Lest we Forget: The Gretna Disaster

Posted by in March's Magazine

At the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918, the guns were silenced and the ‘War to end all Wars’ was finally over. Church bells in Leith and throughout our land were sounded to mark the occasion. The end of a conflict that had such a devastating effect on all communities in Scotland and especially on Leith was finally over.  

In 1914 Leith was a busy commercial port and independent town with a population of some 80,000, a third (24,000) would have been adult males. By the end of World War One in 1918, it is estimated that 14,200 Leithers had joined the services and served their country overseas. 



Plenty of people on the home front did their bit as well. Many of the women of Leith took up jobs that were formerly assumed not to be ‘women’s work’ – in ammunitions factories, the docks and shipyards. 

Some 2,700 Leithers were killed in the war and thousands more were wounded, both physically and mentally. Many never recovered from the effects of serving in such a terrible conflict. When the guns fell silent on Armistice Day 1918, there must have been a mixture of sadness and relief in Leith. 

Sadness for the loss of life of loved ones but a relief that is was over. The community of Leith realised that life could never go back to what it had been, that the community of Leith had changed, and there remained a large gap within it, but Leithers did persevere. 

As a community we must never forget those who came before us. Those Leither’s who gave the ultimate sacrifice, who left secure homes to go to some foreign field, with little training or awareness of what lay ahead, never to return to their home port, Leith. 

On Saturday 10th November 2018 at 2pm the people of Leith are asked to gather at Tower Place outside the Malmaison Hotel, to commemorate the many thousands of Leithers who served and gave their lives in World War One. 

The Rt Hon Lord Provost of Edinburgh, representatives of the armed forces, civilian services, local community organisations and the young and old alike will attend this Service of Commemoration. The centrepiece of the service will be a restored railway carriage, similar to the one that was involved in the Gretna Rail Disaster at Quintinshill signal box. A multi-train rail crash that occurred on 22 May 1915 near Gretna Green in Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

It resulted in the deaths of over 200 people, and is the worst rail disaster in British history – 498 men of the 7th Battalion Royal Scots, the Leith Battalion were involved. 216 men of the Battalion were killed (many of whom are interred in Rosebank Cemetery). 

The disaster was a devastating blow for the community of Leith. A single street, Albert Street, lost 15 of its residents in the disaster.

The Royal Scots website states: ‘It was said that there was not a family in the town untouched by the tragedy, probably made worse by the fact that, out of the 216 who died in the disaster, or soon afterwards from their injuries, only 83 were ever identified. The railway was later dedicated to these men of the Leith battalion who perished at Gretna and several poppy wreaths will be laid against the carriage as part of the service.

 In addition to the service, local historian Andrew Grant will be putting on an exhibition about ‘Leith’s War’ in Leith Public Library and will also be giving a talk in the Malmaison Hotel at 3:30pm on Saturday 10th November and at 2pm on Sunday 11th November. 

It is important for all in our community that we never forget the sacrifice made by these proud Leithers.

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