The engine from the London night train mounted the wooden carriages and crushed those inside Left to official reports, whitewashed investigations and government-influenced findings, the inconvenience of history has regularly been swept aside to be forgotten, ignored or reduced to a marginalised footnote. That might well have been the fate of the tragic events of 22 May 1915 when the greatest railway disaster in British history unfolded just north of Gretna Station at a signal box at Quintinshill. A troop train carrying around 500 officers and men of the 7th Royal Scots bound for Gallipoli, ran headlong into a stationary local train and moments later the entangled wreck was hit by the night express from London. 214 officers and men were subsequently killed and over 220 injured. It was a nightmare which could not be quashed by the Defence of the Real Act, no matter how convenient that might have been to Asquith’s failing government. Journalists from Dumfries and Galloway, and Carlisle [1] reported the awful events in great detail and, with professional determination, gave an unflinching account of a national tragedy that filled newspaper columns. Naturally the consequent Board of Trade investigation and the legal proceedings focussed attention on the railway workers convicted for negligence, but from the War Office to the Caledonian Railway Company, from the elites who had approved the Gallipoli Campaign to the manipulators of the Scottish justice system, it was a disaster whose blame was quickly shifted onto the shoulders of two shattered signalmen.

In April 1915 the Leith Battalion of the Territorials (more properly called the 7th Royal Scots) was relieved of local duties and joined with the 156 Brigade of the Lowland Division at Larbert near Falkirk to prepare specifically for the Western Front. [2] The men expected to be deployed to France, and their preparation was predicated on that understanding, but following the first disastrous landings on Gallipoli, the stalemate obligated a late War Office rethink. As was his want, Kitchener diverted the troops at the last moment, and the fate of the Leith Battalion was sealed. Botched preparations had become synonymous with Gallipoli, but none previously had caused such immediate anguish. The Scottish troops had been ready to move on Wednesday 19 May but a combination of shipping mishap and railway company incompetence delayed their departure for Liverpool. The troop ship Aquitania, scheduled to take the Battalion to Alexandria had run aground in the River Mersey and an alternative had to be found. Furthermore, the Caledonian Railway claimed to have insufficient carriages to transport the troops and a further forty-eight hour delay meant that they did not entrain until 3.42 am on Saturday 22 May, 1915.  The railway network was uncommonly busy and the Caledonian line strained to meet its conflicting duties; the war-effort and profit.

The skeletal burnt-out remnants of the troop train still smouldering hours after the crash

Although the government had assumed control of the railways in August 1914, [3] the individual companies continued to manage their own lines subject to instructions from the executive committee. Indeed the railway companies’ first move on 5 August was to inform passengers that they no longer guaranteed responsibility for goods lost in transit. The Caledonian Railway Company ran the west coast line from Glasgow to Euston Station in London and had full responsibility for the troop trains which ran on its lines. On such a profitable, busy weekend the Caledonian was required to muster four trains to carry the Royal Scots to Liverpool. The ill-fated train was a rag-tag compilation of fifteen coaches in which the soldiers travelled with five trucks for baggage, stores and ammunition  behind. Most of the carriages were ancient rolling stock, [4] lit by high pressure gas stored in cylinders beneath the floors. These were cheap and nasty. Inexpensive compared with alternative sources, the German Pinch gas which they used was clean and clear. Unfortunately it was readily combustible. [5] In every-day parlance, these coaches were not fit for purpose.

