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The WW1 Rail Disaster that Devastated the Community of Leith

Quintinshill Rail Disaster
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On 22nd May 1915, the biggest rail disaster in British history unfolded at Quintinshill in Dumfriesshire.

Just before 7am, on the outskirts of Gretna Green, railway signalmen made a fatal error of judgement. A local train travelling north had been ordered to stop at the junction, but found itself now lying in the path of a southbound troop train carrying soldiers from the 7th Royal Scots.

Carrying 500 men, the troop train approached the junction at high speed and crashed into the stationary passenger service. Little more than a minute later, another passenger service travelling northbound collided with the smouldering wreckage of the first two trains.

Scattered around the junction, the mangled wrecks quickly caught fire, fuelled by the gas-based lighting system used on board the troop train.

Frantic efforts to rescue survivors began immediately after the crash, with stunned survivors and locals working to save passengers still trapped in the smouldering wreckage as the fire spread.

Survivor accounts of the rescue operation are particularly harrowing. In 1985, Peter Stoddard, a survivor of the incident, told a reporter for The Guardian that officers were “shooting men trapped in the burning wreckage” that could not be saved.

The burned out remains of a carriage at the disaster scene

Over 220 people were killed in the Quintinshill disaster and hundreds more were injured. The exact number of deaths still remains unknown, as some bodies were never recovered due to the scale and intensity of the fire.

‘Leith’s Own’

The majority of those killed in the Quintinshill rail disaster were men of the Royal Scots, which recorded 216 deaths. Only 83 of the bodies were ever identified.

Notably, this battalion was comprised largely of men from the Leith, Musselburgh and Portobello areas.

Raised during the early days of the First World War and known as ‘Leith’s Own’, the 7th had spent time training near Falkirk in the days preceding the disaster. Boarding that fateful train, the battalion was due to travel to Liverpool and would have eventually found itself fighting in Gallipoli.

The Funeral Procession to Rosebank Cemetery. Image: Royal Scots

In the wake of the disaster, the bodies of the Royal Scots soldiers were brought back to Leith and placed in the battalion drill hall, located on Dalmeny Street.

While some of the soldiers were buried in private ceremonies, 107 men were buried with full military honours at Rosebank cemetery in Pilrig.

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Thousands of locals lined the streets of Leith to watch the funeral procession, the route of which was lined by more than 3,000 men of the 15th and 16th Royal Scots battalions.

An inquiry into the cause of the crash ruled that a number of procedural failings had contributed to the incident. In particular, the inquiry attributed much of the blame to two signalmen on duty at Quintinshill that morning.

Both were charged with manslaughter in England and convicted of culpable homicide following a trial in Scotland. They were later released in 1916.

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