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The Gretna Troop-Train Smash page 2


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So profound was the impress of horror stamped on the minds of those who witnessed the ghastly holocaust that it struck them wellnigh dumb: no ordinary words could express a fraction of what they had seen and heard. Soldiers who had been to the front declared that they had never seen anything one-tenth so appalling in the trenches. "When the second collision happened," said Private Jameson, continuing the story of his experiences, "I was hurled up in the air and landed on top of a carriage. We got an old pumping engine and two hundred yards of hose from a farm, but they were not much use in face of the flames. Men were lying all round. Some of them were pinned down and we were powerless to help them. Most of the bodies were unrecognisable. You could hear men screaming, but you could not get to them."

"One soldier," Lieutenant Lang narrated, "helped me to rescue five men. All along the train you could hear the groans of the wounded, and I saw one man hanging by the arms with his head off."

Then what Private Neally had to add: "There were explosions in all directions. Men were thrown all over the place and were crushed to pieces against the goods train. It was horrible; I would far rather have been out in Flanders; you do get a run for your money there." Some of the poor fellows lying jammed in the wreckage were suffering such agonies that they cried out piteously to their surviving comrades to shoot them and put them out of their pain. Others, caught by a leg or an arm, called aloud for a sword to be given them, quite willing to sacrifice a limb if only they might escape the horror of that advancing fiery blast, ready even to perform the operation themselves if need were. It was reported that one young officer actually did amputate his own arm....

It might have appeared too much to ask that men, however well disciplined, should carry on steadily and methodically through all that indescribable carnage. Yet the amazing fact remains that they did. Almost an hour had to elapse before surgical help could arrive on the scene, but in the meantime the Royal Scots survivors, assisted by some R.A.M.G. men who had been travellers in the local train, obtained pickaxes from the battalion tool-wagons, systematically attacked the wreckage, and applied first-aid to the injured in an adjoining field, to which they carried the poor sufferers on stretchers improvised out of railway-carriage cushions and mattresses salved from the sleeping cars. Crowbars and axes were very effectively wielded, too, by a party of naval men from the express, and a few passengers who had been imprisoned in the sleeping coaches of that train were released in addition to the trapped soldiers.

This terrible catastrophe furnished the most shining illustration imaginable of British level-headcdness. Distracting though the scene must have been in all conscience, nobody lost his wits, but one and all went about their several tasks as efficiently as though they had been specially trained for such an emergency. The moment the fire broke out, for example, the ammunition section ran straight to the wagons containing the ammunition, uncoupled them, removed the perilous freight, and placed it safely on a bank some distance outside the danger zone. The flames never had a chance to reach any ammunition; the detonations mentioned by Private Neally were all caused by the explosion of the train's gas-tanks.

Meanwhile, no time had been lost in summoning both firemen and doctors. Mrs. Dunbar, whose story has been already quoted, rushed back to Gretna and imparted the news of the disaster to the girl at the post-office, who immediately telephoned to every surgeon whose name she could find in the Glasgow and Carlisle directories. Fire engines hastened to the scene from Carlisle, and soon jets of water were playing upon the blazing pile. Until the arrival of the firemen practically no water had been available, and the four or five extinguishers the rescuers were able to lay their hands on had been of little use against flames caused, in all probability, by escaping gas. Even now the firemen could not stay the conflagration which raged round the spot where the three engines lay locked together.

There was work and to spare for every one of the doctors and nurses who came hastening to Quintinshill, both in the green meadow below the embankment and amid the wreckage. Some of the tasks in this second class, though necessary, were horrifying in the extreme. Dr. Edwards, for example, performed two operations under the most desperate conditions. Two poor fellows pinned down by the legs cried out to him for help as they saw the raging wall of flame coming ever closer. With the utmost coolness the doctor released, one man by the amputation of both legs, and the other by removal of one only. Like many another, however, this last case was only saved from the flames to die soon afterwards from shock.

