South Scotland

Quintinshill: train disaster mercy killings 'probable'

Quintinshill Image copyright Dumfries and Galloway Libraries
Image caption More than 200 people died in the crash near Gretna a century ago

A senior retired army officer has said some soldiers were "probably" shot in mercy killings after Britain's deadliest rail disaster, 100 years ago during World War One.

The crash, at Quintinshill near Gretna, involved a military train filled with troops - most of them from Leith - two passenger trains and two goods trains.

It claimed an estimated 228 lives and left hundreds more injured.

There are no official army accounts of the alleged shootings on 22 May 1915.

However, many reports written in the press at the time of the accident suggested that some trapped soldiers, threatened with the prospect of being burnt alive in the raging inferno, took their own lives or were shot by their officers.

These reports were long denied for lack of official reports.

Now 100 years later, Colonel Robert Watson, one of the most senior veterans of the Royal Scots, has told the makers of a BBC documentary - Quintinshill: Britain's Deadliest Rail Disaster - it "probably" did happen.

He said that despite the lack of formal documentation he believed that in a very few cases, perhaps only one or two, they might well have taken place.

'Sense of compassion'

Image caption Colonel Watson said it was impossible to put ourselves in that position

Colonel Watson said: "All those that could be rescued were rescued. Many of them had amputations carried out underneath burning carriages so that they could be rescued.

"But many, of course, were trapped in such a position that they couldn't be got out or else the fire had taken hold and they couldn't be got to.

"And of course since then we've heard stories of some soldiers being shot and some soldiers possibly taking their own lives. It's never been formally documented."

Referring to the reported shootings, he added: "My own personal belief is that it probably did happen, in a sense of compassion, of mercy killing.

"It's almost impossible, sitting here, to comprehend what it was like that morning."

This section of the interview will not feature in the documentary which focuses on the events which led up to the horrific collision and the court case and inquiries which followed.

Presenter Neil Oliver examines the investigation and trial of two signalmen, held entirely responsible for the tragedy, that took place afterwards.

Image copyright BBC Scotland/Finestripe
Image caption Neil Oliver examines the story of the Quintinshill disaster for the documentary

The documentary, produced by Finestripe for BBC Scotland, explores the series of mistakes that may have caused the collision and the part played by the train companies and the government and determines whether the investigation would have come to the same conclusions if it were carried out today.

Dramatised reconstructions add to the account of a tragedy which had a profound effect on several communities in Scotland and remains the deadliest in the annals of Britain's railways.

Quintinshill: Britain's Deadliest Rail Disaster is on BBC Two Scotland at 21:00 on Wednesday, 20 May. It will also be shown the following night, Thursday, 21 May, at 21:00 on BBC Four.

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