her engines ground to a halt she drifted towards the cliffs of Machir Bay before running aground. The SOS signal was ordered by Captain Davidson and a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Mounsey, captained by a Lieutenant Craven made the brave decision to come alongside and try and evacuate as many people as they could.
Eventually the small destroyer had to turn away and head to Belfast after taking on 1,800 people, so many that her own buoyancy was at the very limit and forcing her to leave more than 400 aboard the stricken liner. As the seas pounded the hull she started to break up forcing those remaining on board to attempt to swim ashore.
Sixteen made it alive where the residents of Islay looked after them, offering treatment and baking scones for the survivors. Many of them were hospitalised there until eventual transfer to England. It is thought none of the survivors saw action in the Great War as it ended soon afterwards on 11 November 1918 but 431 souls were lost that day – 351 American troops and 80 British crew – and the people of Islay found themselves with the harrowing task of recovering and documenting the bodies of the dead for a number of weeks following the disaster. A task, to their credit, they carried out with meticulous precision.
Many of the dead were eventually buried in Belfast City cemetery. But Kilchoman military cemetery also stands on the hill overlooking Machir bay. A large memorial cross standing on the seaward side of the plot and engraved with the words ‘Their name liveth for evermore‘. The cemetery contains 74 graves, 71 from Otranto – of whom 43 remain unidentified – and 3 other casualties brought from elsewhere. The grave markers are identical except for the Captain of the Ship who has a more ornate plot.
The remains of the American troops being carried by the ship were also buried here where they remained until 1920 when the American government exhumed the bodies which were either repatriated back to the States or reburied in the American cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey.
The cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is immaculate.
The headstones are surrounded by a border of slate and gravel chippings from which wild heathers and small flowers grow. Offering a subtle contrast of colour against the dark grey headstones within the walls that surround the small site. The voices of seabirds drift in on the wind.
It is quiet here. Respectful. Inspiring even…but also a lonely place.
Clouds drift by overhead momentarily hiding the sun before it appears once again to scatter light onto the buttercups and daisies playing in the grass.
I look down at the base of one of the headstones and read the words engraved upon it…..‘Until the day break and the shadows flee away’.
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