On remote farmland in southern Scotland tragedy unfolded—a “great holocaust”. Chief fire officer, Eric de Schmid, could have done little more to save lives but he was hurt by criticism and haunted by memories. The Devonian, born near Lapford, later suffered public abuse for being a German spy.

Eric de Schmid (1880-1960)
Col. Eric Hubert de Schmid (1880-1960), c.1913
Christening of Eric de Schmid at St Bartholomew, Nymet Rowland

Eric de Schmid was born at Nymet Rowland Rectory in 1880 (which, as we shall see, was fact of great relevance later in life). He was the grandson of a wealthy German baron but his father was very much a nationalised British Subject who was a captain in the Devon Yeomanry and later had a long career in the county’s police force. Eric had followed his father into the Devon Constabulary and rose rapidly to become Chief Constable of Exeter, aged just 32. He left Devon, after little more than a year in the post, for a similar, but much better paid, position in Carlisle where he headed not only the city police but also their fire service. His career, whilst distinguished and recognised by the King’s Police medal, is chiefly remembered by the events of one fateful day ….

22 MAY 1915
It was a Saturday. Eric was at home when he received a disturbing telephone call. An incident involving several trains—a fire—many casualties. Five hundred Scottish soldiers were beginning a journey to Gallipoli for war service when their train had collided with a local passenger train waiting in front of Quintishill signal box near the Scottish village of Gretna, 10 miles north of Carlisle. A signalman, just starting his shift, had forgotten about the presence of the local train on the up line even though he had arrived to work on it’s footplates and it still stood in full view just metres away. With lights on green and no indication of a problem ahead, the troop train travelled at speed unware of the passenger train waiting on the same line ahead. The impact was devastating.

Those who survived had barely gathered their thoughts when, less than a minute later, came a second deadly collision—a Glasgow bound express train on the down line ploughed into carriages that had been strewn over its path. Goods trains standing in both the upward and downward loops in front of the signal box also became part of the mass of wreckage.

Survivors were dazed and confused. Many were trapped after the impact of two major collisions. But there was now a new danger— gas, used for carriage lighting, leaked into the air and was ignited by hot coals from the engine. The troop train, made up of obsolete wooden framed carriages, soon ignited. All five trains became engulfed in an inferno that would burn into the light of the following morning.

The first crash had occurred at 6.47am. With relative speed a runner had brought the news to Gretna station, a mile away and requests for help where telephoned out just after 7am. Yet no call was made to Eric’s police and fire services just over the border in Carlisle even though they were the biggest in the area. It was nearly two hours after then accident when a sailor from the express train entered Carlisle Police Station having, by some means, made the 10 mile journey from the accident. Eric home telephone rang at 8.40am with the terrible news.

The Carlisle fire service arrived at Quintishill around 10am, now more than three hours after the crash. Eric, as Chief Fire Officer, became a clear target of criticism despite the woeful delay in receiving any request for help. Eric’s reputation has not been helped by accounts that he caused further delay on receiving news. It is true that his initial fact-checking indicated that the fire was out and that fire services were not required, but this was quickly corrected. It is also true that rules required him to get permission to attend the scene as it was not on his patch. Despite these hindrances it seems that Eric acted with haste sending a messages for his fire crew to prepare to leave whilst necessary conversations took place. The crew departed Carlisle at 8.55am only 15mins after the Eric was first notified of the event. The subsequent delay in beginning firefighting was a consequence of distance, poor roads and the need to run pumps from the River Sark half a mile from the fire. Eric left for Quintishill 20 minutes after his men having made important communications including a request for the Red Cross to attend the incident.

Nothing could have prepared Eric for the horror he witnessed on his arrival at the scene—dozens of bodies lain out in a field, living men disfigured by fire, severe blooded injuries from the crash, amputees, the wreckage of five trains and the still raging inferno. At least 226 people died, mostly from the troop train, even more suffered injury. The death toll may have been many more but the troop list had been destroyed in the fire and some bodies could simply not be found, reduced to ash in the intense heat. Tragically, a number of those who died were shot in mercy killings or took their own life before they were consumed by the fire around them.

Fighting the fire was a delicate operation with the search still underway for survivors. Eric’s men fought the fire for the rest of the day and night, standing down at 9am on Sunday morning. Eric was at the scene for over 30 hours and finally left at 5pm. Images of what he witnessed in those hours stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Pictures of the “great holocaust” hit the front pages. There was public shock, particularly in Scotland, heightened by the irony that the soldiers had succumbed to such a terrible fate seconds before leaving their homeland, a time when they must surely have been contemplating when, and if, they would return. Newspapers commentated that the incident was surely more horrific than anything the soldiers would have encountered in Gallipoli. Nobody, then, could have anticipated that the name of Galliploi would live on as one of the allied force’s greatest disasters of the war; nor that atrocities would occur years later so horrific as to redefined the very meaning of the word “holocaust”. Quintinshill was, and remains, Britain’s worst rail disaster but its name has slowly faded in public consciousness.

Eric de Schmid’s profile was raised by newspaper reports of the crash and the inquest at which he gave evidence. For a man with a German sounding name in the middle of World War such attention was unwelcome. Rumours started that Eric was a German spy. He regularly suffered verbal abuse in public. A court case in 1917 prosecuted a persistent stalker whose public chastising of Eric over two years had included death threats. The man was convinced that Eric was sending messages to Germany using pigeons owned by Eric’s head of police training, who happened to be a pigeon fancier. The defendant claimed to have taken down the numbers of all the pigeon ring tags. The court heard about Eric’s birth in Nymet Rowland and his father’s long public service in Devon.

Shortly after the case Eric suffered further abuse after his name again appeared in newspapers across the country. This time he was the victim of a theft. Reporters revelled in the fact that a Chief Constable had been outsmarted by a female pick pocketer who managed to steal a wallet from his breast pocket. From 1918 the name of Eric de Schmid disappears from records. Eric had changed his family name.

Eric de Schmid never returned to Devon but Eric Spence retired to the county of his birth still in his forties. He died in 1960, aged 80.

From a child cotton spinner and a boy enthused by bug-hunting to an influential family of art, natural science and politics who found a home in Florence at a time of revolution and change. The de Schmid family who moved to Nymet Rowland came to the village with a fascinating family history.

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