Family remembers tragic rail disaster

Susan and Alan Hughes, wearing her grandfather's medals.
Susan and Alan Hughes, wearing her grandfather's medals.

A north Northumberland woman will tomorrow attend a poignant ceremony to mark the centenary of a horrific rail crash.

Susan Hughes never met her grandfather Alex Wightman, who died two years before she was born.

Major Alec Wightman

Major Alec Wightman

But the story of how he escaped unscathed from the Gretna rail disaster, which killed more than 200 soldiers from The Royal Scots bound for the Dardanelles in the First World War, was part of family folklore.

Now Susan, whose great grandfather came from Belford, and her husband Alan, the former vicar of Berwick, will join the Princess Royal and other relatives of those killed and the survivors at the site of the crash at Quinitishill, near Gretna Green, tomorrow, before visiting the burial ground at Rosebank Cemetery in Edinburgh on Saturday and a service in The Canongate Church, Edinburgh, followed by a reception at Redford Barracks, on Sunday.

Susan said: “My grandmother was told by my grandfather that the scenes he witnessed that day were worse than any he later saw in battle.”

Five hundred men of the 7th Battalion The Royal Scots had boarded the train. In the crash, on May 22, 1915, 215 Royal Scots perished and 191 were injured. There was a total of 227 dead and 244 injured, including civilian passengers and crew.

The then Captain Wightman was one of two officers to escape unscathed.

He was ordered to continue his journey with the few survivors and board the ship Empress of Britain, bound for Gallipoli.

He was awarded the Military Cross for his action in Gallipoli. He attempted to run telephone wires to captured trenches during the battle of Gully Ravine, during which he was wounded three times.

He was saved from certain death on the field by his pocketbook, which broke the force of a bullet.

This revered relic was much treasured in the family. On her grandmother’s death, Susan donated it to the Royal Scots in 1971.

It has since been tracked down, with the kind help of The Royal Scots Museum at Edinburgh Castle, to a display cabinet in the Officers’ Mess at A (Royal Scots) Company, 52 Lowland Volunteers.

Alex was also Mentioned in Despatches for crawling under fire to recover wounded soldiers. He had metal plates inserted to repair his wounds, but they were so severe his military career was ended. Major Wightman relinquished his commission in 1919.

He returned to his civilian occupation as a whisky broker and eventually became chairman of Robertson and Baxter, later Highland Distillers. He died at the age of 59.

Susan’s mother burnt all the family papers and letters, but last week she was sent a letter, produced below, written by her grandfather 100 years ago from his hospital tent in Tigne, Malta, on July 14, 1915, following what he describes as ‘a pretty lively time’.

A documentary on the rail disaster goes out on BBC Four tonight at 9pm.

Letter from the Officers’ Military Hospital, Malta, July 14, 1915

My Dear John,

You will see I am in Hospital and expect you will already have seen in the Papers I was wounded in the 28th June in the big attack. We are in the famous 29th Division and have had a pretty lively time. My Battalion I am afraid is pretty badly cut up, but they did splendidly.

A lot of the officers were killed, but when I was sent off in the Hospital Ship did not get many particulars. G. was alright and unwounded when I left. I got a bullet wound through each shoulder ( but did not touch the bones ) though the muscles are a bit disturbed . A bullet wound on the crown of my head ( not deep ) and a shrapnel in my forehead. It was not a big piece and has been taken out, but my head is rather sore. I also got a bullet in my pocket -went through my Field Message book - respirator and came out the back of my pocket without touching me.

On the 17 th June when up in the trenches I got struck on the head by a “ Black Maria “ and had a stitch put in. My nerves are a bit off as after being wounded I had to lie in the open for 17 hours before being able to move - the shells, machine gun fire was terrific. I am getting along alright, but it will take a little time yet before I am fit to do the same again. However, “ it micht hae been waur “. Was very pleased to get your letter and hear your news. It was very kind of your friends asking for me and I hope after the war to thank them myself. The train accident was awful and I lost practically all my Company. I saw (name indecipherable) in Alexandria for a few minutes, but he was walking in a sort of dream and had not much to say. If you drop me a line here I may get it before I leave. If you have a good Scotch Book “ The New Road” or something to spare please post it and I’ll think of dear auld Scotland when reading it.

My love to Alie and the kiddie and no forgettin’ yersel’ . Cheer oh to the family.

Yours ever Alec J Wightman

p.s. The mosquitos, sand flies and heat are awful - I sleep in a net.