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The Gretna Troop-Train Smash

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The appalling railway accident which occurred early on the morning of Saturday, May 22, 1915, at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, although it shocked the world profoundly, produced a less powerful impression on the imagination of the general public than would have been the case had not Europe then been in the throes of the War. It came just when everybody's attention was focused on the British Army's most desperate struggles round and about Ypres. As The Times observed in a moving leading article: "At a time when every hamlet in the land, and almost every home, is mourning its own dead, this awful accident cannot occupy the public mind so completely or so long as do lesser calamities in ordinary times." Nevertheless, the fact remains that this was by far the worst disaster which ever happened on a British railway, and it was notable, besides, for the wonderful example of steady discipline and tranquil courage displayed by the survivors. "The spirit of the Scottish soldier," as one writer worded it, "was never more tragically displayed." The sadness of the event, too, was intensified by the fact that nearly all the dead and maimed had been in the very prime of their manhood, sturdy young fellows in the height of good spirits at the near prospect of "doing their bit." But their end illustrated none the less the highest traditions of their profession and their race; to quote The Times' leader once more, the nation could look on the dead of Quintinshill "with the same tempered pride and grief as on their comrades slain in action."

The disaster's horror was magnified also by the placid beauty of the surroundings in which it took place. Only a mile away nestled the picturesque white village of Gretna Green with its romantic associations, and all around lay a pleasant countryside of pasturage and cornfield sparkling in the freshness of a perfect spring morning. It was the last scene in the world one would have thought to couple with a grim tragedy. As one Gretna woman said in stupefied amazement after the accident: "It was only yesterday we had a wedding here."

Quintinshill is situated on the Caledonian Railway Company's line, one mile north of Gretna and nine miles north of Carlisle. At the point where the catastrophe occurred - a few yards from the signal cabin, that is - there are four sets of metals: the up main line, the down main line, and two loop lines used exclusively for shunting operations. The usual procedure was for the local slow train due to start north from Carlisle at 6.10 a.m. not to depart until the midnight sleeping-saloon express from Euston to Glasgow had passed through, but on this fatal day an exception was made in view of the fact that the express was three-quarters of an hour late, the slow train being permitted to go forward for eight miles before giving place to it. On the slow train's arrival at Quintinshill it became the duty of the signalman to find somewhere to put it until the express was safely past, and normally he would have shunted it into one or other of the two sidings. As fate would have it, however, both these loop lines chanced to be occupied by goods trains, so Meakin, the signalman, took the natural course of putting the local train temporarily over from the up to the down main line, which was the accepted practice in such circumstances.

What followed must be unequalled in all the annals of railway history. The signalman's duty in a case like this, as the man responsible for placing the "local" on metals along which other trains could shortly be expected to arrive, was to put a collar at once on the lever of the down main line signal, and to see that that collar was not removed until the train had been cleared from the line again. This, however, Meakin most inexplicably failed to do, and a further irregularity was that when one of the goods trains, consisting of empty coal-wagons, was shunted on to its loop line, he apparently omitted to give a "train out of section" signal. Moreover, the handling of the situation should never have devolved upon Meakin, for 6 a.m. was the hour laid down for changing duties at the box, but in practice, unknown to the stationmaster at Gretna Junction, this change-over sometimes took place rather later, and the present occasion was an instance in point. When James Tinsley, the relieving signalman, took over duty, the train of coal-wagons had just been shunted on to its siding, and now the local passenger train was sent to its waiting place on the down main metals.

Not the least remarkable feature of the whole affair was the conduct of Tinsley immediately after his belated assumption of duty. He had travelled to Quintinshill on the engine of the local passenger train; now, as though it were not enough that no collar had been placed on the down main line signal lever, Tinsley - a signalman of eight years' standing, and one, moreover, who had worked in the Quintinshill cabin for five years - must needs go and forget the very existence of the train by which he had only a few moments before arrived. "I forgot all about the local train": that was the sole explanation the man could produce afterwards. Indeed, so completely did the presence of the train vanish from his memory that when the approach of a troop-train by the very line on which the "local" stood waiting was advised to him a few minutes later from the Kirkpatrick box, he "accepted" it without any hesitation at all.

So there the local train stood, waiting patiently and - forgotten. Its passengers, no doubt, passed the time with their newspapers or sat looking out of the windows in peaceful enjoyment of the thin morning sunshine, wondering vaguely, perhaps, when their leisurely conveyance was going to "get a move on" again. And meanwhile, all unknown to them, every moment was bringing the troop-train nearer and nearer along the very metals on which their coaches rested, while simultaneously the Scottish express was thundering along from the south on the "up" line behind its two giant locomotives.

In the troop train were 470 men and twelve officers of the 7th Royal Scots, natives of Leith for the most part, now on their way to active service, and as fine a set of lads as the Army could boast. Officers acquainted with this Territorial battalion were unanimous in their conviction that it would have given a magnificent account of itself at the front. The men had started off in high spirits; now, however, tired out after all the excitement and emotion of departure, the majority were snatching a little sleep. And so they travelled smoothly on, all unsuspecting, towards the death trap that lay so close ahead: the end of all journeys was very near now for most of them, and for their unfortunate driver and fireman, too.

At exactly 6.55 the driver of the stationary "local" and his mate suddenly caught sight of the troop-train forging down on them with the terrific momentum acquired by the descent, just previously, from a point more than 1,000 feet above sea-level. They jumped in the nick of time to save their lives: a second or two later the oncoming train hit theirs with a violence that flung both trains from the metals and toppled and engine the leading coaches of the troop-train over on their sides. The very first intimation the soldiers had of anything amiss was the awful shock and crash of the collision. Stunned and stupefied though they were, however, the coaches had scarcely quivered to rest before the men - all those capable of it - were forcing their way out of the wreckage to see whom they could help.

