The moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin
His boots are cracking,
For want of blacking,
And his little baggy trousers they want mending
Before we send him
To the Dardanelles.
The Territorials of the 7th Royal Scots were glad to be on their way. Although they had in theory been ‘on active service’ since the outbreak of war and had volunteered to a man for foreign service, most of their soldiering had been spent guarding coastal defences within shouting distance of their home town of Leith and while they appreciated the home comforts that were still within easy reach, it was hardly the adventure they had anticipated. It was almost a month since Leith had given them a huge send-off. Even the Provost and Town Council had turned out for an official farewell and the battalion marched to the station through crowds of people who mobbed the pavements to cheer the local boys leaving, as they supposed, for the front. It was something of an anticlimax to find that the move took them no further than Larbert, a mere twentyfive miles inland along the Firth of Forth. But now they really were off to the front. Rumour had it that they were bound for the Dardanelles, and rumour for once was right.
It was a complicated business to embark a whole brigade of four battalions at the small station at Larbert and it was no less complicated for the railway authorities to filter numerous troop trains into the mainline network without unduly disrupting the normal flow of goods and passenger traffic. It had been a long day of parades and roll-calls, blankets to be handed in, kits and rifles to be inspected, iron rations to draw for the long journey to Liverpool, and, for the officers, a thousand and one last-minute details to be seen to before the Battalion moved off. It was almost midnight before the first half of the Battalion, A and D Companies, marched out of camp to entrain. The five hundred men of B and C would follow two hours later in another special train.
By the time a fatigue party had loaded the ammunition, by the time a final roll-call had been held under the dim station lights and the two companies were divided into platoons and formed fours to entrain in batches of eight to each compartment, the night was far advanced. The pipe band that played them aboard the train, and would play them off again at the other end, piled into the front carriage with their drums and instruments and had the luxury of having it to themselves. The battalion signal sections and machinegunners were together in the second coach, and the colonel and the officers took their places in the first-class compartments immediately behind. It was a quarter to four in the morning before the train finally got up steam and pulled out of the station and by that time the excitement had died down. A few enthusiasts set up card schools. Most were glad to relax and by six o’clock on a fine May morning, as the train trundled through the Borders towards the station at Kirtlebridge, almost all of them were sound asleep. This was a great disappointment to Ella Plenderleith.
Mrs Ella Smith, née Plenderleith.
My father was the signalman at Kirtlebridge. We lived at the station and he always used to tell us when the troop trains were coming through, because we liked waving to the soldiers as they went past. I was fifteen at the time. It must have been about half past six when the train went through, because my father was on duty at six o’clock and it was a while after that when he shouted to us that the train would be coming past. We hurried up and got dressed and went outside to see it go through, but we were a bit disappointed that morning because a lot of the soldiers were sleeping and not many waved back to us. It was my father’s first job that morning after he went on duty to clear that train through and signal to the next box down the line that it was on its way. The next box was Quintinshill. It was about six miles away just outside Gretna village – the last mainline signal box in Scotland.
Not long afterwards there was a tremendous crashing noise. We heard it six miles away! A few minutes later my father called out from the signal box to tell us what had happened.
What had happened was the worst rail crash in history. Like William Plenderleith at Kirtlebridge, signalman James Tinsley should have come on duty at six o’clock, but he had a private arrangement with his night-shift colleague, Meakin, which allowed him an extra half hour’s sleep before catching the local train from Carlisle and arriving at work nearly forty minutes late. Trains passing through in the meantime were ‘logged’ by Meakin on a scrap of paper, usually the back of a telegraph form, and transferred later in Tinsley’s handwriting into the official log. Tinsley returned the favour when it was his turn to work night-shift and the arrangement had worked to the satisfaction of both parties. But it failed to work that morning. The London to Glasgow express was forty-five minutes late on its journey north, and because the two loop lines were occupied by stationary goods trains Meakin had put the slow local train temporarily on the down line to wait until the fast express went through. Meakin was in a hurry to get off at the end of his long night’s stint and he had hardly left the signal box when Plenderleith rang through from Kirtlebridge to ‘offer’ the troop train travelling south on the down line. Tinsley had arrived moments before in the very train that now stood before his eyes on the main down line but he claimed later that he ‘forgot’ about it. He accepted the troop train without demur and pulled the lever that would drop the arm of the signal half a mile up the track to indicate that the line was clear. The troop train had picked up speed on the downward gradient from Kirtlebridge and was hurtling fast towards Gretna. It was almost a quarter to seven in the morning.
