1 1915 Wolverton Ambulance train viewing Phil Marsh

Wolverton’s World War 1 European Ambulance train on display in London a century ago

Published: 22nd May 2015

220 troops die in rail inferno in ‘The Gretna Disaster’ at Quintinshill

A century ago, the demands of World War 1 had become apparent and the construction of eight additional 16 carriage Ambulance trains was deemed necessary to convey wounded servicemen. These were constructed at various railway Works in the UK and several trains were built in May and June 1915 displayed at major stations for the public to inspect a few weeks later.


The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&Y) exhibited one at Liverpool Exchange station on July 9 and around £300 was raised via admission charges of 1/- (5p) levied to an estimated 5000 visitors in just one afternoon. The Merseyside station of Aintree had already seen 8700 wounded soldiers pass through since the start of the war.

Following this success, the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) decided to exhibit another such train, built at Wolverton Works, to Euston for public inspection. This was on July 21 between 8am and 630pm in Platform 12 and pretty much the top LNWR executive team visited the train. Again, a 1/- admission charge was levied on visitors and donated to The Railway Troops serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France.

The success of the day kept the train at Euston for another day when it was visited by the military and medical staff and it was reported, many ladies stopped off on their way to social engagements in London. A dog named ‘Brum’ also collected a total of £6. 6/- in coppers! Over 6000 people saw the train raising £323 over the two days. The train was then exhibited at Cannon Street where another 3968 visitors raised £12.8/- of which £14 was collected by another dog!

Ambulance train facilities

Ten carriages of the 16 carriage Wolverton built train was displayed, four carriages each with 36 cots for lying-down patients, a pharmacy car, a treatment room with an operating table, a medical staff car, a personnel carriage for orderlies, a pair of kitchen cars for staff and stores, plus a brake van and wards for infectious cases. One ward could take 12 patients while two others, six each enabling different diseases to be kept apart. These wards were kept separate from the Guard’s compartment via an airtight seal.

The train was fitted with self heating equipment for the staff quarters as well as drinking water. The train was equipped with electric lighting and candles for when electricity was not available via the dynamo mounted under the carriages or from on-board batteries. The dynamos were specially designed to provide a charge at only 10mph rather than the usual 25mph and powered the 24 volt system.

Fixed electric fans were fitted which meant that sections of any carriage could be heated rather than the whole carriage all the time. Portable fans were also carried and could be plugged in along the coach which offered individual ventilation to casualties if required.

Double doors had been fitted to enable stretchers to be carefully loaded and fresh air was supplied via many windows. Internally, the walls were painted with white enamel and designed with rounded corners so no dust could settle. Wall mounted bedsteads were fitted which could be folded against the walls if required.

The kitchen cars were equipped with Army Service Ranges supplied by the London Warming & Ventilating Company. The stoves kept 50 gallons of water on the boil at any time used for soup or tea. The treatment carriage contained a zinc lined operating theatre and a sterile stores area.

Externally, the train carried a khaki livery with a large red cross on each side of each carriage. This was because the train was to be operated in France to convey the mounting casualties and to bring troops back to England in more comfort.

The Gretna disaster

May 22, 1915 was the date of the worst UK rail crash when what was called at the time, ‘The Gretna Disaster’ happened. Today, this is known as the Quintinshill accident and this brief summary is how it was reported at the time.

The location was the Quintinshill sidings near Gretna on the Caledonian Railway. The midnight sleeping car express from Euston to Glasgow pulled by 4-4-0 engines Numbers 140 and 48 was running late which collided with the 0610am from Carlisle to Beattock being pulled by a 4-6-0 engine, No. 907 and a troop special running from Larbert behind a 4-4-0 No. 121.

A goods train detained in the sidings was also involved in so far as this necessitated the shunting of the 0610hrs train out of the way of the sleeper train.

At the time, it was reported that the signalman had forgotten the slow train and the troop train ran into it and the sleeper hit both these trains.

At the time it was said that 168 had died with 200 injured and 165 deaths were from the 7th Royal Scots Regiment. The actual death toll was well over 200. The cause was the signalman and his relief signalman were ‘fiddling’ their time on duty and were subsequently charged with culpable homicide and causing the death of the driver, fireman and three officers.

A commemorative tablet has been made and placed at Larbert station from where the troop train departed. For a full account, have a look at the current edition of The Railway Magazine.

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