On 5 February the United States troopship ‘Tuscania’ was torpedoed by a German U-boat while sailing in convoy through the North Channel, between the north-east tip of Ireland and the Isle of Islay. She was carrying about 2,000 American troops as part of the build-up of forces on the Western Front to increase the Allies’ strength.
The evidence of the Statutory Register of Deaths and the Registrar General’s correspondence in National Records of Scotland adds to the story of this disaster.
Although most of the soldiers were rescued by British escort vessels as the ship sank, about 200 American soldiers died. Of those who attempted to reach Islay, some died on the rugged coastline of the Oa peninsula, but about 130 men landed safely, and were found and cared for by the islanders. The bodies of many of their dead comrades were washed ashore at several places, and gradually gathered in the Drill Hall at Port Ellen for identification.
Bodies found washed up on Scottish island beaches were a fairly common occurrence, particularly during the war years. However, the unprecedented number of dead on Islay put a huge strain on the few policemen, the Procurator Fiscal, and on the islanders close to the scene. It also prompted Donald McLachlan, the schoolmaster who was the local registrar for Kildalton and Oa, to request the advice of the Registrar General in Edinburgh on 7 February. Should he register the deaths of the American soldiers?
He and the other two Islay registrars received a reply by telegram on Saturday morning, 9 February:
‘Tuscania. No registration to be made in Books of your Registration District. Letter follows. You may aid Procurator Fiscal if desired by taking notes of particulars. Supply of Forms Particulars of deaths being forwarded.’
(NRS, General Register Office out-letter book, 1918, GRO1/545, pp.645-6)
On Monday 11 February 1918 the Secretary of the General Register Office wrote more fully to McLachlan, who lived at Port Ellen, and to the registrars of Kilchoman at Port Charlotte and Portnahaven at Bridgend:
‘I am directed by the Registrar General to inform you that … the deaths at sea of members of the American Expeditionary Force of Crew of the vessel caused through the unfortunate torpedoing of the U.S. Transport TUSCANIA do not fall to be registered in the Register Books of your Parish, notwithstanding the bodies may have been washed ashore on the coast of your District or brought ashore therein. Should any deaths however, have occurred amongst any of the survivors who may have been landed in your Parish such deaths would be subject of registration in the usual manner in your Register.’
(NRS, GRO1/545, p.665)
This explains why in the Register of Deaths for Kildalton and Oa only three American soldiers are recorded. Two of them were rescued and taken in at Killeyan farm, and later died there of ‘exposure and shock’. Private Stanley L Collins died on 7 February 1918, and Private F T Benefiel on 14 February 1918. The farmer at Upper Killeyan, Robert Morrison, saved the lives of three survivors he found on the rocky shore, and his two sisters fed and cared for as many as 80 to 90 survivors at the farm. Morrison was awarded the OBE for his services.
An unidentified third soldier was taken to the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen, where he died on 8 February.
Survivors who had been immersed in cold water could succumb to the effects of changing body temperature. The bare details of their deaths were recorded on 29 March, on the information of the Procurator Fiscal. No information about their age or parentage was recorded. Although the soldiers from the ‘Tuscania’ were buried on Islay, the bodies of all except one were later exhumed and returned to America for re-burial.
An even greater tragedy occurred on 6 October 1918, when another troopship, the ‘Otranto’, collided with an escorting warship, with the loss of 400 soldiers. The lives lost in these catastrophes are commemorated by a memorial on the Oa headland.
Head of Outreach
National Records of Scotland