An artist's impression of the railway disaster at Gretna Green in 1915

The officers were housed in more comfortable coaches, while the ORs (other ranks, such a neat way to differentiate the ordinary soldiers) were squeezed into outdated carriages. Eight or nine fully equipped men were squashed into compartments without a corridor or toilet facility. Even although the troops deserved priority, the train moved haltingly at first, and lost twenty minutes in its proposed schedule. At 6.49 am it crashed into a local train which had been ‘parked’ in the wrong direction just north of Gretna. Under normal circumstances the local train would have been held in one of the loops beside the Quintinshill signal box, but at that moment both loop lines were occupied with goods trains. The troop train overturned and the ancient wooden carriages smashed onto the north-bound track. Fifty-three seconds later the Glasgow-bound express ploughed into the wreckage and the gas cylinders exploded. [6] Carnage ensued. Men dazed and disorientated by the first collision were trapped in a burning inferno, some killed outright, some maimed and burned in horrific circumstances. The sheer hell of war erupted in the quiet Scottish border countryside. Such was the anguish of those trapped at the centre of the flames, unreachable, condemned to agonising death, screaming to be put out of their misery, that at least one officer emptied his pistol chamber into their midst in order to end the suffering. [7] Mercy-killing is not an act that any military man wants to acknowledge but it was a necessary act of compassion for those in extremity. [8]

The roll-call for survivors, traumatised to a man.

According to the Royal Scots archives, three officers and 213 other ranks were killed, with five officers and 215 men injured. Only seven officers and 55 men emerged physically unscathed and continued to Liverpool. God only knows what they had witnessed, the trauma they suffered, the anguish and the guilt that they felt.  The survivors, the shocked remnants of a proud, proud fighting division were kept at Quintinshill until 4.00pm before being taken to Carlisle Castle. Denied even a night’s rest they were marched to Citadel Station in Carlisle and shunted off to Liverpool where the Empress of India had replaced the stricken Aquitania. Incredibly, they were put to work to salvage equipment before the War Office, possibly alerted to the public outcry from Scotland, ordered them from the ship. The Royal Scots Regimental History records that it was at the insistence of the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Peebles that all but he, and a handful of officers, returned to Edinburgh. Officers were urgently needed in Gallipoli, but given all that they had been through it was desperately hard on them. [9]

Scotland stood in shock. So great was the impact on Leith, and the Burghs of Portobello and Musselburgh, now firmly attached to the city of Edinburgh, that the whole population was stunned in an unfathomable grief, so horrendous, so numbingly unbelievable that work came to a halt.

Leith streets in regimental mourning for the remains of those tragically killed at Gretna

Lists of the dead were called out from parish pulpits on Sunday 23rd. Relatives of the missing or injured were taken by special train to Carlisle in the hope of finding their loved ones whole. How could a man be posted missing in his own country? Was he under the wreckage still? No-one could comprehend the depth of this awful tragedy. The coffins were sealed. Permanently. Some held bodies, some bits of bodies, some a mixture of ashes of what once were bodies. The funeral procession in Edinburgh on Monday 24th May, when the first 102 victims were laid to rest in a communal grave, took three hours to pass from the drill hall in Dalmeny Street to the cemetery at Rosebank in Pilrig Street. [10]

All of these young men set out to fight for ‘God, King and Country’ in a war for ‘civilisation’, but they were not considered equal in death. Prejudice against the Catholic population in Edinburgh extended to the grave.  At the close of the Presbyterian service in the battalion’s Drill Hall, Father J. O’Rourke was permitted to recite prayers for the dead, but no consideration was given to any Catholic Church involvement at Rosebank Cemetery where the Moderators of the Church of Scotland and the Free Church conducted the service. [11] On the following day, ‘inasmuch as three were members of the Roman Catholic community,’ a concession was agreed and Canon Stewart was permitted to offer prayers at the graveside. [12]

The Signal Box at Quintinshill  no longer stands at the site of the tragedy.

And who to blame? The authorities had to hand two ready-made culprits, Signalmen James Tinsley and George Meakin. Yes, they had broken company rules. Indeed Tinsley should not have been working due to what  doctors later diagnosed as epilepsy. But the practices used to accommodate the huge volume of traffic pounding along that stretch of railway line were known to their line manager, to the stationmaster at Gretna and railwaymen in general.

