Armistice 100: Britain’s worst rail disaster left Leith in mourning

Gretna villagers assist with the wounded in the immediate aftermath of the diaster.
Gretna villagers assist with the wounded in the immediate aftermath of the diaster.
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It remains the worst rail disaster in British history – yet its devastating impact on Leith will forever be immeasurable.

Quite how news of the Quintinshill catastrophe would have been met by a community already ravaged by the horrors of war can only be imagined.

Hundreds of men – 216 to be exact – horrifically killed before they even reached the First World War battlefields; dead on home soil and in the most brutal of circumstances.

This weekend, the story of the 1915 crash near Gretna which took the lives of these territorial soldiers from the 7th (Leith) Battalion The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment), will be told at the port they called home – and in the most immediate of ways.

The public has a rare opportunity to board a restored railway carriage similar to the one the soldiers would have travelled on as they headed towards Liverpool en route to Gallipoli.

Here they will be able to imagine what the journey may have been like for the men who had not long said emotional farewells to their loved ones in Leith, before the crash took their lives, engulfing most of them in flames.

A team of living historians, dressed in original 7th (Leith) Battalion uniforms hope to enrich the experience even further.

“It’s about education,” explains Alex Mallia, from the Scots in the Great War living history society. “We are there to answer questions, to remember these men from Leith; these territorial soldiers who lived and worked there.

“They were people, not just soldiers.”

The event – which takes place today and tomorrow – is organised by the Royal Scots Regimental Trust and is expected to draw large crowds to the Shore where the restored train carriage will be on display outside the Malmaison Hotel.

READ MORE: Armistice 100: What was life in Edinburgh like during World War One?

The carriage – a rare survivor from the Victorian period – has been painstakingly restored over a 15-year period at a cost of £90,000, and has been dedicated to the victims of the Quintinshill disaster by its owners, the Great Central Railway Rolling Stock Trust. It will have made its journey, carefully and slowly, from the Midlands on a low-loader, on what is its first public outing.

The story of the train disaster may have been well told over the years, but its details never fail to horrify more than a century on.

It begins in April 1915 when the 7th (Leith) Battalion – a territorial unit based at the Drill Hall on Dalmeny Street – headed to Larbert for concentrated training with the 52nd (Lowland) Division before they were to be deployed to France. Yet, as a result of the stalemate after initial landings in Gallipoli, the troops were diverted there.

At 3am on May 22, the first of three trains carrying the Leith soldiers to Liverpool left Larbert, but tragedy struck at 6.49am when the train – pulling wooden carriages – collided head-on with a passenger train parked on the main line at Quintinshill, north of Gretna.

“The troop-train overturned,” explains retired Colonel Robert Watson OBE, of the Royal Scots. “Mostly onto the neighbouring north-bound mainline track and, a minute later, the Glasgow-bound express ploughed into the wreckage, bursting gas tanks and pipes, causing it to burst into flames.

“The ferocity of the fire, and consequent difficulty of rescuing those trapped in the overturned and mangled carriages, was compounded by the fact that most of the carriages were of an old Victorian design, made of wood and lit by gas contained in two tanks beneath them.”

The outcome was devastating: 216 dead from the Leith battalion and a further 220 injured. Only seven officers and 55 soldiers of the 498 who had left Larbert that morning survived unharmed.

Investigations ensued and the following month, two signal men were imprisoned for neglecting the rules of their job.

Meanwhile, the bodies of many of the soldiers had made an emotional return to Leith where a mass grave at Rosebank Cemetery, in Pilrig, was created.

For the families and friends of these men, the experience must have been unbearable. The casualties would become part of an astonishing 2650 Leithers who died in the First World War, with historians believing no family in the port could have been untouched by the 
conflict.

“We’re doing this, not just to remember the 7th Battalion, but for Leith as a whole,” explains Colonel Watson, who is a leading organiser for the memorial event.

“It is not just about those who went off but those left 
behind.

“When we were organising this I thought we should so something for Leith. It was an independent town in 1918 and tends to get overshadowed by Edinburgh as a whole.”

The train will be open to the public on Friday and Saturday from 10am to 4pm with opportunities for photographs and discussions with the 
historians.

On Sunday, at 2pm there will be an Open Air Service of Commemoration of the Armistice for Leith outside the Malmaison hotel conducted by Rev Iain May, from South Leith Parish Church, and attended by the Lord Provost Frank Ross, who is also the city’s veterans champion.

There will be a choir, military band and piper.

“What do I hope people will take from this?” asks Colonel Watson. “I think remembrance and thankfulness. These soldiers knew what was coming when they went to war, but they did not really know.

“They did not expect the level of casualties and there was a huge relief when it was over.

“War does not solve anything – it never has and it never will.”