There has been much interest on the television and in newspapers recently about the Great War, this year marking 100 years since the beginning of that conflict. The First World War claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Scots. Some of these Scottish soldiers didn't even make it to the battlefield.
Last week, on the train to Carlisle, I made a point of looking out the window on the east side of the carriage to catch sight of a sign which marks the place where, ninety-nine years ago today, May 22, some 230 people died. Quintinshill. The story should be better known than it is.
The sky was overcast on the day of this visit, but the birds were singing. The ghosts of the dead may not even have noted my presence as I reflected on what had happened in the morning of May 22, 1915, but in such a peaceful place, it seemed the right way and the right time, just to tell them that they had not been forgotten.
The Quintinshill rail disaster is the worst rail accident, in terms of loss of life, in the history of railways in this country. The crash occurred when a troop train travelling from Larbert to Liverpool collided with a local passenger train that had been shunted on to the main line and was stationary it its path. The wreckage was then hit by an express heading towards Glasgow. Then fire engulfed the wrecked coaches. Horrific.
On the troop train there were some 500 Territorial soldiers of the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots, who were based in Leith, part of the 52nd Lowland Division. They were heading to join the war in Gallipoli.
Others lost their lives in the accident, railwaymen and passengers on the local train and on the express. A recent book about the accident, 'The Quintinshill Conspiracy' by Jack Richards and Adrian Searle, puts the death toll at 230. This figure varies in different reports. The roll of the regiment was destroyed in the fire, and many of the bodies were never identified given the ferocity of the fire.
As good a place as any to start in understanding what happened that morning ninety-nine years ago is on the Wikipedia page here, where there is a little animation showing the sequence of events involving the various trains. It is almost unbelievable that the signalmen in the box 'forgot' that a train was standing on track that had been signalled as clear for the troop train to progress.
Of course, that last sentence is an oversimplification. When I first learned of the accident, I had difficulty in believing the story, and so read as much as I could about the disaster. I wondered too why 'Quintinshill' was not more widely known about. Often the accident is called the 'Gretna Rail Disaster'.
Richards and Searle have answered some of my questions, and raised new ones, more of which in future blog posts. In addition, 'The Ill-fated Battalion' by Peter Sain ley Berry, also published last year, contains a lot of information about what happened to those who survived the crash (only sixty or so who were uninjured were mustered at the end of the day). The other half of the battalion, who were travelling on a separate train, joined the war in Gallipoli.
One of the first things I had to do was find out how the disaster had been remembered, and if there were memorials to those who had died.
here, for the names. So many! Closeups of the names on the actual panels are here.
here. It took three hours for the mile long funeral procession to pass the silent crowds which lined the streets from the batallion's Dalmeny Street headquarters.
I hope to post more Quintinshill stories in the months ahead.
Photos © Skip Cottage