L/cpl. G. McGurk, 1/7 (Leith) Bn. (TF), Royal Scots (Lothian Regt.).
We were packed together like herrings in a barrel. Some were fast asleep, and most of those who were awake were so weary that when the disaster came it caught them at a disadvantage. Some of our chaps were leaning out of the windows at the time, and naturally they were the first to see that something was wrong.
One of the men in our carriage – Glass, I think, was his name – suddenly drew in a scared face and shouted, ‘We’re running into another train.’ The words were scarcely out of his mouth before there was a terrible crash, and the carriage seemed to leap into the air. We were all pitched on the floor in a heap.
I was one of the first to go down, and three other chaps all fell on top of me. They squeezed the breath out of me, but otherwise I was unhurt.
Sgt.J. Combe, 1/7 (Leith) Bn. (TF), Royal Scots.
The first two or three carriages were telescoped. I was travelling with Pipe-Major Ross and we felt the carriages coming up in the air and we held our legs up and when the crash came we were shot into the air and the roof of the carriage collapsed and fell down on Ross’s back. He was pinned down and shouting to me to help him. I myself was covered with debris and before I could help Ross I had the job of my life to wriggle myself free. I pulled the Pipe-Major by the head for all I was worth. It seemed like hours before I managed to get him free.
Pte. A. Thomson, 1/7 Bn. (TF), Royal Scots.
We were eight to each compartment and the doors locked! The last stop was Carstairs where some of us exchanged a little light-hearted banter with a few girls who were making an early start to work but nearly everyone else had settled down to sleep. Suddenly there was a terrific crash. The carriage rose up and sank down again listing dangerously over a steep bank. The cries and screams and the hiss of steam escaping from the engine was deafening! One by one we climbed out through the window of our compartment and on to the line. What a sight met our eyes. The wreckage was piled at least thirty feet high and terror-stricken men were staggering about. Worse still were the men who were trapped in the twisted metal of the wreckage.
L/cpl. G. McGurk.
The wreckage of the carriage was dropping on us, and the cries of the men that were injured were heart rending. One man had his neck broken by the fall, while others had their arms broken, heads cut, and legs twisted. I managed to get out from the wreckage, and, along with other uninjured men, went along the train to see what could be done. The scene was sickening.
The job was to know where to begin, but some officers got us organised and spread us along the train at intervals, and we started to dig out the dead and dying.
Men who managed to get out in the first moments after the crash were the lucky ones. The initial impact had derailed the engines of both trains and sent them teetering across the up line in the path of the express thundering north. A minute later the first of its two powerful engines ploughed into the wreckage with a roar that was heard for miles.
The troop train got the worst of it. The fire which had already started in the wooden coaches immediately behind the engines burst into an inferno. Carriage walls splintered. Bogies collapsed. Men were trapped. Soldiers who had managed to clamber out a minute before and were staggering dazed on the embankment, or trying to free trapped comrades, were killed or injured as the wreckage buckled and flew apart with the second impact. The fire took hold and began to spread along the rest of the train and behind the ear-splitting blast of escaping steam the cries of panic from men buried beneath the debris chilled the blood.
Sgt. J. Combe
The shrieks and the moans of the men as they were being slowly roasted to death was terrible to hear. The cruellest thing I’ve ever seen in all my life was the body of one man hanging high up on part of the wreckage with his arms outstretched. He had no head. But the worst was one fellow whose legs were horribly burned and he was pinned down and it was impossible to get him out. The flames were simply eating him up and getting nearer to his face. He must have been in terrible agony. He kept shouting ‘For God’s sake, shoot me!’
