Quintinshill Rail Disaster Marked

22 May 2015, 07:17

Relatives of some of the victims of Britain's worst rail disaster have gathered at a memorial as they prepare for a series of commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the Quintinshill crash.

On May 22 1915, a train packed with 500 members of the Leith Battalion of the Royal Scots collided with a local passenger service near Gretna.

Almost at once, a Glasgow-bound express train smashed into the wreckage at the Quintinshill signal box, setting off a devastating fire which engulfed the train.

A total of 214 soldiers and 12 civilians were killed. Some remains were never identified and it is thought that the death toll could have been higher.

The troops were on their way to Liverpool, where they were due to sail to the front line of the First World War in Gallipoli.

Many of the soldiers were buried in a mass grave in Rosebank Cemetery in Edinburgh, where a memorial carries the name of everyone who died.

A group of descendants visited the memorial today ahead of services in Gretna tomorrow and in Edinburgh on Saturday to be attended by the families of the victims, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the Princess Royal and military personnel.

The Edinburgh service will be led by Rev Iain May, minister of South Leith parish church.

Like many people from the Scottish capital, one of his relatives was caught up in the disaster.

He said: "Around 50 of the soldiers who died in the crash were members of my parish and when I was looking through the names for this service that I discovered my namesake, John May.

"It turned out he was my grandfather's older brother, my great uncle.

"He was 24 when he died, which is the same age as my son, and looking at photographs from 100 years ago he really looks like my son, which really brings it all home to me.''

Wreaths will be laid at the cemetery on Saturday and soldiers will salute those who died, including Private James McSherry.

His great grandson, John Edward, was at the memorial today to pay his respects.

Mr Edward was determined to raise awareness of the commemoration of the disaster and started an online campaign to track down descendants.

He said: "I set up a Facebook group to make to make sure that as many people with family involved knew about it and would come along to the ceremonies.

"The reaction has been great, there have been hundreds of people on there and there have been incredible stories like a family who lost three brothers, a boy of 16 who was on his way to Gallipoli straight from school and stories of people who were injured and cut themselves free, and there have been amazing pictures shared.

"It's the modern way and it's a great example of how it can bring people together. People have posted pictures that others have been able to spot family members in and some people who weren't sure if they had relatives in the crash have been helped to track down death certificates.

"There will be a lot of people here on Saturday who haven't attended anything before, so hopefully they can carry it on.''

Robin Bell was at the memorial to remember his father Ian Bell, who survived the crash but had the difficult job of recording the dead and injured among his colleagues.

The 82-year-old said: "Just before the train set off my father was asked to move carriage to play bridge but decided to stay where he was with his friends and that saved his life.

"All those playing bridge were killed in the crash. My father injured his head and his right arm, but managed to crawl out and rescue some others.

"As one of the survivors he was detailed to check on all the casualties, list the deceased and then call their relatives to inform them - one of them was John Edward's great grandfather.

"He was only 21 at the time and he would have known all of those who died, so it was an enormously difficult task.

"In those days you just kind of buttoned your lip and got on with it, and he never really talked about it.

"I remember we were playing cricket in the 1930s and he was hit by the ball in his right arm and out came a bit of blue glass and he said 'goodness, I remember some blue glass from the train'.''

Later, there will be a memorial service at Larbert, where the train set off from, and in Carlisle, where a number of people on the local train and express train lived, and which was also the base for the railwaymen involved.