‘A DISASTER that overshadows in magnitude of scale and in painfulness of results, all that has hitherto been recorded in the annals of railway accidents in our island.
“A tragedy which, in the course of a few minutes of shock and flame, practically wiped out of existence a half battalion of the 7th, or Leith, Royal Scots. Of nearly 500 men and officers . . . little more than 50 answered to a roll call. . . ”
The reports of the Gretna Rail Disaster in the papers two days after it occurred in the early hours of May 22, 1915, do not shy from detailing the horrendous fate which befell those young men from Leith that morning.
They were no doubt full of adrenalin-fuelled excitement as they sat on board an old wooden gas-lit troop train, bound for Liverpool and eventually Gallipoli – a youthful excitement which was brutally snuffed out when at 6.49am their train collided with the carriages of a local passenger train which had been shunted on to the main line at Quintinshill, near Gretna.
Then, as they tried to escape the fire which immediately engulfed their train, they were hit again by the London to Glasgow express as it passed near the Border town.
More than 200 young men died, the same number again injured, devastating the community of Leith where they had all grown up and signed up together.
One of those was 21-year-old Andrew Forest Baillie of 4 Balfour Place, who was following in his older brother John’s footsteps by joining the Royal Scots. And it is his story which is one of the most poignant in a new exhibition commemorating the centenary of the First World War which opens at the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle this Friday.
Next of Kin, as the exhibition is called, reveals the personal stories of the separation and loss experienced by Scottish families and by communities when their loved ones went to fight abroad, but for Private Andrew Baillie and his regiment, their excitement and desire to serve their country fighting on foreign fields, ended just outside Gretna.
Assistant curator of Scottish history at the museum, Victoria Brown, explains: “I grew up in Edinburgh yet I’d never heard of the Gretna Rail Disaster until we started putting this exhibition together. When I realised the scale of it, the losses experienced by one community, and the fact that to this day it is still the worst rail disaster in terms of deaths ever in Britain, it really put into perspective how devastating the First World War was to whole communities in ways which weren’t due to fighting in trenches. I can’t imagine how it must have been for the people of Leith to find out so many young men had died.
“There were 214 officers and men killed in that accident and another 246 injured.”
She adds: “Although it’s obviously very well known, the material we had was quite sparse so it’s been fascinating pulling it together and when I discovered a photograph of Andrew Baillie, which had been published in the Edinburgh Evening News after the crash, I could have jumped for joy.
“We had been donated some pieces by John Baillie’s daughter, so we already had the telegram which he’d been sent after the crash and a regimental badge he had found near the site of the accident.”
That telegram is brief, but sums up for many families the misery of not knowing what happened to their loved ones whether they died on the fields of Flanders or on a train in Gretna. Sent to John Baillie, who at 28 was the head of the family as their father had passed away, it just reads: “Baillie not accounted presumably in hospital, Hawes”.
“When John received that telegram he went to Gretna to see if he could find his brother. But so many men were unaccounted for,” says Victoria. “They must have been consumed in the heat of the fire. He did find a regimental cap badge though, probably not Andrew’s, but he kept it and that too is part of the exhibition, a real memento from an appalling tragedy.”
Another physical memory from that day, also in the exhibition, is the roll which was called by Sergeant Hawes, the same man who sent the telegram to John Baillie.
“We had a regimental roll book in the collection and it includes the roll call taken after the crash,” says Victoria. Only 58 men from the 500 were able to answer.
“We also have a photo of D Company which Andrew served with and of course the snap shot of Andrew from the paper after the crash. We have managed to trace John Baillie’s son, also John, who now lives in Fife and is 95, and we’ve spoken to him about the disaster. He recalls it being talked about when he was young, but of course he was born after Andrew died. We’re hoping he might be able to make it to the exhibition.”
The exhibition is full of the personal mementoes kept by servicemen and women involved in the conflict, and then passed on to family as a way of remembering an extraordinary period in their lives. Postcards, letters, photographs, medals and plaques all figure as the exhibition deals with the impact of the war on the lives of the families.
“When you think how so many young people died, people who had really barely lived a life, it’s truly amazing,” says Victoria. “There were recruitment campaigns which is why so many men from one area would join up at the same time, and the scale of the losses in the First World War devastated these communities. Nowadays, it’s hard for us to understand that, but we hope that by bringing personal stories such as Andrew Baillie’s to light, that people are able to comprehend it more easily.”
Royal scots remembered
Two signalmen, George Meakin and James Tinsley, who failed to move the passenger train or warn the express that the crash had happened were later found guilty of culpable homicide.
The 165 recovered bodies of the 214 men of the Royal Scots who died – 83 identified, the rest not including Andrew Baillie’s – returned to Leith on May 24. They were later escorted from the Drill Hall in Dalmeny Street by the 15th and 16th Battalions Royal Scots, along streets lined with mourners, taking four hours to reach Rosebank Cemetery.
They were buried in a mass grave, their names later carved into stone where the memorial still sits today.
• Next of Kin opens at the National War Museum, Edinburgh Castle, on April 18. Entry is free with admission to the castle.