WHEN the call came Alexander Thomson didn’t hesitate. The young miner from the West Lothian village of Torphichen downed tools, said goodbye to his family and travelled into Edinburgh and then to Leith to sign up with the 7th Royal Scots.
Just weeks later the 17-year-old and 497 of his fellow troops, full of excitement at what might lie ahead at Gallipoli where they would do their bit for King and country in the Great War, left Leith’s Dalmeny Street drill hall for Larbert station and a train to Liverpool.
He almost never made it. Two hundred and 16 of his fellow soldiers didn’t. They were killed in the worst rail disaster Britain has ever seen at the isolated spot of Quintinshill near Gretna. A further 226 were injured.
At 6.49 on the morning of May 22, 1915, their wooden gas-lit train smashed into a stationary local train which had been mistakenly parked on the south line. The train overturned onto the northern line and a minute later an express heading from London to Glasgow also ploughed into the wreckage.
The fire which engulfed the twisted, mangled hulks took days to extinguish and only 83 of those who died were able to be identified, the other 133 bodies were cremated within the blaze.
But Private Thomson and 63 others did survive. He was also lucky enough to survive Gallipoli where more than 21,000 British soldiers perished and he even saw action in Egypt and on the Western Front before he finally returned home.
His story, which has been researched by his granddaughter Heather Thomson, is now part of a commemorative exhibition which opens this weekend at the old drill hall, now home to the arts organisation Out of the Blue.
Indeed the 100th anniversary of the disaster is being remembered around the country: yesterday there was a wreath-laying at Larbert station, today there’s a commemoration at the sight of the old Quintinshill signal box near Gretna.
Tomorrow a major parade will take place in Leith from Dalmeny Street to Rosebank Cemetery where the vast majority of the soldiers who died were buried and all who perished are remembered on a memorial. The event will be attended by Princess Anne – Royal Colonel-in-Chief of 1Scots – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Lord Provost Donald Wilson. Sunday will also see a special service take place at Canongate Kirk.
It is expected hundreds, if not thousands, will watch tomorrow’s parade, in much the same way as they lined the streets to cheer off the 7th regiment a century ago before the terrible tragedy which is said to have touched the lives of almost every family in Leith.
They were on the streets again when the bodies came back to the drill hall before the coffins were taken in procession for burial in a mass grave in Rosebank – the route lined by 3150 soldiers and thousands of people while traffic was stopped, shops closed and blinds drawn.
For Heather, from Slateford, learning her grandfather’s story has, she says, made her understand him a lot better. “I always knew he’d been in the 7th Royal Scots and based at the drill hall and that he’d been to Gallipoli but he never really spoke about the crash. When I heard Out of the Blue was looking for volunteers to do research for the exhibition I wanted to get involved.
“Only through this research have I been able to understand, to some extent, the horror of what he was involved in and what he must have seen. To find out what this man, who I remember as a kindly old gentleman, must have been through as a 17-year-old, it’s been a shock. And it’s made all of us involved think about luck and chance and how making different decisions at certain moments changes everything.
“From sitting in the right seat to not getting involved in a card game . . . he was awake while others were probably sleeping. So he got out as soon as the train crashed. If he’d stopped for any reason he’d probably not have survived.”
That was certainly the case for Pte John Ballantyne from Camelon – whose story is also part of the Seven of 7th exhibition – as despite surviving the first impact, he realised he no longer had his regimental cap and could be fined as a result, so went back to get it. He didn’t escape the second crash.
Another in the exhibition is Pte Robert Renwick, whose story was researched by his great-nephew Jim Renwick. It was discovered that he was one of those whose body was never accounted for – engulfed in the fire.
Exhibition organiser and artist Jan Bee Brown says: “Can you imagine what it felt like waiting at the drill hall for news? People knew about the crash quite quickly but waited and waited to hear the list of dead. Ellen Renwick had seven sons and three of them were with the 7th. By the end of the war only one had died, which was quite extraordinary, but it was Robert who died in the crash.
“Then there were the Syme brothers, Robert and James, who lived almost next door to the drill hall and both died in the crash.
“However we also have the stories of those who did survive like Pte Thomson, Pte Peter Cumming who was the youngest on board, aged 15, and Lt Noel Salveson.”
Like Alexander Thomson, Peter Cumming went on to serve at Gallipoli and the Western Front before returning home and becoming a policeman in Liverpool. His great-nephew is East Lothian MSP Iain Gray. However Lt Salveson was severely injured in the crash and after he recovered served as an intelligence officer at Scottish ports until the end of the war.
“My grandad came home and lived in Portobello,” says Heather, a former civil servant and now a journalism student. “He came from Torphichen and was a miner, but his mum had come from Leith which might have been why he joined the 7th although the Royal Scots was such a famous regiment it was attractive to young men. He was only 17 when he joined and had never been anywhere except Edinburgh so was probably excited to go.
“After the funerals he was sent back to Liverpool and served in Gallipoli before the retreat in 1916. He then fought in Egypt and Palestine in the Second World War.
“He was a lucky man and lived a very full life which I think now is because he was aware it could have been very different.
“He became a child protection officer for what was the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and lived until he was 83.
“It was only in his later years that he began to talk about his service and reflect on it. I think people of his generation just got on with things and their lives, they didn’t dwell on things. But being involved in the research has made me realise how important it is to think about the individuals involved in war, not just the abstract ‘millions’.”
Seven of the 7th is just one part of the Gretna 100 project at Out of the Blue. There’s also a new play, Persevere, and a Tree of Life produced with Pilmeny Youth Centre and artist Heather Scott which is made of glass dog-tags for each of the soldiers who died.
Jan adds: “The whole of Leith was touched by the disaster and we’ve tried to get the community involved in the commemorations.
“We’ve not been able to tell the whole story in the exhibition but we hope by focusing on these seven stories it brings the impact of the crash home to everyone.”
Seven of the 7th is on at Out of the Blue, Dalmeny Street, from May 23 to August 13, 10am-5pm Mon-Sat.