October 16 – Roll of Honour

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Edwin Edmonds from Belfast perished in HMS Otranto on this date in 1918. Hundreds of men including US army personnel died when in a storm the troopship was rammed by another ship off Islay. Photo above – Funeral on Islay of 199 American soldiers from Otranto.

The Otranto was part of a convoy carrying US soldiers to war when it encountered the storm off Islay’s Atlantic coastline.

As they approached the west coast of Scotland in near hurricane conditions, it was accidentally rammed by another ship in the convoy.

The HMS Kashmir ripped the Otranto’s steel hull wide open.

But the Kashmir and the rest of the convoy sailed on, under orders not to give assistance for fear of U-boat attack.

Despite the weather, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Mounsey came to the rescue under the command of Lieutenant Francis Craven.

Around 600 men were rescued but the hundreds of soldiers and crew who remained on board the ship were not so lucky – it was thrown on to a reef and smashed to pieces. Most of the bodies were recovered from the sea and laid to rest by islanders. Almost 500 people are thought to have died in the disaster.

At a 2018 commemoration former Nato Secretary General Lord Robertson, whose grandfather Malcolm MacNeill was a police officer on the island in 1918, led the tributes.

He praised the “heroism” and “raw courage” of local people who responded to the disaster – nursing survivors and burying the dead.

“In the comfortable lives we lead today, how can we possibly begin to imagine what the Otranto disaster meant to this island?” he said.

The Otranto tragedy came after the SS Tuscania, carrying 2,500 US soldiers and British crew, was sunk by torpedo off Isaly’s coast in February 1918.

Lord Robertson compared the impact on the island community of the first sinking to that felt by residents of Lockerbie after the downing of Pan Am 103 – but then they were hit by a second catastrophe.

He said: “The dramatic shock of the event, made so much worse by the miserable fact that it was happening for the second time in only eight months, must have been both sobering and sickening.

“What we can do though is to remember and commemorate and honour those who died in our service, those who were saved and their descendants alive today because of it, and of course those remarkable folk from our strong, resilient, generous and spirited Islay who did so much for so many a hundred years ago from today.”

Searching in the wreckage for bodies of victims of the US troopship Otranto
Sandy MacTaggart’s uncles helped recover the dead when the Otranto went down.

“It was a terrible disaster, that was all they could say, there was nothing they could do,” he said.

“They just helped when the bodies came in on the shore. It was a grim job.”

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Funeral of the victims of the Otranto at Kilchoman on Islay

Lord Robertson’s grandfather was head of the local police force at the time of the tragedy
As a police officer, Lord Robertson’s grandfather had to report what happened and attempt to identify the drowned men. His descriptions filled 81 pages in his notebook.

Speaking before the ceremony, Lord Robertson said: “When they were finally buried, it fell to my grandfather to correspond with the families in the United States who were desperate to know more about the fate of their loved ones.

“They wrote with information which they hoped could be used to identify the bodies of their sons, husbands or brothers, and in an extraordinary example of compassionate public service, my grandfather replied to each letter, providing what information he could.”

Jenni Minto, Chair of WW100 Islay, said: “One hundred years ago the people of Islay were faced with the horrors of war arriving on their shores for the second time that year.

“Again they worked with compassion and humanity to ensure those who survived the Otranto tragedy were cared for as though they were their own, and those who sadly died were buried with dignity and respect. Today we paid tribute to those selfless acts and remember those who were lost.”

Representing their comrades who died on this day

1916

+BAIRD, James Cameron
Royal Irish Rifles, 12th Btn. Rifleman. 17224. Died 16/10/1916. Born Larne. Son of Mrs. Baird, of 27, Cleines St., Ayr. A Plus Douvre Farm Cemetery, Hainaut, Belgium

1918

+EDMONDS, Edwin
RN. AB. SS/3266. HMS Otranto. Died 06/10/1918. Age 27. Drowned through collision and wreck of vessel off Isle of Islay. Born 30/06/1891 Ballywalton, County Down. Son of William Edmonds, Roden St., Belfast. Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 28. Family Memorial Dundonald Cemetery. IMR. ADM 188/1097/3266

+McCANN, Edward
12 Btn. RIR. Rifleman. 18202. Died 16/10/1918. Aged 21. Enlisted at Lisburn, and served in A Company 11 RIR with whom he embarked for France from Bordon in October 1915. Wounded on the Somme on the 01/07/1916 and later transferred to 12 RIR. Born in Lisburn. Son of David and Maggie McCann of 5 Laganside Terrace, Old Hillsborough Road, Lisburn. Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium, panels 138-140

+McHUGH, Hugh
USA Army. Private. Died 16/10/1918. He served in France. His father, Mr. Patrick McHugh, lived at Blacklion, County Cavan, and his brother, Mr. John McHugh, Enfield Terrace, Portstewart, was teacher-in-charge of the National (Roman Catholic) School, Portstewart.

+USHER, George
Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 2nd Btn. Private. 31184. Died 16/10/1918. Age 20. Born on 22/04/1899 in Cookstown. Youngest son of James and Margaret Usher. George worked at Gunning’s Factory in Millburn. He enlisted in Omagh. Duhallow ADS Cemetery, Ypres, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. Gunnings Factory WM at Cookstown RBL

1947

+CORR, JAMES
Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers . Private. 6985080. Died 16/10/1947. Aged 24. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers Upper Clonaneese Presbyterian Churchyard, Co. Tyrone. Dungannn WM

VETERAN

BOYD, Edwin James Alexander
RN. Seaman. J92230. Enrolled 22/08/1918 for hostilities. Vivid I. Demobbed 16/10/1918. Born Belfast 03/10/1899. ADM 188/831/92230

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Acknowledgments – BBC News, US National Archives, CWGC

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