The horrific wartime train disaster that rocked Edinburgh and killed 216 local soldiers

For Leithers, May 22, 1915 is arguably the most tragic day in recent history.

A train carrying half the troops of the 7th Battalion Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment) collided head-on with a passenger train just outside Quintinshill, Dumfriesshire.

The incident claimed 216 lives and is to date considered Britain’s worst rail disaster of all time.

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Of a total of 498 soldiers of various ranks of the 7th Royal Scots traveling on the train, 216 died and a further 12 non-servicemen also perished.

Of the 216 dead, only 83 could be identified, 133 having been so badly damaged in the incident that those who rescued them could not identify their bodies.

Only 62 members of the battalion survived unscathed – with a handful of surviving officers continuing their deployment.

According to the Royal Scots websiteat around 03:45 a train departed from Larbert station outside Falkirk with troops from Leith, Musselburgh and Portobello on board.

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The men were heading to Gallipoli to fight in the First World War and were being transported to Liverpool at the time of the accident.

The Royal Scots train is said to have entered nose-first into a local passenger train which had been cleared to park by controllers. It was facing north but on the southbound main line just north of Gretna – this was to allow an express train to pass it.

Traditionally the local passenger train would have been sidelined in one of the Quintinshill loops, but both loops were already filled with commercial freight trains.

Funeral procession at Rosebank Cemetery.
Funeral procession at Rosebank Cemetery.

Once the two trains collided, the train carrying the brave troops ahead overturned on the northbound main track and about sixty seconds later an express bound for Glasgow loaded into the wreckage, causing a massive fire that essentially incinerated those close to the fires.

Questions were raised after the incident as the fire was exacerbated by the train’s carriages being extremely dated and made of wood.

At the same time, most cars were lit by gas canisters stored under each car.

Memorial in Leith to the disaster.
Memorial in Leith to the disaster.

A report at the time of the incident stated: “Survivors immediately set to work to help their fellow victims and soon the whole neighborhood was alarmed, and motor cars from near and far rushed to the scene with medical and other help.

“The kindness shown on all sides will never be forgotten, especially by the locals and Carlisle who gave such valuable assistance to the injured. Their hospitals were soon overwhelmed, but anyone who needed attention was quickly put on the comfortable as much as possible.

“Their Majesties the King and Queen sent their sympathy and gifts to the hospitals early.”

The Royal Scots, however, could have potentially avoided the whole disaster.

The Rosebank Cemetery Memorial.
The Rosebank Cemetery Memorial.

This was a territorial battalion recruited mainly from Leith, which at the time of the Great War was a separate Burgh from Edinburgh.

The group was used at the beginning of the First World War to equip the coastal defenses of Forth, and this until April 1915.

They were then moved just outside Falkirk to Larbert where they were then to be transported to the front line in France.

But a last minute change of plan saw the battalion deployed to Gallipoli.

In another unlucky twist, the soldiers were due to leave the day before but were delayed by the grounded troopship Aquitania in Liverpool.

It is understood that the tragic event has had a profound impact on the people of Leith. It is said that not a single person in the market town of Leith was spared the tragedy, with so many casualties awaiting the community.

On 23 May 1915, 107 coffins were taken to Edinburgh and placed in the battalion drill hall on Dalmeny Street.

The following afternoon, 101 of the coffins were taken in a procession to be buried in a mass grave which had been dug at Rosebank Cemetery, Pilrig Street.

A report at the time stated: “The road was flanked by 3,150 soldiers [by comparison, the total figure on parade for Her Majesty’s Birthday Parade in London in 2013 was given as 1,000, including street liners], thousands of citizens stood side by side on the sidewalk; shops were closed, blinds drawn and traffic stopped.

An inquest was opened just three days after the incident and the two flagmen were found guilty of culpable homicide by Edinburgh High Court and sent to jail, with one sentenced to labor strengths.

A memorial to fallen soldiers and non-servicemen now stands in Rosebank Cemetery after funds were raised to erect a monument in 1916.

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