AS the great allied advance of 1918, now known as the ‘100 days’, continued to force back the German armies on the Western Front, the casualty rate amongst the British and Commonwealth forces was amongst the highest of the entire war.
On land and at sea the losses were all the more cruel as the end of the war approached, but at the time few if any had an idea just when the slaughter might finally come to and end.
At sea the dangers of the oceans and sheer errors of judgement could lead to terrible loss of life.
In October 1918 the armed merchant cruiser ss Otranto, pictured, was in convoy from the United States with 667 US soldiers bound for France.
Unfortunately many were never to see land again, or experience the horrors of war.
Off the west coast of Scotland on October 6, the master of the Otranto took a fateful decision based on a misapprehension of exactly what the land in sight was.
The P&O liner Kashmir, also in the convoy, had correctly identified the land mass as the island of Islay and took appropriate action – the Otranto, unfortunately, was steered to starboard as the Kashmir turned to port.
In heavy seas the two vessels collided with terrible loss of life on the Otranto.
As the ship grounded less than half a mile from shore and in danger of breaking up, torpedo boat destroyer HMS Mounsey came alongside.
As the two ships were tossed about on the heavy seas, with the Otranto towering over the much smaller Mounsey, the crew and soldiers were forced to leap for their lives onto the deck of the little ship.
Seriously overloaded she made for Belfast, in total taking 596 men to safety in three separate rescues from the stricken ship.
When the Mounsey, seriously damaged in the rescues, could not make any further attempts, Captain Davidson of the Otranto ordered the remainder to abandon ship.
Only 16 made it to shore and 431 men were lost, including two crew members from Tynemouth serving in the Mercantile Marine Reserve who had been enlisted into service on the vessel – see casualty list.
Three hundred US soldiers were lost. Seventy-five of the victims remain buried in a special ground in Machir Bay, overlooking the disaster scene.
The bodies of identified US servicemen were returned after the war for re-interment in the United States.
The two local men have no known grave and are remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
The master of the Mounsey, Lieutenant Francis Worthington, was awarded the DSO for ‘magnificent courage and seamanship’ in the course of the rescue, his fellow officers, Lieutenant Raymond Benson Stewart and Sub-Lieutenant Wilfrid Edmund Warner, were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Stewart ended the war in the rank of Lieutenant Commander and retired, but falling on hard times he joined the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve (the notorious Black and Tans) during the time of the civil war, in the newly emerging Irish Free State.
Despite cheating death as the officer who boarded the Otranto to supervise the rescues on three occasions, his fate was to be shot and killed in an ambush at Clonfin in 1921.
In another twist of fate, it may be that the course of the infant US movie industry would have been somewhat different if one of the ‘Doughboys’ – as the US recruits were known in the States – who had sailed to Europe on the previous voyage of the Otranto had been on board on her fateful final voyage.
Then perhaps Buster Keaton might not have survived to play a leading role in the American comedy motion pictures of the Twenties and Thirties.
Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project volunteer Malcolm Dunn has assembled a large amount of information about this incident, which can viewed in the Project Workroom.
It will eventually be included in the digital archive and feature in a future exhibition of materials related to local men lost in the conflict.
To find out more about the project call into the Project Workroom on weekdays from 10am to 4pm – Room B9, Linskill Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields.
THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men who were killed or died in the month of October 1918.
Anderson, Albert, age 18, Private, 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, DOW, 8th, 20 East Stephenson Street, son of Mary E and the late Charles, buried Preston Cemetery.
Baker, Isaac Oliver, age 29, Battery Sergeant Major, 228th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, DOW, Etaples Base Hospital, 21st, son of Henry and Emily S Baker, of School House, East Percy Street.
Clark, Joseph B W AB, RNVR, RND Hood Battalion, died, 25th, in Germany (POW), 18 Sibthorpe Street, buried Cologne South Cemetery.
Dickinson, John, Private, 6th Stationary Hospital, RAMC, died, 29th, 3 Livingstone View, Tynemouth.
Downey, Emmanuel, age 27, Private, 10th Battalion NF, KIA 27th, 14 Hudson Street, son of the late William and Elizabeth, buried Tezze British Cemetery, Italy.
Horn, Arthur C, 2nd Hand, RNVR, HM Trawler William Spencer, died of illness, Archangel, North Russia, 10th, 3 East Stephenson Street, buried Archangel Allied Cemetery.
Morton, Andrew, age 20, Private, 2nd Battalion DLI, KIA, 17th, 25½ Hudson Street, son of the late Robert and Mary.
Myers, Richard, Stanley, age 20, Private, HQ 20th Battalion Canadian Infantry, Central Ontario Regiment, KIA, 11th, 50 Church Way, son of the late Joseph and Elizabeth, of 28 Appleby Street.
Porter, Henry D, MM Private, 9th Battalion NF, KIA, 24th 41 Bird Street, details needed.
Spence, Cuthbert Kemys, Private, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, DOW, 9th, 17 Alma Place, buried Brookwood Military cemetery – the largest CWGC Cemetery and Memorial in the UK. Includes those who died of wounds or illness in the
Tully, Abraham, AB, RNVR, Hood Battalion, RND, KIA, 6th, 62 Addison Street.
The following were lost in the wreck of the ss Otranto, armed merchant cruiser – troop ship, October 6. (See article).
Robertson, Robert McCoull, age 25, junior engineer, Mercantile Marine Reserve, son of late O J and A Robertson, husband of Catharine, 30 Front Street Cullercoats.
Tulley, Thomas Davis, age 21 assistant steward, Mercantile Marine Reserve, son of late J R and Man Tully.
KIA – killed in action
DOW – died of wounds
LAS – lost at sea
NF – Northumberland Fusiliers
DLI – Durham Light Infantry
RND – Royal Naval Division
RNR – Royal Naval Reserve
RFA – Royal Field Artillery
n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit www.tynemouthworldwarone.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.