The signalmen had no command over the condition of the coaches, the safety of antiquated rolling stock travelling at high speed or the volume of traffic on that particular day. All of these factors contributed to the tragedy. The Board of Trade inquiry and the secret internal Caledonian Railway inquiry, the Coroner’s inquiry and the court hearings in Edinburgh focussed only on the signalmen. Officially it was the fault of Tinsley and Meakin who were sentenced to three years penal servitude and 18 months respectively. Those in power wanted to close the chapter on Quintinshill, file it away under the title  of the  Great Gretna Rail Disaster, and put it all down to culpable homicide. Under serious pressure from the railway-workers’ unions, who knew well that blame should have been fairly distributed elsewhere, the government had Tinsley and Meakin released from prison one year later. Both were re-employed in different capacities by the Caledonian Railway. Strange, indeed. Railway companies did not usually employ ‘convicted criminals’.

Gully Ravine Gallipoli, where the 1/7 Royal Scots faced further casualties and loss

There was to be no permanent respite for those who survived. Lieutenant-Colonel Peebles and his five surviving officers sailed for Alexandria with the remainder of the Division and arrived at Gallipoli on 12 June 1915. The other two battalions of the regiment served with distinction in the battle of Gully Ravine on 28 June where  241 officers and men were killed, wounded or missing (presumed dead). Following normal practice, the surviving members of the 7th Royal Scots were merged with the 4th Royal Scots under Lieutenant-Colonel Peebles. On 13 August many of those who had been injured in the Gretna crash arrived at a second blistering hell in Gallipoli and were reunited with their compatriots.

The record shows that on 22 May 1915, 31 officers and 1026 other ranks left Larbert station in good spirit to fight for king and country in far off Turkey. Most had no idea where that was. Next day, only 20 officers and 477 men embarked from Liverpool. Of these 18 officers and 458 men landed in Gallipoli on 12 June. By 15 July only 6 officers and 169 men remained fit for action. In other words the 7th Royal Scots from Leith had an 86% casualty rate taken from their complement before it left Larbert. With the 23 officers and 440 other ranks added as reinforcements, the Regimental War Diary of the 7th Royal Scots states that  casualties at Gallipoli totalled 34 officers and 1,110 men or, astonishingly, 108% of their entrained strength. [13] What loss. It was tragedy layered upon tragedy for the three burghs. It was unwarranted hell for these men.

They were all victims of the lie that is Gallipoli. All sacrificed to keep the Russians out of Constantinople and focused on the eastern front. There were no medals for the brave men who were scalded and burned, desperately trying to save their comrades at Qunitinhill. No medals either for the Royal Scots who, disregarding their own safety, hauled away the ammunition wagons at the rear of the burning train despite the danger of imminent explosion. No lasting consideration for the shattered communities of Leith, Portobello and Musselburgh. No lingering compassion for the grieving friends and families. Almost immediately, Quintinshill was relegated to a footnote in history. Find it, if you can, in Sir Lawrence Weaver’s book, The Story of the Royal Scots, published in 1915. Turn to the chapter on the Dardanelles and there on page 244 you will see the sole reference to the tragic disaster… in a footnote. [14]

[1] Newspapers which have proved invaluable in their coverage of the events are the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, Carlisle Journal, Weekly Scotsman, Edinburgh Edinburgh News ]
[3] Railway Government Control, Hansard House of Commons Debate, 27 August 1914, vol. 66, cc131-2.
[4] Jack Richards and Adrian Searle, The Quintinshill Conspiracy, p. 12.
[5] Peter Sain Ley Berry, The Ill-fated Battalion, p. 20.
[7] Berry, The Ill-fated Battalion, p. 101.
[8] Richards and Searle, The Quintinshill Conspiracy, p. 30.
[9] Ibid., p. 48.
[10] Edinburgh Evening News, 24 May, 1915.
[11] The Scotsman, 25 May 1915.
[12] The Scotsman, 26 May 1915, p. 9.