Young Gordon Dick was one of the lucky ones. He had been thrown clear of the third coach and knocked unconscious in the first crash. When he came round he found himself lying on the track between the rails with both feet caught up in the wreckage, and the flames creeping closer, burning his face and arms as he struggled to get free. It was the second crash that released him and it took all his strength to crawl to the embankment before he passed out again. Only one other man of the eight in his carriage escaped.
Mrs Ella Smith, née Plenderleith.
It was a terrible accident! When my father called out from the signal box a few minutes after we heard that awful crash and told us what had happened I simply couldn’t believe that just ten minutes before we’d stood waving to the train. Another girl and I set off right away to see it. It would be well over an hour’s walk but we ran a lot of the way. What a terrible sight it was, engines and carriages were piled high and it was still burning. Soldiers were being burned alive because they couldn’t get them out. One of the officers was sitting in the field among the dead, looking round about him to see how many of the lads were left. There didn’t seem to be many. It was a most terrible tragedy. I’d never seen anything like that. You couldn’t imagine anything like it!
By the time the single local fire engine appeared it could do little to staunch the flames. As they begun to spread, a shocked NCO was still cool-headed enough to organise a group of the survivors to run to the rear and unhitch the ammunition wagon and to roll it back by sheer muscle-power to a safe distance. But there were explosions just the same, for the train was lit by gas lamps and, as the flames spread along its length, gas tanks beneath the carriages exploded in the heat, flinging burning debris across the field and spreading more carnage among the helpless rows of newly rescued casualties.
There were not many civilian casualties, for the troop train had taken the worst of the collision, and passengers from the other two trains scrambled down the embankment to do what they could to help. Women from the village, running across the fields to find out what was happening, rushed home again and returned with piles of sheets and tablecloths to tear into bandages and to cover the bodies of the dead. Two hours after the accident an ambulance train came up from Carlisle, but long before then Dr John Edwards was at the scene, working close to the burning wreckage, amputating limbs to free men who were trapped, while the firemen did their best to keep the flames at bay.
Stretcher-bearers made countless back-breaking journeys, carrying the injured to the ambulance train for the short journey to Carlisle, laying the still bodies of the dead in empty goods wagons. It was many hours before they were all taken away – and many more before the wreckage cooled and salvage workers toiling by the light of arc lamps could begin the fearful job of recovering bodies.
Pte. A. Thomson.
I was detailed for stretcher-bearer duties. What a job for a lad not yet eighteen! I wept. I saw many a battlefield after that, but I never saw anything like the things I saw on that terrible day.
It was afternoon before we’d rescued everyone we could and there was nothing more that could be done. A lot of the men lay down in the field, they were so exhausted, and some of us thought about the folks at home and how worried they’d be when the news got out and they walked to Gretna post office to send telegrams. Then there was a roll-call. Fifty-seven of us answered our names out of nearly five hundred who left Larbert that morning. About five o’clock they put us on a goods train and took us to Carlisle and then up to the castle for a wash and a meal. A while later they took us back to the station and there was a special train waiting to take us on to Liverpool.
In the confusion of the emergency with all effort concentrated on finding space for the wounded in Carlisle’s overflowing hospitals, and the sad task of identifying the dead, no one had time to give much thought to the uninjured survivors. They were still in a state of shocked exhaustion, bedraggled in smoke-blackened uniforms, they had neither rifles, caps nor kit, they had been up all the previous night and had suffered an appalling experience. They should never have been asked to complete the journey they had begun nearly sixteen hours before but no orders had been issued to the contrary.
Despite long delays on the journey the second half of the Battalion had reached Liverpool early in the evening at the end of an anxious day. They knew that there was trouble.
Pte. W. Begbie, 1/7 Bn., Royal Scots.
