Over the years Mike has written many scripts, books and other musings. You will find some of them here.
Juppy’s first published novel, synopsis and review.
‘It’ll All Be Over By Christmas’
Newspaper series on little known stories of Disasters, catastrophes, stupidity and heroism from The First World War.
‘THE DARK SIDE OF SUSSEX’
Tales of disaster, scandal, murder, mayhem, folklore. Fiasco, origins and warfare. From my home County of Sussex!
‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’ – was a collection of articles written for The Observer Series of Newspapers as part of the 2014 centenary commemorations of WW1.
The popular image of, ‘The Great War’ is of 2 vast and opposing armies, cowering in muddy trenches, separated by a few yards of barbed-wire festooned killing fields known as ‘No Man’s Land’
That image is only partly true. The First World War was exactly that, a WORLD war. My stories were of; action, heroism, sacrifice, catastrophe, and unbelievable stupidity: events that have been mostly forgotten and consigned to the murky backwaters of history.
“IT’LL ALL BE OVER BY CHRISTMAS” – PART 3
Radio signals move at the speed of light. It may not seem like that when you’re trying to download something from the Internet, but they do. It’s no wonder then, that these days information and descriptions of any given event, are spread as quickly through electronic media, as a blancmange hitting a fan!
However, there’s a simple truth regarding the First World War. Apart from folk caught up in combat or its immediate grisly aftermath, hardly anyone in Great Britain (or anywhere else) knew exactly what was going on ‘Over there’ – or that the consequences were so horrific. True!… Some of the inhabitants of the south coast of England could hear the gunfire from across the English Channel, but they had no way of knowing who exactly was firing at whom, or what the outcome was.
Lack of communication and strict censorship meant that the fog of war was extremely thick during those years. It was a fog so thick that it blotted out news regarding a lot of other catastrophes. ‘Collateral damage’ meant that ‘unfortunate incidents’, having only indirect associations with ‘The Great War’ were hardly, if at all, reported at the time. Catastrophic events that would make headline news for weeks in peacetime were consigned to a few column inches under the weight of war stories. ‘Collateral Damage’, spectacular events which, to the most part are now completely forgotten!
(A catalogue of catastrophe!)
Events in Human history, even the most cataclysmic ones, are like the ground in the path of a searchlight beam. At one moment the event at the centre of attention is glaringly bright, bleaching out everything around it, and then the spotlight moves on. Yesterday’s headlines fade into the shadows. Eventually, even momentous occasions, events that “will be remembered for ever!” are completely forgotten! They are soon consigned to the darkest corners of the black halls of time.
That may all sound very pompous and heavy, so before getting on to forgotten events that occurred during the First World War, and to explain what was meant, here’s an example of an almost forgotten, ‘heavy event’ that occurred because of the requirements of the Great War. The hostilities had ceased but, ‘The Purity Distilling Company’ of Boston Massachusetts, USA had, and was still making an extremely healthy profit from them!
Legend has it, that after nearly100 years, the sweet acrid scent of molasses can still be faintly detected in the hot air of a Boston summer night!
Ethanol. Is a naughty but nice substance that has the ability to blow your head off in a variety of ways. It is the basis of loads of things (a scientific term!) from alcohol to petrol, from rum to Rocket Fuel.
During The First World War it was used in the production of explosives, and one of the key ingredients used in the manufacture of Ethanol – was molasses.
Molasses’ is refined from Sugar Cane. If you pour it over your porridge from a tin it’s called ‘Black Treacle’, if it’s used industrially as part of commercial sugar production, its called molasses.
January 1919 – Only two months after the end of World War One, and the weather around the city of Boston had been erratic to say the least. The previous day had been a cold two degrees Fahrenheit, but by the 15th, the temperature had soared to a daytime high of over 40 degrees (−17 to 5.0 °C )
Towering over the old buildings near Keany Square, at 529 Commercial Street in the bustling north end area of the city, was a monstrous metal silo. The huge, fifty eight feet high tank was owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIAC), of which the ‘Purity Distilling Company’ (PDC) was a subsidiary.
Since its construction in 1915 the gargantuan metal barrel, containing some nine and a half million litres of liquid molasses, had been source of wonder for children but a niggling concern for adults.
Considering the events to come, Arthur Jell, Treasurer of the PDC had an unfortunate and darkly ironic surname. Jell, somewhat of an American ‘Del-boy’, had realized the potential profit for the USIAC in their production of explosives for the Allied war effort. Due to rumours circulating of the impending ‘Volstead Act’, the infamous ‘18th Amendment’ with its ‘Prohibition’ of all alcoholic drink: Old Arthur predicted a vast new source of revenue from a clandestine but lucrative booze production.
Realizing the need for the raw materials, he had paid for a shipload of molasses to be sent from Cuba. Unfortunately for Jell, he hadn’t got anywhere to put his ocean of incoming goop investment. With nowhere to store the stuff, there was real danger of his precious, and, as mentioned, pre- paid cargo, being dumped into Boston Harbor by the ship’s crew. (Boston Harbor already had a history of cargo being dumped into it!)
Jell commissioned the Hammond Iron Works Co. to construct the mighty tank, but in the December of 1915 over 20 inches of snow fell on Boston, and building work was seriously delayed. Jell was facing the imminent arrival of his treacle with only a half a finished tank to put it in. Building work was accelerated with scant regard given to matters of safety. With an almost complete absence of building regulations, work was finally completed. Jell did obtain a genuine permit for its construction, but that was only for the structure’s foundations. No building inspector was ever troubled upon to give a report, which as events were to prove, was an ill conceived moneysaving gamble!
However, Jell did have a pressure test conducted by filling the tank with water. That is to say, he had the fifty eight feet structure ‘filled’ with six inches of water, and was relieved to see that there appeared to be no leaks.
