100 years ago, on the 6th of October 1918, the Troopship HMS Otranto sunk off Islay’s west coast, merely half a mile from the coast near Machir Bay. In this terrible tragedy almost 400 soldiers lost their lives. On the 6th of October 2018, a Commemoration Service, led by Reverend Valerie Watson, was held at Kilchoman Military Cemetery to honour those who lost their lives, the survivors and the folk on Islay who treated the men with dignity and respect.
On the day of the commemoration service I went to Kilchoman with the sole purpose to take the one photo I had in mind for a long time. I had seen a photo on Islay Info of the funeral procession at Kilchoman taken 100 years ago, see the photo above. I wanted to take a similar photo 100 years later and managed to get it. It’s one of my favourite Islay photos taken during a very memorable and emotional service lead by Minister Valerie Watson who has a framed copy of the photo.
For those who don’t know the story of the Otranto, below is a recap written by Peter Moir and Ian Crawford, who both have dived the shipwreck of the Otranto.
The Otranto Tragedy in 1918
On 24th September, 1918, as the war neared its climax, she set sail on her final voyage from New York bound for Glasgow and Liverpool. She sailed in convoy HX50 escorted by the US cruisers Louisiana and St Louis and the destroyer USS Dorsey. Captain Ernest W G Davidson and his 362 crew had 665 American troops aboard. On October 1st this compliment was supplemented by the unlucky crew of the French sailing ship Croisine, run down by the Otranto as the convoy, with lights out, sailed straight through a fleet of French fishing vessels. The convoy of thirteen ships, with a total of almost 20,000 troops aboard bound for the battlefield of Flanders, sailed in six columns, each column 3 cables from the next. The Otranto was the leading ship in column 3. Column 4 to the north was led by the SS Kashmir, an 8,985 ton liner of the P&O line.
The voyage across the North Atlantic went well until, as they approached the North Channel, they encountered a violent gale which built up enormous waves and shipped the sea into streaks of white foam and spray. The convoy had been navigating for some days by dead reckoning as the visibility had not allowed any sightings to be taken. On the morning of the 6th October, through the murk, the officers aboard both vessels spotted land. The master of the Kashmir rightly identified the land and the breakers that were less than two miles of his port bow, as the coast of Islay. The officer of the Watch aboard the Otranto thought that the land he could see, little over a mile of his starboard bow, was Inishtrahull. Both ships’ helms were put hard over and their inside screws stopped to steer away from the danger seen, the Kashmir to starboard, the Otranto to port, tragically turning them towards each other. The Kashmir turned quickly but the Otranto laboured in the huge seas. At 8:45am the two ships collided, the Kashmir striking the Otranto amidships on her port side almost at right angles despite the attempts by both crews to avoid the collision by reversing rudders and engines. The two ships, both badly damaged, quickly drifted apart and lost each other in the haze.
The Kashmir survived but the Otranto was doomed. Water poured through a huge hole in her side soon extinguishing her fires and, despite letting go her huge anchors, she drifted helplessly in the direction of the rocky Islay coast with 400 still aboard the now rapidly sinking Otranto. She had hit bottom less than a half mile from the shore and, as she was in danger of breaking up, Captain Davidson gave the order to abandon ship, only 16 were to survive the swim to the shore. The next day the bodies of the victims, including Captain Davidson, were washed ashore along the west coast of the island. They were buried in a special burial ground above Machir Bay overlooking the site of the loss of their ship.