We left Larbert in the second train. After a while we stopped at some station for a long time. We were allowed to come out of the train but not to leave the station. We all felt that something was wrong but it was not until Captain Dawson told us that we knew the first train had been in an accident. He didn’t know the details. When we got on the train again to finish our journey to Liverpool, we were really worried – especially the men who had relatives in the first train. Later anyone who had a relative on the first train was sent back home.
Like all locally raised Territorial Battalions the 7th Royal Scots was a family. Pipe-Major Ross, who had been left behind in hospital, had a son in the band who was more seriously wounded. The two Duff brothers, George and Robert, had been killed. The Salvesen brothers were both casualties, one killed and one wounded. Some families had three or more relations in the Battalion. As the news trickled through and spread from mouth to mouth and street to street in Leith where Saturday shoppers were out in full force, friends and relatives rushed to the battalion’s headquarters. Soon there was a crowd of thousands.
Miss Anne Armstrong.
My father was a sergeant in the 7th Royal Scots. How well I remember that Saturday morning. As soon as we heard about the accident Mother rushed off to the Dalmeny Street Drill Hall. She took us children with her – in fact all the family went – and we waited there nearly all day for news. I’ll never forget straining to hear as they read out the names of the men who’d been accounted for. They came through just a few at a time and, oh, the relief when we finally heard my father’s name called out. He was injured, it’s true, but he was alive!
I went three times with Mother to visit Father in Cumberland Infirmary before he was moved from Carlisle. The first journey was the worst. I don’t know who organised the visit, but a lot of the wives and parents went, and travelling down in the train in the morning most of the women were in tears – it was only the day after the crash – and no one knew what to expect. But when we met up again for the journey home they were all smiles. As a child I couldn’t understand this change. I remember Mother explaining that they’d all been through a terrible anxious time. My father had a badly fractured ankle which left him with a permanent limp, and he was badly cut about the nose and face.
Mrs A. Marshall, nee Duff.
My family lived in Musselburgh, and there was quite a bunch of Musselburgh boys in the battalion. All the relatives went rushing to the railway station, but they were told to go to the post office and wait there for news. My mother was in a state, for she had a baby eleven months old in her arms (which was myself) and my brother, who was just three, and they said that my granny was in an even worse state because, of course, she had two boys in the same company. They were both killed – my father and my uncle. My father was twenty-seven and my mother was twenty-five, and there she was, left on her own, a widow, with the two of us to bring up. But it was a good while before they got definite news.
The anxious crowd was still waiting for news at nightfall. At long intervals a window was flung up and a name called out. Then it slammed shut and the waiting began again. The names they called were only those of the survivors, and there were few enough of them. Some people who could not stand the suspense made the tortuous journey to Carlisle by branch lines and local trains to find out the situation at first hand. Bob White’s father took with him Bob’s last letter from Larbert by way of identification, for it was written on notepaper headed with the badge of the 7th Royal Scots. In it Bob had written delightedly, ‘I put my name in for the signalling and I and Sinclair were accepted, so I do no duties until further orders! The sun has been very hot and we have played football all day.’ But the signallers had all gone. The pipers had all gone. Three officers and two hundred and eleven men had been killed, and two hundred and forty-six seriously wounded.*
Mrs A. E. Cowley.
My father was the Reverend William Swan, DD, minister of South Leith Parish Church, and he was also the local chaplain of the 7th Royal Scots. He was summoned to Carlisle at once, and he had the heart-rending duty of comforting the wounded and the relatives after the dreadful train disaster. How well I remember it! He didn’t come home until very late the next night and he was deeply upset. He told us that he had to stand on a chair on the platform at Carlisle station and had to read the casualty list to the anxious relatives who had rushed to Carlisle. It was the saddest thing he ever had to do in his life. Then a few days later he held the mass funeral at Leith. It was almost too much to bear.
The hospitals were overwhelmed. Church halls were commandeered, GPs from miles around rushed to Carlisle to help, and surgeons, doctors, nurses, worked right round the clock attending to the injured. Some of them died in the night and to Dr Edwards’s distress one was the drummer boy of sixteen whose legs he had amputated to release him from the burning train. Near the boy’s bed another badly burned man lay dying. He tossed and turned and muttered all night. Edwards, bending over him, caught his words: ‘If only we could have had a fight for it!’ He muttered it over and over again.
