What’s the story?
A truly harrowing account, Wilson’s book sheds light on the untold Hebridean war experience, writes Stacey Wylie. The Drowned and the Saved pays homage to the victims and survivors of two tragic incidents: the sinking of American troop ship Tuscania by a German U-Boat, and the collision of another troop ship with the merchant cruiser Otranto. The combined death count was over 800. Wilson also recognises the traumatic impact on the islanders of Islay who helped rescue survivors, recover victims and bury the dead. Contributing to a new tradition of war accounts, Wilson’s book tells a tale different to the mainstream frontline recollections we are used to and emphasises the war fought at home.
Despite being a historical, arguably heavy-going book, Wilson’s writing has you hooked. Taking time in the first few chapters to consider the First World War, particularly the naval experience, The Drowned and the Saved is by no means a difficult or intimidating read. Wilson strikes a perfect balance between this knowledge and his main aim of reporting on the horrors that occurred on Islay’s shores. Throughout, Wilson quotes Celtic poetry reminiscent of the heart-rending times of war, making his book emanate with true respect for the Hebridean war devastation.
The Drowned and the Saved would appeal to anybody. What makes this book so excellent is its balance of information. WWI experts would be adding a niche part of history to their repertoire, but those less familiar with the war are eased into the text by Wilson’s unintimidating contextualisation. As we approach 100 years since the sinking of Tuscania and Otranto, The Drowned and the Saved would make an excellent gift and read for any history, war or Hebrides enthusiast.
An easy read that genuinely piques your curiosity, The Drowned and the Saved informs on an important, forgotten part of history. An emotional tale which vitally reminds you of the devastation faced by past generations, Wilson’s book still manages to be an enjoyable, fulfilling read.
The Drowned and the Saved: When War Came to the Hebrides, by Les Wilson, Birlinn, £12.99.
Scottish Field rating: *****