On 22 May 1915, 216 men from the 1st/7th (Leith) Battalion of The Royal Scots were killed and a further 220 were injured when they were involved in a collision near Gretna as they made their way to Gallipoli to fight in World War One.
Still considered the worst rail accident in British history, WW100 Scotland held commemorations for the Quinitinshill rail disaster on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. John Edward, whose great grandfather Private James McSherry was among those killed, spent a year ahead of the commemorations tracking down other family members of soldiers who lost their lives in the disaster, making contact with 150 descendants from as far afield as Canada, New Jersey and France.
Although the commemorations took place two years ago, John is still in regular contact with families connected to the incident who are looking for information or sharing their stories.
One descendant mentioned that her father had always spoken of the Dominie at Gretna Green Village School cycling to the scene to help. This turned out to be the renowned educational thinker and reformer A. S. Neill, who wrote about the incident in his own memoirs as follows:
“One sunny May morning, a terrible troop-train disaster took place a field’s breadth from my lodgings. When my landlady woke me and told me there had been a smash, I jumped on my cycle and went off. The scene resembled a silent film. The only sounds were the hissing of engines and the pops of cartridges as fire crept along the wreckage. Men were lying dead or dying; one soldier with both legs torn off asked me for a cigarette, and he grinned as I lit it for him. “May as well lose them here as in France,” he said lightly. He died before the cigarette was half smoked.
“To me, the whole affair seemed unreal, like a dream. I joined a party that was trying to free a man from under an engine. As we worked, another-man said to me: “They expect the engine to explode any second.” But after an uneasy glance at the hissing steam, I thought no more about it. The quietness of that morning was unbelievable. Hardly a man groaned, and when the dying men called aloud, it was always for their mothers. Women and children were among the injured, but no cries or sobbing seemed to come from them. It was said that the officers shot some of the men who were hopelessly pinned under the blazing wreckage, I never knew if the story was true, but hoped it was.
“What impressed me so strongly that morning was my lack of any emotion at all, even pity. To be fair to myself, of course, I was busy all the time doing things for the wounded. I felt uncomfortable about this, however, and late at night, sitting in the manse, I said to the minister: ‘I must be the greatest egoist God ever made: nothing to give anyone, selfish to the core. This morning in that field I had not the tiniest suspicion of any feeling. I was just a stone of indifference.’
“Stafford stared at me with open eyes. “I was just about to say the same thing to you. I thought I was a monster because I felt nothing.” We apparently had assumed the attitude that doctors and nurses have. Just as a person’s fear changes into positive energy when rowing a boat in a bad swell, so he can absorb terror and pity while assisting others in pain. And one cannot feel deeply for complete strangers.
“Contrariwise, I recall how one of my pupils—a boy— was killed that morning, run down by a motorcycle on his way to the disaster. His mother asked me to go and see his body that night, and I felt a real grief. I also felt keenly the plight of the signalman whose mistake had caused the accident: I had his sons in school and liked them, as well as their father. To me, imprisoning him was only one of the many signs of barbarity in our legal code.”