Lieutenant William McNeill, Chief Executive Officer on the Laurentic, was born in the Holm West United Free Church Manse, Orkney Isles on 14th April 1881, while his father was the minister there.
He was educated at the Parish School Holm, Orkney and Hillhead High School, Glasgow. William was employed by the Anchor and Cunard Lines Steamship Companies and on the outbreak of war was Third Officer on the Lusitania. He joined the Royal Naval Reserve on April 1901 and was called up for service in 1914. He married Kathleen Florence Barry in Devonport on 5th July 1901 where his daughter Kathleen Mary was born 27th October 1915.
William with his wife and daughter on the only occasion all three were together.
William and his brother Patrick were called up early in the war; William into the Royal Navy Reserve and Patrick in the Territorials. Patrick served on the Western Front, but was a Sergeant in the Glasgow Yeomanry, training as a Royal Artillery cadet officer at Exeter, when he died of pneumonia on 31st January 1917 – less than a week after William’s death.
William McNeill’s body was was washed up on the small island of Ceann lar (one of the Monach Islands) to the west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, the traditional home of the McNeill clan, some time after the sinking of the Laurentic. Strangely this accords with the old Hebridean tradition that the sea carries the drowned home. The Monachs are Clan MacNeil territory. Fishermen finding his body and examining his name disc thought “it’s a McNeill come home”.
The following quote is from the book The Scottish Islands – A Comprehensive Guide to Every Scottish Island by Hamish Haswell-Smith (Edinburgh, 1996):-
“Hebridean sailors believed, and maybe still do, that if they drown the sea will always carry their body home. A cairn on Ceann Iar marks the grave of Lieut. R.N.R. MacNeill, who drowned off Northern Ireland when his ship, HMA Laurentic, struck a mine in 1917. His body was washed up on Ceann Iar which is part of the clan lands of the MacNeills”.
The next day the body of a German submarine officer was washed up at the same point, and the two were buried together because, as the locals said, “ in death they are both the same”. William is remembered there on a metal plaque attached to a rock. The islands, settled intermittently for over a thousand years, are now an uninhabited nature reserve. The last members of the population left the islands in 1942.
The loss of two sons in the same month of the war must have come as a great shock to the parents, Doctor Daniel McNeill and his wife Jessie Jane Dewar.
The contribution of the McNeill Family during the Great War was remarkable. William and Patrick’s father returned to his medical career and relieved a Welsh doctor to serve in France. Their sister Mary served as a doctor in Serbia with Dr Elsie Inglis. Brother David served as an officer in France, while sister Leila served as a superintendent in a munitions factory.
“Lieut. William A. McNeill, R.N.R.
Lived at Somerset Place, Devonport, and was 32 years of age. He entered the Cunard Company’s service from the Conway as a youth, and had passed the examination for chief officer. He had served in the various ranks in the Cunard Line ships all over the world, and before the war was in the Mauretania. He had about ten years service in the Royal Naval Reserve, in which he attained lieutenant’s rank on June 24th, 1911. On the outbreak of war he was at once called upon for naval service, and had been away from home almost continuously ever since. About four years ago he married Miss Barry, a sister of Mrs Andrew Weakford, of Devonport, and he leaves a baby only a few months old. The deceased officer’s brother, Sec. Lieut McNeill, R.A., is serving at Topsham Barracks, Exeter”.
Western Morning News 31st January 1917
William McNeill is commemorated on the Cunard Steam Ship Co. Roll of Honour, Cunard Steam Ship Co. Plaques, Merseyside Roll of Honour, and on the Holm War Memorial, which looks out over Scapa Flow.
AN ORCADIAN WAR RECORD
“Lieutenant William Alexander McNeill, R.N.R., one of the officers lost when the auxiliary cruiser Laurentic was sunk, served 16 years in the Royal Naval Reserve. He served with the Anchor and Cunard Lines. Mrs. McNeill was with her husband aboard the Laurentic the day before the disaster. The death of Lieutenant McNeill’s brother, cadet Patrick Kerr McNeill, was announced six days later. He was in training in Exeter. Cadet McNeil was a trooper in the Glasgow (Queens owen) Yeomanry, and fought at Loos and Neuve Chapelle. Prior to the war he was in the office of James Finlay and Co., Glasgow, and took a keen interest in the Boys’ Brigade. Both brother were educated at Hillhead Public School, Glasgow. Two other brothers and two sisters are serving, all being graduates of Glasgow University. Captain David McNeil, R.A.M.C.., is in France; Gunner Duncan McNeill, a law student, is now in Egypt; Dr. Mary McNeillis at Salonika with the Scottish Women’s Hospital; and the youngest sister, Leilah, is a supervisor at a Government munition work. Dr. McNeill, the father, had retired from practice in the Orkney Islands, but has gone to Wales to “carry on” a practice that a younger doctor may serve”
The Orkney Herald, March 14th 1917
General Records Office uk
With thanks to William McNeill’s descendant Evelyn Skinner for allowing the use of her family photographs.