The field converted with such haste into a temporary hospital and mortuary presented a sight never to be forgotten by those who saw it. In one part of it lay the injured on mattresses spread upon green meadow-grass that was sprinkled with fallen hawthorn blossom. In another part, side by side in long rows and reverently covered with white sheets, lay the still company of the dead. Every minute the stretchers kept coming down the embankment with their grim burdens. And pitifully light were many of their loads: only too often a little bundle of charred bones and flesh was all that remained of some stalwart Scottish lads who had started out a few hours before elated at the prospect of serving his King and country in France. All that could be found to account for many another brave-hearted soldier was a fragment of bloodstained clothing, a pipe or pouch, a note-book, or perhaps a handful of buttons: for these the burning train had been a funeral pyre. It was a remarkable fact that nearly every victim received either very light injuries indeed or such awful ones that there was no hope of recovery. Also, the vast majority of the dead and injured were soldiers; there had been few passengers in the local train, and no doubt those in the express owed their lives to the fact that there had been two engines to their train, which bore the brunt of the shock.

All day the sad labour of tending the wounded and laying out those already beyond human aid went forward, and of all the army of workers, none performed more sterling service than two old women from neighbouring cottages, who toiled on far into the night. It was related afterwards how a car filled with bandaging materials was tearing along the road from Carlisle to Gretna when an old lady came running out of a cottage and held up her hand. "I am old," she said, "but I can make bandages, so let me come." With the helpers accordingly she went, and worked all day long as hard as her poor old fingers would allow her.

By 2 p.m. the wounded had all been removed to Carlisle, where as many as the Infirmary could take in were admitted, while others were given beds in the County Hall or in houses scattered about the city. As for the dead, as the day advanced they were taken away from their resting place on the green grass and laid either in a farm at the end of the field or in the tiny village hall at Gretna. All through the afternoon and night a motor-car left the scene every hour with a fresh load of the pitiful remains. A visit was paid to Quintinshill during the afternoon by Sir Charles Bine Renshaw, Chairman of the Caledonian Railway Company, Mr. Donald Mathieson, General Manager of the line, and Sir Spencer Ewart, Commander-in-Chief of the Scottish Command. Melancholy indeed was the spectacle they viewed. Dotted all over the field where the dead and injured had lain earlier in the day were now little heaps of clothing, boots and rifles, while ever and anon the stretcher-bearers would come stumbling and slithering down the steep bank with yet another white-sheeted burden for the mortuary.

But of all the incidents connected with this terrible tragedy none was more pathetic than the roll-call taken by the railside on the Sunday afternoon. Out of all that trainload of eager soldiers only fifty-eight were able to answer to their names: more than two hundred had been killed and two hundred injured, of whom only a handful were not of the Royal Scots. Pallid and dishevelled, their uniforms all grimed with smoke, some spattered with blood, the survivors stood there in a thin line reminiscent of Lady Butler's famous painting. And now that the necessity for strenuous exertion was over, many of them gave every sign of being on the point of collapse.

Steadily the record of the dead mounted up. Among the military officers killed were Major Hamilton, Captain J. M. Mitchell and Lieutenant C. R. Salvesen, His Majesty's Navy had lost Commander Oliphant, Paymaster William Paton, Lieutenant-Commander C. E. Head, and Lieutenants J. C. Bonnar, R. S. Finlay and John Jackson. Others among the dead were Sergeant William Allan, who had been third in the King's Prize List at Bisley in 1912, and Mr. H. Ford, manager of the Crane Department of Sir William Arrol and Company's works at Glasgow. The bodies of the unfortunate driver and fireman of the troop-train were found among the coals of their wrecked engine. The driver, Francis Scott, had been famous as a driver of Royal trains in three successive reigns. In the ruins of the express were discovered the bodies of two women and a child, but charred beyond all recognition.

Commander Oliphant's death, it was afterwards told, had been that of a true hero. The moment he recovered from the shock of the collision he had leaped on to a mound of piled-up coaches to help those imprisoned there. But almost simultaneously a great sheet of flame had sprung up and raged over the ruins, and thereafter he had been seen no more.

