A TV documentary last week about Britain’s worst rail disaster brought back a distant memory about my grandfather and the family story that he had been on the train and was one of the lucky survivors. Could it be true?
The disaster happened near Gretna Green on May 22nd 1915 when a troop train from Larbert in Stirlingshire destined for Liverpool collided with a local passenger train at Quintinshill Junction in Dumfriesshire.
Within 60 seconds, an express train heading north to Glasgow, on what is now the west coast main line, piled into the wreckage and the resulting explosion set off a fireball.
A total of 226 died, mostly young soldiers from the 1/7 Battalion of the Royal Scots, who’d volunteered at Leith and who were on their way to Gallipoli where, ironically, many would probably have been killed anyway.
Because the battalion roll was lost in the flames, it’s not know how many men boarded the train but at the end of the day, 216 were dead and 191 were injured while just 58 were left standing.
The story goes that some trapped men took their own lives with jack-knives as the fire raged towards them. Apparently, witnesses saw an officer pull out his revolver to shoot others who had no escape from being burnt to death.
Four bodies were of children who were never identified and never claimed because presumably their parents also perished in the flames.
The astonishing aspect about this horrific story is that it is little known today.
A mass burial at Rosebank Cemetery in Leith followed a military procession through the streets of the port but the disaster was soon dwarfed by the huge numbers of men being slaughtered in the trenches.
The Gretna disaster virtually disappeared from history.
The inquiry which followed pinned the blame on two signalmen, George Meakin and James Tinsley, who were later tried in Scotland and jailed after being found guilty of culpable homicide.
Incredibly, both men were released in 1916 and re-employed by the Caledonian Railway Company as if nothing had happened.
Following the BBC documentary last Wednesday evening it didn’t take long to discover, via the Imperial War Museum website, that Sapper John B. McGurk was indeed a passenger on the train.
He had signed up a few weeks earlier at the age of 17 and, helpfully, there was even a contemporary photograph of him in his uniform which I had never seen before.
My own father had never spoken highly of him. In fact, he had given the distinct impression that “Auld Jock” had been a cantankerous old bugger.
This may well have been a reason why we were never close to him and only saw him on these big family occasions when everyone was expected to turn up.
When he died at the age of 85 in 1982, it was a simple affair without much of a eulogy and no mention whatsoever of his part in the Gretna Rail Disaster.
After all those years, I’ve discovered that this is a great shame.
It turns out that John B. must have been in a rear coach and, therefore, escaped the fate of so many of his comrades.
He suffered chest injuries and was taken to hospital in Preston.
Later, when the Army decided that the battalion was no longer fit for Gallipoli, he was returned to Edinburgh.
So not only did he survive Britain’s worst rail disaster but, because of it, he missed out on the doomed Dardanelles campaign which ended with 120,000 British soldiers killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.
Instead, he was sent to Northern France where the British Army was involved in the second Battle of the Somme.
But “Auld Jock’s” luck was still in and he survived again.
After going over the top he was shot in the arm on August 4th 1916 and was invalided out of the battle.
And that’s where his war record ends apart from an entry involving his civil action at the Court of Session in Edinburgh less than three months earlier.
On May 17th 1916, the old bugger had sued the Caledonian Railway Company for £250, nearly £30,000 in today’s money, for his suffering after the Gretna disaster.
The action was settled out of court and he accepted £75 tax-free.
Who knows what he did with his windfall, a sizeable amount of money in 1916.
It would’ve taken him two years to earn such a sum assuming he made the then average pay of 16 shillings a week which was probably unlikely since he was just 18.
But after escaping the Gretna Rail Disaster and then the slaughter at both Gallipoli and the Battle of the Somme, he was back home with £75 profit in his back pocket.
Auld Jock, who went on to have eight children, became a tram driver in Edinburgh.
He was clearly a very lucky man indeed.
I like him!