In the early hours of Sunday morning Colonel Peebles led the remnant of his half battalion of 7th Royal Scots up the gangway to board the Empress of Britain – six officers and fifty-seven dazed, dishevelled men. Their Brigadier was waiting on the deck. He returned Colonel Peebles’s salute then shook his hand in silence. At that particular moment neither man was capable of uttering a word.
Pte. A. Thomson.
Early next morning we were put to work sorting out blood-stained equipment salvaged from the wrecked train. It was a gruesome task and I’m quite sure that there was flesh stuck to some of it. Later we were diverted to carrying ammunition aboard ship. Then we were mustered and allocated our mess decks for the voyage.
Perhaps some officer had thought it best to keep the men busy after their ordeal, but the Divisional Commander thought differently and Major-General Egerton had wired with some indignation to the War Office. Shortly before sailing time a reply came back. The survivors could be sent back north and other Royal Scots whose relatives were known to have been killed or injured in the crash could go home too.
Pte. A. Thomson.
We were lined up on the quayside and marched off through the streets to Lime Street Station. Believe it or not, some children playing in the street threw stones at us. We had no equipment and we looked so bedraggled and disreputable that they took us for German prisoners!
The officers had volunteered and been given permission to stay on board, but Lieutenant Riddell was sent home in charge of the party of survivors. The men were unusually silent and subdued. Riddell tried to cheer them up with the news that the General had decreed that they should all be given fourteen days’ leave, but they were too tired and worried to care. Most went to sleep or stared blankly out of the windows.
As the train cleared the outskirts of Liverpool and began to pick up speed on the journey north, the Empress of Britain cast her moorings and began to slip down the Mersey carrying their comrades on the first stage of the voyage to Gallipoli.
The voyage was pleasant and uneventful. A collection for the dependants of the men who died in the disaster raised £612 which was cabled home from Gibraltar on the day of the mass funeral. Most of Leith and half of Edinburgh turned out for it and the Reverend William Swan who conducted the ceremony was assisted by the Dean of the Thistle and Chapel Royal. Two hundred and fourteen bodies were carried to Rosebank Cemetery in Leith, and so many were charred beyond recognition that all of them were buried together in a mass grave. All the survivors were present.
Afterwards they went home on leave, but few had the heart to enjoy themselves. One man, Private William Roach, spent most of his time composing a eulogy to his shattered battalion. He called it The Heroes of Gretna’:
We had been for some ten months in training,
And we found it was work and not play;
You may guess that each man was delighted
When we learned we were going away.
Off we sped, never thinking of danger;
Ah! I see every happy face still –
Now a joke, now a laugh, now ‘Where are we?’
‘Yes, the next box will be Quintinshill.’
And ’twas just then the terrible smash came;
Heavens! It caught us like rats in a trap,
Just when some of our boys, a bit drowsy,
Were enjoying a quiet little nap.
I was thrown to the right of our carriage,
My head and right arm were held fast;
Horror! Here were the flames coming near me.
What a death! Was next minute my last?
Yes, I shouted for help – and I listened,
‘Oh, God!’ I heard dying men shout;
And midst that came a second collision!
I can tell you no more! I got out.
Ask me not of the sights I beheld there,
As I lay on the ground all alone;
But I’ll tell of brave lads who leapt into the flames
And saved lives at the risk of their own!
Oh their deeds will aye live in my memory,
Their praises I sing them aloud,
But to soldier with such a Battalion,
It’s of that most of all, boys, I’m proud.
Yes the scenes of that woe-stricken morning
From my vision I never can blot;
But ‘twill ever for me be the boast of my life
That I once was a Seventh Royal Scot.
In the early hours of 13 June the remainder of the 7th Royal Scots landed with the 156th Brigade of the Lowland Division on the shores of Gallipoli.
Whatever was in store for them they, at least, would have a ‘fight for it’.