Islay Remembered Otranto Soldiers at Christmas Time

Just a few short weeks after the tragic sinking of the HMS Otranto, Christmas of 1918 arrived.

The troopship H.M.S. Otranto had departed New York on September 24, 1918 on what was to be her final, tragic voyage. Among the many Georgia soldiers on board were a contingent of Berrien County men   including Ralph Knight and Shellie Webb, of Ray City, GA; James Marvin  DeLoach who had many Ray City connections; James Grady Wright of Adel, GA; Early Steward of Nashville, GA, and other men of Berrien County.

The Otranto, a converted British auxiliary cruiser, doing duty as transport, was the flagship of a convoy bringing American troops to England. On this voyage she carried a detachment of 694 officers and men, most of them from the training camp at Fort Scriven, near Savannah, Georgia; a crew of approximately 400 and also thirty sailors picked up from the boats of a French bark she had cut down in mid-ocean.

The destination of the convoy was Liverpool, and to reach it by what was considered the least dangerous path, once the vessels were in English waters, the course lay through the North Channel, a narrow, well patrolled passage between Scotland and Ireland.

But it was fated the Otranto should never make it. When at 9 o’clock on the morning of October 9, the squadron of troopships was almost at the Channel entrance and fairly in sight of the northern Irish Coast, a ninety-mile gale came racing out of the west and overwhelmed it. Under the terrific impact of the wind and the sea, the vessels staggered toward the opening, striving with every ounce of steam to gain it and the calmer waters which lay beyond. And all would have passed through in safety if a great wave had not disabled the steering gear of the Kashmir, one of the convoy.

In an instant she was out of control, and a little later the sea lifted her and flung her, bow on, into the Otranto’s side.

The ponderous blow, delivered directly amidships, cut a wide gash in the cruiser from port rail to waterline, …

Through heroic effort, the British destroyer HMS Mounsey was able to come along side and take aboard some 600 men from the decks of the mortally wounded Otranto. Dangerously overburdened with her human cargo, The Mounsey made quickly for the port at Belfast, Ireland. With her signal equipment damaged in the daring ship-to-ship rescue, no word of the disaster could be sent ahead to the authorities at Belfast.

Thus it was that the Mounsey brought in the first news of the disaster and its token in the wretched men crowded upon her decks. And only a few leagues away to the North, their own great ship, the troop-transport Otranto, with nearly five hundred of their comrades left helpless aboard her, had been beaten to pieces on a reef of the Scottish Coast.


The survivors, several of them badly injured, and one, a sailor of the Otranto, so hurt that he died a few minutes after rescue, had been dashed upon the rocks beneath Kilchoman, a tiny cliff hamlet on the wildest part of Islay’s western coast. There the neighboring shepherds and the farmer-folk, clustered on the headland to watch the transport’s slow destruction, had gone bravely into the crashing surf and dragged the men to safety.


It is quite impossible to say too much of the humanity of all these peasant people, of their readiness to accept any hardship in the name of mercy, of the gentle, steadfast nursing they gave the soldiers, virtually bringing them back to life.

Lt. James Jeffres of the Red Cross, who was active in the rescue work on Islay after both the Tuscania and Otranto disasters, returned to Kilchoman on Christmas Day, 1918 to honor the American dead and to thank the people of Islay.  In the sinking of the Otranto, no county suffered a greater loss of young men than Berrien county, GA.  (see HMS Otranto Sank Ninety-four Years Ago).

Lieutenant Jeffres, of the Red Cross, with McIntyre and McPhee.

Lieutenant Jeffres, of the Red Cross, with McIntyre and McPhee.

At Christmas, the Red Cross and  Islay islanders took time to place flags and flowers on the graves of the American soldiers who lost their lives off the coast of the Scottish isle.

Graves of Otranto men at Kilchoman, Islay

Graves of Otranto men at Kilchoman, Islay

Thomasville Times Enterprise
Feb  6, 1919

Scotch Islanders Remembered Soldiers At Christmas Time

      Kilchoman, Island of Islay, Dec. 25.  -(By Mail).- This lonely little wind-swept island off the west coast of Scotland, scarcely more than  a dot in the North Atlantic, today observed Christmas for the first time since its young men went off to war more than four years ago.  And in the observance, it did not forget to place flags and flowers on the graves of the American soldiers who lost their lives when the transport Tuscania was torpedoed early in 1917 and the transport Otranto went down after a collision last October.
       The island people did not expect much of a Christmas, but Santa Clause went to them through the “Flying Squadron” of the American Red Cross in London, and his personal representative was Lieutenant James Jeffres, a New York businessman who lives at Summit, N. J.  The Christmas party brought to Islay half a dozen big packing cases.  There were candy and toys for the children, pipes and tobacco for the old men, cigarettes for the soldier ones who were home for the holidays , and comfortable things for the women.  Pajamas, night shirts, underwear and bed linen found their way into the boxes.  Besides, there were bundles of American and British silk flags to decorate the soldier graves and a plentiful supply for Memorial Day next May.  The distribution of gifts was made from the schools on the island.
      Little Maggie McPhee, scarce 16, saw a soldier struggling in the water, and dashing into the surf, pulled him ashore unmindful of the fact that she wore her best Sunday dress and that her heroism reduced it to a shapeless ruin.  Lieutenant Jeffres learned of her plight, and today she was given a wonderful creation of green which had been selected with the utmost care by the women of the Red Cross.
 Two dozen American safety razors with blades enough to last a year or two for each razor were given to the constabulary, who helped the stricken Americans.  The pipes and tobacco, they were for the old men who brought all their knowledge of the sea into the work of rescue.  The candy and toys were for the children who, forming in procession, placed the flowers and flags on the soldiers’ graves, and who, because of their admiration for the Americans, may be trusted, Lieutenant Jeffres felt, to carry out the same mission on next Memorial Day.

Thomasville Times Enterprise, Feb 6, 1919

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