Never was a grimmer spectacle beheld than that presented by the debris of the wrecked trains to the curious crowds who nocked to the scene. Late in the afternoon following the collision, though the breakdown gangs and travelling cranes had already been at work for many hours, the line was still loaded up for more than a hundred yards with a gigantic mass of metal and smouldering litter. "To get to the railway," relates one who was there, "after passing through the white prettiness of Gretna, one had to cross a copse where primroses nestled among the undergrowth, then walk over a cornfield. Three engines dominated the smoking, steaming smear of ugliness which cut across the spring landscape. The first, battered and bent, was tilted grotesquely in the air. This may have been the engine drawing the local train, though some said it was that which had been attached to the goods train occupying the loop line. Plunging into the tender was the first engine of the express, with its boiler apparently not much damaged. Its wheels were hidden among twisted ironwork, stripped clear of wood by the flames. The second express engine had suffered more, and looked as though it had been bent in some mighty grip. Nothing was to be seen of the engine of the troop-train; it lay mangled and broken somewhere under the wreckage, which was piled as high as a house.

"The wheels were the only part of the trains which seemed to have kept their shape. Bogie coaches had been twisted into inconceivable outlines. There was very little woodwork to be seen. A few carriage-doors and coach-tops lay on the embankment, and here and there a cushion."

The task of extricating the dead was still in progress on Sunday. "The horror of the scene was grimly emphasised at nightfall. In the light of the moon and the flare of paraffin lamps the giant locomotive cranes continued all night long to jolt and jar as they lifted indistinguishable masses of torn iron from the rails. Much of the wreckage had been toppled right over the embankment, and some hurled far into the meadows, where now the corncrakes rasped.... With the dour silence of northern folk the railwaymen went about the task of removing the charred bodies of the victims from a chaos of splinters and buckled steel. The scene was terrible by contrast with the peaceful night."

On the Sunday evening special trains were run to and from Edinburgh to enable the relatives of the victims to visit Carlisle and return without delay. Day and night the staffs of the Infirmary and the hotels were besieged by frantic inquirers, and to every one the doctors replied with the same courteous patience. There were scenes of infinite pathos. "Ah," exclaimed one poor father who had just learned the worst, "I could have borne it better if he'd been killed out in France, but to think he should have been killed in this way fair breaks my heart!"

In Leith, where most of the dead had had their homes, the Monday was observed as a day of public sorrow: all the business houses were closed, all amusements cancelled, and the streets were thronged with mourners. His Majesty the King sent a telegram of condolence, and the Chairman and Directors of the Caledonian Railway issued a message specially deploring the loss of life to the "gallant Territorial soldiers who were travelling south in the service of their King and country." The officers, N.C.O.'s and men of the Royal Scots subscribed a sum of 450 in aid of the victims' relatives and dependants.

In war time "scares" easily spring into circulation, and before long there was a first-class rumour afoot to the effect that the wires to Quintinshill signal-box had been tampered with. In order to dispel any such disquieting impressions the Board of Trade inquiry presided over by Lieutenant-Colonel E. Druitt, R.E., Inspecting Officer of Railways, was held in public. On the strength of its findings Meakin, Tinsley and a fireman were arrested and brought before the Sheriff of Dumfries for judicial examination. It was remarked at these preliminary proceedings that Tinsley wept bitterly and appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The men were subsequently placed on trial in the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, on the charge of culpable homicide. The fireman was dismissed from the case, but Meakin was sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment and Tinsley to three years' penal servitude.

The dead of Quintinshill were buried at Edinburgh with full military honours in a common grave seventy feet long. The scene was impressive in the extreme, but it is open to doubt whether even that great and solemn spectacle of dignified sorrow laid hold of the popular imagination quite so strongly as did another sight which was vouchsafed to the sympathetic crowds in Carlisle - the disturbing and awesome sight of the little band of survivors marching through the streets with grim, set faces and all chanting in unison an eerie song, every fourth line of which ran, "We shall never, never see them any more...."

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