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For Those In Peril – Scottish Review of Books
A service for the lost on the Tuscania, casualties of which were the first American losses of WWI.


Les Wilson
BIRLINN, £12.99, BIRLINN, ISBN: 978 1780275437, PP256
by John MacLeod

For Those In Peril

February 10, 2018 | by John MacLeod

You have almost certainly never heard of the Tuscania. Nor another liner, the Otranto. I certainly had not. Yet, in 1918 and as the Great War wound up to its denouement, both these British troopships – laden with hundreds of American conscript soldiers – went down, and with great loss of life; even more eerily, and but months apart, they sank off the west coast of Islay, where the compounded tragedy is still grimly recalled.

Between them, at least seven hundred men were drowned and the Tuscania casualties were, in fact, the very first American losses in the First World War, linking – often for the rest of their lives – grieving families, the breadth of the United States, with appalled crofters on the ‘Queen of the Hebrides,’ for Islay – further south than Edinburgh and nearer Ireland than Glasgow – is the most fertile of them all.

Her people come out best in Les Wilson’s narrative – a gripping page-turner of an account, unsparing in the horrors of these catastrophes and the author’s exhaustive research most evident on every page. Islay in 1918 was home to some 6,000 people – twice her population today – eighty-percent of whom were Gaelic-speaking and the mass of them in a hardscrabble subsistence economy. Yet her men, youths and even some young women went, in the aftermath of both disasters, to heroic lengths in hauling terrified young men from the sea. They gave up their homes, their beds, all the food and drink at their disposal and in not a few instances the very clothes they wore for their distraught guests. And, when it came to the first mass-burials in temporary graveyards overlooking the breakers of tragedy, a squad of Islay women stayed up till two in the morning, having scoured the island for fabric of the necessary colours and consulted an encyclopaedia for the detail, sewing a flag of the United States so that the lost – most of them very young – could be borne to their rest by its dignity. Meanwhile, several of their men toiled all night long to make coffins.

Particular honour must be paid to the island’s only police sergeant, Malcolm MacNeil, who with his three constables, and without motor-transport or telephone and on both occasions, ‘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 legions of top brass who eventually descended on the scenes of those disasters…’

Wilson is at his best in his set-piece descriptions of both horrors. The Tuscania was a direct casualty of war, torpedoed by UB-77 – under the command of Wilhelm Meyer – on 5th February 1918 as the liner’s convoy entered the fraught ‘North Channel,’ between Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast and the Mull of Oa and where U-boats were wont to lurk. The Otranto, by contrast, was lost by blunder – accidentally rammed by another troopship, the Kashmir, on Sunday 6 October, so close to the Rhinns of Islay that sheep and cattle could be clearly seen grazing ashore – and which the Otranto’s officers, quite disorientated by hurricane conditions, fatefully mistook for the Irish coast while her master was off the bridge.

Though many aboard the Otranto were able to leap to the safety of a doughty destroyer, HMS Mounsey, under the intrepid command of Lieutenant Francis W Craven – almost six hundred men, including future Holywood star Buster Keaton – dozens more were killed in the trying; and, of the six hundred or so still aboard the Otranto when she finally disintegrated on an Islay reef, only seventeen would survive. Such waste of life on account of incompetent navigators is bad enough; but it is hard not to agree with Wilson that many were lost with the Tuscania who might readily have been saved. The blasted ship, after all, somehow stayed afloat for nearly three hours and destroyers were soon on hand to effect rescue.

Furious American officers blamed her British crew, many of whom did not attend their assigned life-boat launching stations and too many of whom cut stays in a panic, tumbling laden boat after laden boat into the sea and leaving their davits thereafter useless. Unfortunately, the mass of evidence supports the American account, though Wilson does rightly point out that by February 1918 the Merchant Navy had been through much and the nerves of many Tuscania crew (not a few of them the survivors of earlier U-Boat sinkings) were shot to ribbons. But, as one survivor noted, no advantage had been taken by the Americans of a day’s lay-over at Halifax, Nova Scotia, to conduct a lifeboat drill, nor had men been given any training in the provisions and equipment of a life-boat, how to ignite distress-flares and so on.

