Primary History

British History: Iolaire disaster

  • The Iolaire bell

    The bell shown in the picture was recovered from the bottom of the sea off the island of Lewis in 1971. It belonged to a ship called the HMS Iolaire that sank in 1919.

    The bell and the engine plate from the ship were presented to the Stornoway Town Council since the shipwreck meant so much to the people of the island.

    But what happened to the Iolaire?

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  • The shipwreck

    World War One had ended in November 1918 after four years of fighting.

    On 31st December 1918 hundreds of Scottish soldiers from the Western Isles of Scotland crowded on to the Iolaire to go home in time for Hogmanay.

    The weather was very bad and in the early hours of the 1st January 1919 the boat lost track of where it was as it approached Stornoway harbour. Just metres away from home the boat struck some rocks.

    Many soldiers jumped overboard and tried to swim home but the seas were so rough that they drowned instantly.

    Only 79 survived. 205 men lost their lives. Over 170 of them came from the island of Lewis. The disaster shocked the entire island - just about every family knew someone who had died on the Iolaire. It was one of the worst sea disasters Britain had ever experienced.

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  • How World War One Started

    In the years before the war countries like Britain, France and Germany competed with each other to have the biggest empires and the most money, power and influence. By 1914 a war looked certain to happen. All it took was a murder.

    On the 28th June 1914 the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was murdered on a trip to Serbia. As a result the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia.

    Most nations had agreements (called alliances) with other friendly nations that meant if they were attacked they would be protected.

    When the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia Europe became divided with some countries (such as Germany) supporting the Austro-Hungarians and others (such as France and Russia) supporting the Serbians.

    To make it worse the big countries controlled empires all over the world (as far away as Africa and India) and these nations were also brought into the conflict.

    When Germany invaded Belgium Britain became involved - because we had promised to protect the Belgians!

    What started off as a small conflict over a murdered man had suddenly become a world war!

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  • World War One

    There had been plenty of wars before World War One but this war was different. New weapons such as machine guns, poison gas and explosives meant that the number of soldiers killed was on a scale never seen before.

    Also because the big countries had empires soldiers from all over the world became involved. The British army alone had soldiers from India, Canada, Australia, the Caribbean and New Zealand as well as the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish soldiers.

    When the war finally ended after the surrender of Germany in 1918 over 16 million people were dead including over one hundred and fifty thousand Scots.

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Fun Facts
  • In Gaelic the word Iolaire means eagle.

  • The Iolaire used to be called the Amalthaea. It was renamed when it was needed in World War One.

  • The rocks that sunk the Iolaire are known as The Beasts of Holm.

  • The man who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and helped start World War One was called Gavrilo Princip.

  • In World War One the German's called the Scots soldiers "ladies from Hell" because of the kilts they wore.

  • The Iolaire was built in Leith in 1881. It was originally called the Iolanthe.

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