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 Orkney’s War

The most common cause of death of the Orcadian sailors who died during the Great War was explosion of a mine. The Germans laid 25,000 mines in the North Sea and around the British Isles, a total of 43,000 mines at sea, while the Allies also laid extensive minefields. Other Orcadian sailors died in U-boat attacks, in accidents (notably drowning) at sea and in port, or from illness during difficult and dangerous service.

41 of the Orcadian sailors died serving in the Royal Navy, most in the reserve branches. 47 Orcadian sailors died serving in the Mercantile Marine, including 17 who died when the local boats Express and Ruby were sunk with the loss of all hands, and one in the Royal Indian Marine. Six Orcadians died sailing as fishermen, including five killed when the Olive exploded a mine in July 1919.

A total of 17 are not commemorated on any Orkney war memorial. Some had moved to live outside Orkney, notably in Leith, and their death may not have been known in the islands, but others were knowingly excluded because the parish or island did not recognise merchant seamen as war dead. William Budge of South Ronaldsay is the only Orcadian crewman of SS Express who is not commemorated in the islands. Seaman Henry Stevenson of the schooner Janet is commemorated on Westray, but its Captain, Alexander Sinclair of South Ronaldsay, and Mate, James Guthrie of Burray, also Seaman James Burghes of Papa Stronsay, are not commemorated locally. After the local fishing boat Olive exploded a wartime mine in July 1919, David Flett’s name was commemorated on the Firth War Memorial, but William Muir of South Ronaldsay, Peter Chalmers, William Leslie and William Williamson of Stronsay, who also died in the explosion, are not commemorated on their local war memorial (nor is Andrew Wilson from Fair Isle, also in Olive’s crew).

Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery was begun in 1915 when Scapa Flow was the base of the Grand Fleet. There are 445 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, 109 of which are unidentified. The majority of the graves are of officers, ratings, and members of the land forces lost from HMS Hampshire, Vanguard, Narborough and Opal. The cemetery also contains the graves of 14 sailors of the German Navy.


Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery.

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