The American Red Cross, at least, learned much from its stumbles in the aftermath of the calamity, greatly improved its British Isles organisation and, as Wilson details, met the needs of Otranto survivors with extraordinary speed and abundant stores of provender, cigarettes and dry clothing. Wilson’s detailed description of each disaster is masterful and at times most raw. ‘The Kashmir’s bow had gouged its way into the sick bay,’ he writes laconically of the damned Otranto, ‘killing many patients outright. US Army doctor Captain Charles Dixon recalled: “One of our soldiers had his right foot mashed clear off at the ankle, and three non-commissioned officers in a state room were killed…”’

Outwith such drama, Wilson’s prose has at times its longueurs. In describing the broader meta-narrative of the Great War, he relies too much on the dated and largely discredited 1930 analysis of Basil Liddell-Hart.The modern scholarship of Gary Sheffield, Gordon Corrigan and Dan Todman in allaying assorted and barnacled First World War myths the author appears not to have read. The Drowned and the Saved seems not to have enjoyed professional edit – certainly, no one is credited for one – and there is some windy repetition and the odd careless mistake. Vera Brittan, in 1918, was not ‘the mother of the politician Baroness Shirley Williams’. On page 4 we are assured that Islay ‘wasn’t connected to mainland electricity until 1965’, but later, on page 76, are then blithely told ‘Islay did not have mains electricity until 1949’.

George Robertson, sometime estimable Scottish Labour politician and a grandson of Sergeant Malcolm MacNeill, could have been vividly interviewed in the body of the book; instead, he has been made to contribute a ponderous foreword, which reads rather, as all such forewords do, like a duke dropping in on his chauffeur’s wedding and is capped by a postscript of all his honours incongruous in this solemn context.

The peer is besides described on the cover as ‘Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen,’ which he is not, and which usage would have Debrett’s in conniptions; and the book’s sub-title, ‘When War came to the Hebrides’ seems a bit off when one remembers the thousands and thousands of islanders who rallied to the colours or the many graves, in Hebridean cemeteries, dedicated only to ‘A Sailor of the Great War – Known Unto God’.

The biggest problem in Wilson’s book is a lack of immediacy. It is not his fault that he came just too late to this story to meet any who could personally remember – as survivors of the sinkings, or residents of Islay – these frightful events. The Great War has, after all, now quite slid from living memory. But there is nothing to root his prose even in our own time, despite chances – such as his encounters with coastguards, RNLI men and other professional witnesses – vividly to do so: all are quoted in past, reported speech, without colour or setting.

The Drowned and the Saved is nevertheless full of heart, and with an eye for tart detail as to the priorities and prejudices of the age it describes. Of the 160 Otranto victims given burial on Islay, only her master and two American officers were afforded coffins. Until very recently, the headstone of one British casualty read – unacceptably – ‘Unknown Negro/SS TUSCANIA/5th February 1918/Known Unto God’. It has since properly been replaced with one making no reference to his race. And we even learn that Lieutenant Craven of the Mounsey – evidently unable, like so many highly-strung heroes, to handle peacetime life on Civvy Street – joined the infamous Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary and was gunned down, in a firefight with the IRA, in 1921.

Islay, of course, had sacrificed many of her own sons to the Great War for Freedom and Honour, and by the Armistice some 203 had paid with their lives. Ongoing grief in the community undoubtedly underpinned their sacrificial compassion for the chilled and sodden survivors of these disasters, as James Jeffers of the American Red Cross would leave on record in the wake of the Otranto foundering and the scant survivors making Islay landfall – ‘Mr MacPhee, though 68 years of age with his wife carried the men up the rough road to the little cottage over a mile away. They accomplished the journey with the men on their backs, and having taken them to the humble cottage did all they could to make our men comfortable, even turning out of their rooms and sleeping ten nights in a barn near their home…’

‘When we got to their cottage,’ one American, David Roberts, gratefully recalled, ‘they gave us dry clothing and put us to bed. It sure was fine, two pairs of woollen blankets. The people there could not have treated us any better.’ Sixty years later, in 1978, Mr Roberts made his last visit to Islay and – as well as paying his respects to the tall American Monument, high on the Mull of Oa – spent some silent minutes at the spot where he had come gasping ashore, and then more by the grave of his Hebridean hosts.

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