22 November 2011
The story of the disastrous Quintinshill Railway Disaster in 1915 in which almost half of the 7th Batallion of Royal Scots perished. ...
The morning of 22 May, 1915 was a busy one for the signal box at Quintinshill near Gretna Green. George Meakin had begun his shift the previous night and was waiting for his colleague James Tinsley to arrive. Although officially, shifts were changed at 6am, the two men had agreed to switch at 6.30am, allowing the day worker an extra thirty minutes sleep before starting his duties.
That particular morning was unusually complicated. Two express trains from the south were running late and so a local train and a goods train were shunted off the main line to create space for them to pass through. An empty coal wagon service, already waiting at a red signal, needed to be shunted onto the loop line, and a special troop train carrying men from the Leith Battalion, destined for Gallipoli, was also expected. Had basic operating rules been followed, all should have worked smoothly, but Meakin and Tinsley were to make a number of fatal errors.
At around 6.50am, the troop train, believing the line was clear, ran directly into the front of the local train, causing its engine to derail and carriages to break off. The engine of the troop train turned on its side, crashing into the empty wagon service and forcing the front carriages over the top of the engine.
The speed with which it hit caused the troop train to be crushed to one third of its original length. As it slowly came to a standstill, the second express train was unable to avoid the carnage and hit the rear part of the troop train’s engine, pushing it through other wagons and resulting in its own three front carriages becoming compressed.
Due to the huge amount of wartime traffic and a shortage of carriages, obsolete Great Central Railway stock was regularly in use at this time. These had wooden bodies and frames and were lit by gas that was stored underneath the under-frame. During the collision, the engine ash pans broke open ,spilling hot coal and ash, and fire quickly broke out. Gas cylinders began to rupture and the flames spread rapidly. A lack of water meant the fire raged freely, making rescue attempts difficult and dangerous. It took four hours for fire appliances from Carlisle to arrive at the remote location, the last mile of their journey being over fields.
In total, 226 people were killed in the disaster, 215 of those being members of the 7th Battalion. At a roll call later that day, only 57 men of the 500 on board were present, along with a small number of officers. A decision was made to bury all recovered remains in a mass grave at Rosebank Cemetery in Edinburgh. The huge funeral cortege passed through the streets two days later, escorted by the Edinburgh Pals Battalion, who were still undergoing training. Such was the vastness of the disaster, the procession took four hours to complete.
The accident report, released a few weeks later, outlined several recommendations, including the removal of all gas lighting from carriages and the inclusion of fire fighting equipment. Meakin and Tinsley were blamed for the accident. Had they used common safety devices and followed the basic operating rules, the disaster would never have occurred. Both were tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter but the verdict was deemed controversial and they were released early from their sentences.
The surviving troops were rather callously redispatched the following day, to continue their journey to Gallipoli. Having boarded their ship, a message arrived stating that they were not to sail and they were subsequently marched from the port to the railway station. Their dishevelled and demoralised appearance led to them being pelted by local children, who mistakenly believed them to be prisoners of war.
Mysteriously, amongst the remains of the troop train wreckage, the bodies of three children were found, believed to be stowaways. Although never fully identified, they were buried in Maryhill, Glasgow, where a memorial stone was erected this year by a local historian.
For more fascinating history and nostalgia features, see each issue of Scottish Memories and History Scotland.