Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Transporting the AEF: How Many Were Lost?

You may occasionally read that not a single member of the two-million-man AEF was lost in transit to Europe. Alas, although the record of the convoying system was excellent, it was not quite perfect.  Here are some details.

Temporary cemetery in Islay, Scotland, with the interments of those who died
in the sinking of the SS Tuscania.
(National Archives)

On 5 February 1918 the troopship SS Tuscania was close to the end of her two-week voyage from Hoboken, NJ, when disaster struck off the coast of Scotland. Near the island of Islay, the ship — with more than 2,000 on board — was torpedoed by a U-boat and sank in less than four hours. While most of the passengers were saved, over 200 American soldiers lost their lives.

On 29 May 1918, USS President Lincoln left Brest, France, bound for the United States along with three other troopships. Two days later she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-90. The President Lincoln sank soon afterward. Most of the passengers and crew were saved, but 26 went down with the ship.

Survivors of USS President Lincoln in lifeboats off the coast of Brest, France, 1918. (National Archives)

On 26 September 1918, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tampa was part of a convoy from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom. Under orders to break off from the convoy, the Tampa proceeded independently toward Milford Haven, Wales, when it encountered a German submarine in the Bristol Channel. The U-boat fired a torpedo, sinking the Tampa off the Welsh coast. The vessel sank with all hands, including 115 officers and men, and 16 passengers.

Troopships also faced dangers from accidents. On 6 October 1918, while leading a convoy, HMS Otranto — a Royal Navy vessel serving as a troopship for American soldiers — was accidentally rammed by another vessel in rough seas near Islay. Severely damaged, the Otranto drifted for a short time before it smashed into the rocky coastline and sank. Many of those on board were saved, but over 460 perished in the disaster, including more than 350 Americans.

Source: American Battle Monuments Commission


  1. In addition to naval warfare, many soldiers died aboard ship on their way to Europe in the fall of 1918 from the influenza pandemic. Crowded shipboard conditions helped spread the disease.

    1. In addition to threats of being torpedoed by German U Boats and accidents, the battle with the 1918 flu pandemic on WW I troop transports and ships of the line challenged American sailors in WW I.

      In WW I, four hundred and thirty-one (431) sailors and coast guardsmen were killed in combat (roughly 5.9% of casualties), 2,698 due to accidents, suicide and other diseases (37%) and 4,158 died of the influenza pandemic in the fall of 1918 (57%), see: .

      The Naval History and Heritage Command website on the Spanish Influenza Pandemic, in an article “Account of the 1918 Influenza by Vice Admiral Albert Gleaves, Commander, Convoy Operations in the Atlantic, 1917-1919” reports (see: ): “The Spanish Influenza Epidemic taxed the resources of the transport medical departments to the utmost. Although every effort was made to eliminate sick troops at the gangway, it was inevitable that large numbers of incipient cases were taken on board, and naturally the crowded berthing spaces favored contagion.

      Computation of final tabulations from all ships show that 8.8 per cent of troops transported during the epidemic became ill, and of those who had either influenza or pneumonia, 5.9 per cent died. This gives an average Army death rate for the individual trips of 5.7 per cent per thousand. Navy morbidity rate was 8.9 per cent, and Navy death rate 1.7 per cent.

      During this scourge in transports and cruisers there was a total of 789 deaths, and necessity required that many of the Khaki and the Blue be buried at sea."

      The Naval History and Heritage Command article “Influenza of 1918 (The Spanish Flu) in the Navy” reports 121,225 Navy and Marines were treated for influenza at sea and shore and 4,158 died (see: ).

      The grim story of the mass casualties to sea service personnel in the fall of 1918 can be seen in the casualty listing from September –November 1918 as to cause of death of all causes at height of influenza pandemic (see: ).

      Losses of all our servicemen, whether by combat, accident or disease is regrettable in war and worthy of remembrance.

      The dangers associated with crossing the Atlantic Ocean, noted in this article, was daunting: If the U boats didn’t get you in 1918, the risk of soldiers and sailors dying of the deadly infectious influenza pandemic of 1918 on a troopship packed with troops was equally dangerous and daunting.

  2. There is a monument commemorating the loss in 1918 of the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto. This is located on a high ridge on the south coast of the Oa, a rocky peninsula to the southwest of Islay, Argyll, Scotland. The monument, designed by architect Robert Walker, is ~20 m tall solid granite tower in the shape of a lighthouse. It was erected in the 1920s, reportedly by the American Red Cross, directly above where the SS Tuscania was lost.More setails on the monument can be found at A web search using “Islay American Monument” will lead to number of image of the location. Given its exceedingly beautiful (if images are to be believed) but distant location, one has to wonder how many Americans now visit this site.

    1. Quite a few. Islay is quite popular with American tourists, for the whisky, ancestry research and history. Many of them also walk out to the monument as well as visit the military cemetery at Kilchoman, another place associated with the sinking of the Otranto.

  3. The U-boat war of WW I was quite as deadly for troopers as regular cargo ships and escorts

  4. There are 21 American soldiers from the 1stWW who are buried in different cemeteries here in the UK. List available
    I had a few published in the TripWire magazine by the editor Mr Mike Hanlon

  5. The term Spanish Flu should not be used. American or Kansas Flu might be better but the exact origination point is unclear. Walt Kearney

  6. My grandfather made the following note in his diary: "Took USS Great Northern for France Sept 26 [1918]. While enroute to France struck by tramp steamer on Oct 2 at 2:20 AM. 3 men of Company killed and 4 seriously injured. Arrive Brest France on Oct 4. Went ashore 5 [Oct]." He was in the 7th Heavy Mobile Ordnance Repair Shop, a company-sized unit of 166 men.

    I remember that my grandmother had (in the 1950's) several 8x10 photos of the extensive damage to the ships from this collision, but they are not among the items that were in my mother's collection when she died, so I regretfully do not have them.

    I assume that the 7th HMORS was not the only unit that suffered casualties in this collision. I will check the source cited in David Thompson's post above to see if I can find any further detail on this accident.

    1. Pictures of collusion can be found in 1919 account of Great Northern between pages 62 and 63:

    2. To "Anonymous" ... I was slow to catch your post, but THANK YOU ... this is great information.