Lieutenant Lang, R.F.A., who was among those asleep at the moment of the impact, told afterwards how he was hurled to the floor and pinned beneath the seat: "the roof collapsed like a concertina," he said, "but I somehow managed to scramble out." Then here is the simple though vivid story of the crash narrated by Private W. Jameson: "Most of us, having been up all night, were sleeping when the collision occurred. The first thing I remember was rifles falling on me from the rack, and suddenly all went dark." Private J. Neally tells us merely that he "fell through the bottom of the carriage and was badly crushed."

In the mass of smashed, capsized coaches there were countless poor fellows either pinned in tightly by the wreckage, or so badly hurt that they could not drag themselves out. To rescue these was the one thought in the minds of those fortunate enough to have escaped serious injury, and within a few seconds there were parties of men working with furious energy all along the train to free their imprisoned comrades. It was just when this scene of feverish activity was at its height that the crowning tragedy happened - the advent of the Scottish express. Shocked almost out of their wits already by the devastation all around them caused by their own forgetfulness, what must the wretched signalmen's emotions have been when they beheld this second and infinitely more terrible instrument of wholesale destruction charging along the metals straight for the tumbled mound of debris that lay tossed pell-mell across its path? Shouting at the top of his voice and waving his arms like a maniac, the driver of the "local" rushed forward along the line in a frenzied attempt to warn the express in time to let it pull up. Too late! With a rattle and a roar and a stupendous crash that was heard miles away, the two monster engines struck the troop-train's tender like a Titanic battering ram, after ploughing their way right into the heart of the wreckage, grinding and smashing the already terribly mutilated troop-train into matchwood.

Let the driver of one of the express engines tell in his own fashion the impression the collision made upon him:

"I was travelling at about sixty miles per hour. Just before we saw the smash I had been to the fireman to see if all was clear. A moment or two later my mate saw the obstruction and shouted, 'Look out!' We were about 150 yards away at the time. I recognised that it was impossible to avoid a collision, but I put on the brakes and did my best to minimise the force of the impact. I saw a man, a platelayer, I believe" - actually this would be the driver of the local passenger train - "running towards us waving a flag, but it was no use. We were slackening speed rapidly, but we struck the other train when running at nearly fifty miles per hour. We went through three coaches. I was conscious of splintering wood and breaking glass, and then we struck the two engines that had caused the first collision. I had about fifteen tons of coal in my tender, and immediately we struck the engines the coal was hurled on top of me and my mate. I was covered nearly up to my neck. My fireman was also practically buried, but he was able to work himself free. For twenty minutes I remained in my position. I was rescued by my mate and another fireman, who dug me out. At that time carriages close to me were burning, and I knew that at any moment my engine might catch fire. The men who rescued me were scorched by the flames. When I was rescued my position was so dangerous that a few moments before I had made up my mind to get loose by cutting off my foot with a knife."

So terrific was the impact of the express with the other trains that masses of debris were flung over the whole width of the railway and down the embankment. So stupendous was the crash of it that Mrs. Dunbar, who in conjunction with her husband acted as caretaker of the marrying blacksmith's shop at Gretna Green, exclaimed when she heard it, "The Germans have come!" The couple ran outside; then, realising that "something" had happened on the railway, they hurried across the fields in the direction of the uproar. "It was a terrible sight," told Mrs. Dunbar. "There were three trains all piled up. A fire had begun, and the poor things in the carriages were calling out. There seemed hardly anybody to help at first."

Terrible it was, in very truth. The accident would have been awful enough without fire, but fire brought with it "such scenes as a man would remember with a shudder till the end of his days." The heavy express train, hurtling into the confused tangle on the line with terrific momentum, had not only pulverised the coaches on the troop-train, but had thundered like some nightmare Juggernaut through and over the men who were struggling to release their imprisoned comrades. The shock, by a queer freak of Fate, had released a few of those pinned down by the first collision, but not many were so fortunate. The coaches were packed with poor fellows jammed in among the splintered timber and contorted ironwork, many of them suffering agonies with broken thighs or other limbs. And now, as if that were not enough, came the horror of the conflagration. The torn woodwork caught alight from the engines, and the fire, fanned by a slight breeze, quickly swept along the carriages. Before the rescue work had been carried far the troop-train was blazing from end to end, and the unfortunate soldiers held captive in it were burned alive in a furnace from which there was no release. Coach after coach became a tower of roaring flame, from which issued voices crying piteously for the rescue that had perforce to be denied them. When the passengers who had scrambled out of the express, or out of the few intact carriages of the troop-train itself, tried to answer these heartrending appeals, the withering blast of fire drove them back. Their sole melancholy consolation was that the dreadful cries soon ceased....

No words have power to convey the cool courage and discipline shown by the troops amid this inferno. With desperate energy, yet as steadily and methodically as though they had been carrying out some parade-ground exercise, they set about the task of rescue wherever it was humanly possible, and in the effort many of them also made the supreme sacrifice. "They fought their way through the wreckage as though storming a German trench," related one eyewitness. Another tells us that "deeds worthy of the V.C. were performed by the rescuers, and over all the sun shone with the glory of an ideal summer morn." The irony of Olympus in its ultimate perfection, surely....

The pluck of the victims, too, was an epic in itself. Many a fine lad met an agonising death with no outward sign of his sufferings. One dying soldier was heard to exclaim, "If it had only been a fecht!" Often a man would ask for a cigarette first thing after being dragged out. "With this held tightly between his lips he seemed oblivious to pain. How great was the effort made at times to hide the truth may be gathered from the fact that cases occurred where the sufferer lapsed into unconsciousness before he could finish his smoke."

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