Updated: Jun 7, 2019
One hundred years ago this month, on 16 January 1919 to be precise, a small low-key ceremony took place in Belfast City Cemetery. On that day, Lieutenant James Jeffres of the American Red Cross led a small party of individuals to decorate the graves of twenty-one American soldiers with wooden pegs containing the soldiers’ individual details. The wooden pegs were also fixed with a miniature union flag and the stars and stripes of America. On each grave the daughters of Lieutenant Jeffres placed a flower before laying a laurel wreath on the soldiers’ burial ground. But how did these American soldiers come to be buried in Belfast, so far from home?
On Sunday 6 October 1918 the HMS auxiliary cruiser Otranto, in convoy from the USA was damaged in a collision with a freighter named Kashmir. The convoy entered atrocious weather conditions off the coast of Scotland with waves so high that it hampered steering and gales so strong that the Kashmir was allegedly blown out of the water and into the collision. The Otranto, ironically built by Belfast’s Workman & Clark, was the flagship of the convoy and was carrying over a thousand American servicemen on board. Some of the men were rescued by other ships in the convoy, including almost 600 who were landed safely on the northern Irish shore. Unfortunately, the Otranto sank around twelve hours later off the coast of the Scottish island of Islay. Due to the adverse weather conditions it was impossible to deploy the lifeboats and consequently 335 soldiers, 11 officers and 85 crew were lost in this incident. The remains of some of these men were brought to Belfast for burial.
News of the Otranto disaster struck a chord with the people of Belfast and prompt measures were taken to organise a relief party for the survivors. Amongst those in the relief party who left the city by motor car were J. F. Cleaver of Robinson & Cleaver, Fred Gardiner a well-known Irish rugby international, and several doctors in possession of medical supplies. They had hoped that there would be about 200 survivors at Islay, and sufficient supplies were carried to accommodate that number, but they were disappointed to discover on arrival that only around 20 men had landed alive on the island.
Many of the survivors were subsequently brought to Ulster for further medical attention, whilst some of the dead were buried in Belfast. An initial cortege of 12 coffins belonging to the United States Army passed through the streets of Belfast which were lined by thousands of people who paid silent homage to the dead. The body of Acting Sergeant Keller, as the most senior rank amongst the victims, was conveyed on a gun carriage; the remains of the other victims were carried behind in lorries. In attendance at the interment were Brigadier General Hackett-Pain representing the local military authority, the Lord Mayor of Belfast Sir James Johnston, and West Belfast’s Nationalist MP Joe Devlin. Detachments of the Hampshire Regiment and the Northumberland Fusiliers were also in attendance; the bands of these two regiments played appropriate music as the cortege made its way along the Falls Road to the City Cemetery past businesses which had displayed the American flag.
In total, 21 American soldiers from the Otranto were buried in Belfast City Cemetery. They have all since been exhumed in the 1920s and were relocated to, in some cases the USA, and in other cases Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. A further 3 Catholic French soldiers who were also lost in the Otranto disaster are buried in Milltown Cemetery.
To mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, historian and guide Jason Burke will be leading a Battle of the Somme Historical Walking Tour on Sunday 30th June @ 2pm. To book a place on the tour please CLICK HERE