FIRST World War soldiers injured in a rail disaster 100 years ago were “probably” shot in mercy killings, a senior retired army officer has claimed.
More than 200 people – the majority of them soldiers from Leith – were killed in the crash at Quintinshill, near Gretna, which left hundreds more injured in the worst rail accident in British history on 22 May, 1915.
The men, who were all part of the Territorial Army’s 7th (Leith) Battalion of The Royal Scots, were travelling to Liverpool to join a troop ship to Gallipoli when their train hit a local train standing beside a signal box.
Press reports from the time, including those published in The Scotsman, recalled that some trapped soldiers, threatened with the prospect of being burnt alive in the fire which followed the crash, took their own lives or were shot by their officers.
The claims have previously been denied for lack of evidence as there are no official army reports of shootings. But speaking in an interview recorded for a BBC documentary, Colonel Robert Watson, one of the most senior veterans of the Royal Scots, admitted it “probably” did happen.
The documentary, Quintinshill: Britain’s Deadliest Rail Disaster, which does not feature this part of the interview with Colonel Watson, was shown last night at The Drill Hall in Leith and is due to be broadcast on BBC1 on Wednesday.
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.”
Accounts from the time told how the soldiers were trapped inside the burning wooden carriages when another train, the northbound express, ripped through the wreckage of the disaster.
A report from The Scotsman said: “It would be impossible to exaggerate the horror of the scene. The majority of the killed were mercifully spared the torture of a fearful death. But some were not so fortunate. ‘For God’s sake, shoot me,’ implored one man.”
The documentary focuses on the events which led up to the horrific collision and the court case and inquiries, resulting in the jailing of two signalmen.