On February 5, 1918, German submarine UB-77 sank a British troopship, SS Tuscania, between Rathlin Island and Islay. More than 200 men died – most of them young American ‘doughboys’ on their way to the trenches of World War One.
But one of these lost ‘Americans’ was actually a Buteman who had emigrated to the USA and had got caught up in the war in 1917, just after American joined the Allied cause against the Kaiser’s Germany.
The story of how Bute’s Alexander McAlister became a soldier and victim of a U-boat was discovered by writer and documentary film-maker, Les Wilson from Port Charlotte, while researching a book about the sinking, The Drowned and the Saved, and a documentary for BBC ALBA.
“I discovered from the US records that there were two Scots-born doughboys lost on the Tuscania, and had their names,’” said Les.
“I knew that one of them, John Sloss came from Kilwinning, but I had no idea where Alexander McAlister came from. I had been sharing information with an American researcher and one day, out of the blue, she e-mailed me as my wife was driving us to Wemyss Bay to catch the Rothesay ferry where we were travelling to attend a dinner. She said McAlister came from Bute, where he died in hospital and is buried. I was flabbergasted.”
Les discovered that Alexander McAlister was from a large family that farmed at Meikle Kilmory, and that Alexander had emigrated to America, where he was employed as a horseman in a college which is now part of the American University in Washington DC.
The 27-year- old Scot was one of 2000 soldiers who clambered onto the Tuscania in New York Harbour on January 24, 1918. The Tuscania was part of the 12-vessel convoy bound for Liverpool. Relatively safe in the wide Atlantic, the ‘danger zone’ for convoys was the entrance to the North Channel, between Ireland and the coast of Scotland. This was the U-boats’ hunting ground.
Les said: “Shortly after sunrise on February 5 , Kapitan Wilhelm Meyer of UB-77 spotted the convoy through his periscope. After a lengthy game of cat and mouse Meyer fired two torpedoes. The Tuscania was hit and quickly began to sink. While most of the crew and the soldiers were rescued more than 200 men were lost when their lifeboats were driven onto the cliffs of Islay’s Oa peninsula in the dark.
“Alexander was rescued, and taken to hospital, probably in Belfast. He was later transferred to hospital in Rothesay where he died on February 26 , probably of pneumonia.”
The morning after Les and his wife arrived in Rothesay, having been informed of Alexander’s birthplace, they decided to comb the graveyard beside the Ladykirk chapel for his headstone.
“The council offices were closed, so there was nobody to tell us where Alexander’s grave might be,” said Les.
“My wife Jenni and I searched different areas, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Then Jenni fell into conversation with a local man walking his dog. Hearing that she was interested in history, he pointed out the famous grave of Napoleon’s niece. It turned out that the McAlister family grave lies right beside it. It was another amazing coincidence.”
The McAlister gravestone was erected by Alexander’s remarkable mother, Mary McKay, who, after the loss of her husband James McAlister who drowned in 1917, raised her family large family – along with prizewinning Ayrshire cattle and Clydesdale horses. As well as having given birth to seven sons and four daughters, Mary still had the energy and drive to become the first and president of the Bute Agricultural Society in 1922.
The sinking of the Tuscania was the first major loss of life for the American forces in World War One, and galvanised US public opinion, causing a ‘spike’ in recruiting numbers. Eight months later, a second troopship, the Otranto, was wreck off lslay in a Force 11 gale, with the loss of nearly 500 more lives.
The Drowned and the Saved, Les Wilson’s book about the sinking of the Tuscania, and of the Otranto, is published by Birlinn on January 29. His documentary for BBC ALBA will be aired in May. Les added: “It became a bit of an obsession. It’s just a fascinating story. I got reports from newspapers from 100 years ago which I have interwoven into the book. The newspaper accounts give a great insight into what went on.
“I enjoyed writing the book. It’s a fascinating story, which I have tried to tell from a human perspective. It was pretty exciting and good fun.”
And this isn’t the first piece of Bute history Les has explored, having made last year’s documentary, The Richest Man in Victoria’s Empire, about the third Marquess of Bute.