One hundred summers ago, at the height of the First World War, two young signalmen were changing shifts at a signal box at Quintinshill junction near Gretna Green in the south of Scotland. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this: they did it every day. But in the early hours of the 22nd of May, 1915 they made one small mistake. James Tinsley and George Meakin left a local passenger train sitting on the main line. Again, nothing very controversial: this was a fairly routine procedure. However, on that particular day they forgot to warn other vehicles on the line, such as the fast approaching troop train carrying the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots on its way to Liverpool, which at ten to seven that morning collided with the local passenger train at 80mph, commencing the worst rail disaster in British history.

As if one collision was not enough, a second London to Glasgow sleeper ploughed into the smouldering wreckage less than a minute later. As the troop train was made mostly of wood, a huge inferno ensued after the old gas lighting system ignited. As a Guardian journalist, writing about the incident a few years ago, said, the consequences of the mistake are almost absurd in their scale. One small error cost around 220 people their lives, although the actual numbers have never been established as even the roll list for the Battalion was consumed by the fire. All but twelve of the dead were soldiers on their way to fight in Britain’s disastrous campaign in Gallipoli, where they probably would have lost their lives in scarcely less horrendous circumstances.

Of course, these types of accidents do happen, and no amount of safety procedures can prevent every kind of problem (although you would’ve thought that wooden carriages and gas lighting was a recipe for disaster even then). The inquest following the Quintinshill tragedy found the negligence of Tinsley and Meakin to be the sole cause of the accident. As anyone who works on the railways will tell you, changing shifts is one of the most dangerous parts of a signalman’s job. However, more recent investigations have suggested that enormous pressure put on Tinsley, who may have had an epileptic episode shortly before the incident, may have also been a factor. But if there ever was a cover-up, as some have suggested, it succeeded. The pair were imprisoned for culpable homicide – the Scottish equivalent of manslaughter – for just over a year, only to return to work on the railways after being released in late 1916.

Such was the carnage of the fire that many of the soldiers were never properly identified, their coffins filled with nothing but ash and soot. The scale of the destruction made it all the more difficult for the authorities to establish why the bodies of three young children – children who were not meant to be there – were also found amongst the wreckage. Their bodies, charred beyond recognition from the fire, were never claimed, and a hundred years after the incident their identities remain unknown to this day.

One theory suggests that they were orphans from the Maryhill area of Glasgow, where the troop train stayed overnight, and stowed away on one of the carriages looking for a means of escape. The ‘lost children of Maryhill’, as they became known, rested in an unmarked grave for almost a hundred years. It was only in 2011 that a local councillor named Billy Buchanan arranged a proper memorial for the children, which can be found in Glasgow’s Western Necropolis Cemetery. The headstone reads: ‘The lost children of Maryhill – sadly never named or claimed’.

The bodies of the soldiers are buried in a mass grave in Edinburgh’s Rosebank Cemetery, where commemorations were held last month. Another service was held in Gretna, and was attended by Princess Anne, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the families of many of the victims and survivors. In addition to that, a book and a television documentary concerning the crash have also accompanied the centenary. However, most people have still never heard of Quintinshill. News of the incident was no doubt obscured by the countless reports of tragedies on the war-torn continent, but nevertheless the ‘Titanic of the railways’, as it has been dubbed, is still worth a moment’s thought. After all, Quintinshill is almost eerily close to the town of Lockerbie, a small borders community itself no stranger to disaster.



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