Sandy’s Garden ... Quintinshill and Lilies

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Rail travellers who know Larbert Station will know there is a plaque there commemorating a tragic event.

More than 200 men of A and D Companies of the 1/7th (Leith) Battalion of the Territorial Force of the Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment) were killed in a rail accident at Quintinshill near Gretna on May 22, 1915.

The men, who had been camped at the Tryst in Stenhousemuir as they completed their training prior to going to war, had boarded a special train at Larbert to travel to Liverpool, at which port they were to embark for Gallipoli. Their train, made up of fifteen passenger carriages belonging to the Great Central Railway … mainly elderly and the majority of them gas-lit … and six goods vans belonging to the Caledonian Railway, left at 3.42 a.m. It stopped at Carstairs to allow the enginemen to refill the locomotive tender with water and set off again at 5.27, 22 minutes late. So the crew of Caledonian Railway engine number 121 were wasting no time as they raced past Kirkpatrick Signal Box at 6.47, speeding down a gentle gradient past the distant signal for Quintinshill Signal Box, a semaphore signal whose green light and downward sloping arm told the men that all the signals at Quintinshill were clear for them to proceed.

But the signals were wrong. Their drooping arms and green lights belied the fact that a northbound local passenger train had been shunted on to the southbound line to get it out of the way of an approaching sleeping car express. Almost unbelievably, the two signalmen in Quintinshill Signal Box … the night shift man and his day shift relief … had neglected to take any of the measures to prevent them from clearing their signals for a southbound train while this local train was blocking the line and had then been so preoccupied with other activities that they forgot about this local service and cleared the signals for the troop train. Thus at 6.49 the driver of the troop train sped under a bridge on a right-hand bend and caught sight of the local train standing less than 200 yards ahead of him. The guard of his train, travelling in the very last vehicle, survived the inevitable crash and was unsure if driver Scott had even had time to initiate an emergency brake application before the 600-or-so ton troop train smashed into the 375-or-so ton local train, reducing the 213-yard long troop train to 67 yards in length and forcing the massive engine of the local train back 42 yards. Less than one minute later, the late-running sleeping car express, speeding north … quite correctly … under clear signals, ploughed into the debris despite the frantic emergency brake application made by the enginemen the moment they caught sight of the wreckage at Quintinshill Signal Box.

The combination of mainly wooden carriage bodies, burning coals from the engines and gas escaping from fractured tanks resulted in an inferno. Some men were killed outright in the collisions; many were pulled to safety by colleagues who had escaped serious injury; at least one trapped, injured man was shot by an officer just before the flames reached him: but 82 unrecognisable bodies were recovered from the burned-out wreckage to add to the 57 men whose identifiable bodies were found, the 26 soldiers who died as a result of their injuries and as many as 50 men of whom no recognisable traces were found, a probable total of 215 dead. (The regimental roll was lost in the fire.) 12 further people died at Quintinshill on 22 May 1915 to take the likely death toll in the worst disaster in British railway history to 227.

Friday, 22nd May 2015, might be a good day to spare a thought for the victims of any accident; and, since special meanings have been ascribed to flowers from the dawn of recorded time and white flowers used in funeral arrangements for aeons, it might be a good day to buy white lilies, which stand for the restored innocence of the human soul at death.