The molasses arrived, and went into the tank. Over the next two years more and more heavy, viscous treacle was added until, on the 15th January 1919, a mere two months after the end of the war, it was almost completely full.
Since the first load of molasses had been added, some of the worried workers had heard ominous rumblings coming from within the metal monster, and had noticed sticky brown liquid leaking out from around the metal rivets and seams. Others swore that the whole thing pulsated and groaned like some sort of ominous, gastric-troubled creature. Children regularly feasted on the free sweet stuff, using sticks to scoop up the treacle that oozed out and formed puddles around its two hundred and forty feet circumference.
To allay the fears of anyone noticing the worrying brown molasses stains, ingenious old Arthur ordered the whole tank to be painted brown!
Just before 12:30 pm on that mild and sunny 15th January 1919, City Police Patrolman Frank McManus had just finished filing a routine report from a telephone control box. Suddenly he heard what he thought was the rumbling of distant artillery and the closer immediate sound of a machine gun. He spun around toward the Molasses tank at the end of the street in time to see what had caused the noise. Not the sound of machine gun bullets, but of rivets and steel splinters exploding from the sides of the ruptured tank A build up of pressure caused by the fermenting and expanding gas inside the top of the silo caused the structure to fail at its most vulnerable point, the corroded rivets and weakened seams at its base!The metal tower had split, collapsed in on itself and had sent a thirty feet high treacle tsunami in all directions. The air pressure produced by the oncoming molasses felled humans and horses alike and overturned vehicles. The dark glutinous tide killed 21 people and injured 150, many of whom later succumbed to infection. Countless dogs and horses were crushed or drowned, buildings destroyed, and vehicles swept into the harbour. The adjoining elevated steel railway gantry was buckled out of shape, a scheduled passenger train came to a grinding halt only feet from the destroyed track.
You’d think the memory of such a bizarre accident would still be common knowledge, but, ”Never heard of it!” is the usual response from most folk when it’s mentioned. – Unless of course you live in the North End of Boston, know your history and get a faint whiff of treacle on hot summer nights.
That word, ‘Accident’ – It’s an interesting word. The first century Roman author, Pliny the Elder recorded that the Greek philosopher Aeschylus spent a good deal of his time outdoors. He did so in order to avoid a prophesy, one which foretold that he would be killed by a falling object. He really should’ve stayed in more!
Mistaking the sunlight reflected from the old Greek’s bald head for a rock, an eagle dropped a tortoise from about a mile up. (They do that!)
Anyway, the result of that avian “One hundred and eighty!” was a murdered tortoise, and a dead philosopher. In Aeschylus’s case his death was the result of a dreadful, genuine, accident.
The handling and transportation of explosives can lead to ‘unfortunate incidents’, and you would expect folk to be a lot more careful with things that go bang, but accidents happen – ’accidents’ that were in a lot of cases, wholly avoidable! (I have coined a word for such avoidable accidents, it is ‘Pratcidents’!)
One such wholly avoidable catastrophe occurred on the morning of December 6th 1917. A simple rule of ‘keep left’ was ignored, and over 2000 people paid the ultimate price in what is, to this day the world’s most powerful, man-made, non-nuclear explosion.
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. During both World Wars it was an embarkation point for allied cross-Atlantic convoys. Its huge natural harbour was connected to an inner bay by a stretch of water called the,’ The Halifax Narrows’. A strict rule was in place regarding both a vessel’s speed and its observance of the ‘Port to Port’ passing maneuver.
Unfortunately for the townsfolk of Halifax, a series of incompetent blunders and rule-bending from the crews of various vessels culminated in – The Big Bang Fact!
The SS. ‘Mont Blanc’ was entering Halifax Harbour from New York and was en-route to France with a full cargo of; 250 tons of TNT, 62.1 tons of gun cotton, 2366.5 tons of wet and dry picric acid (‘Lyddite’explosive) and approximately 300 rounds of 90 & 95mm.ammunition for the two deck canons. Additionally, both on and below deck were 246 tons of benzene in barrels.
An empty Norwegian coal ship, the SS ‘Imo’ was late leaving port that morning and began steaming considerably faster than the mandatory speed limit of.7 knots per hour. The speeding ‘Imo’ was confronted by an American tramp ship called the SS ‘Clara’ approaching her on the wrong side of ‘The Halifax Narrows’.
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
The pilots of the ships knew each other and signaled, agreeing to pass ‘starboard to starboard’. Shortly after that maneuver, ‘Imo’ met the oncoming tugboat, ‘Stella Maris’. To avoid the tug and its two barges, ‘Imo’ moved even further into the wrong part of the channel – straight into the path of the approaching ‘Mont Blanc’.
An urgent ‘conversation’ between the two converging ships began. A series of steam whistle blasts declared their intentions. The conversation became an argument, one blast meaning something like, “I’m passing you on the port side!” met by two blasts meaning something like, “No you’re ****** not! Go forth & multiply!” Sailors from many ships alerted by the steaming sirens-spat, lined the decks to watch what they knew would be an inevitable collision.
Both ships had reversed and stopped engines, but the collision still occurred, even though it was at walking pace. The bow of the Imo crunched into the side of ‘Mont Blanc’s’ No.1 starboard hold, at the exact point where some of the barrels of benzene were stored. ‘Imo’ restarted its engines and reversed out; as she did so a firework display of sparks from grinding metal ignited the fuel which had splashed over the decks from the broken barrels. Sheets of flame erupted, engulfing the prow of the ammunition ship – SS ‘Mont Blanc’.
It would be true to say that those proceedings concentrated minds wonderfully!!
With insufficient firefighting equipment to combat the blaze, and knowing what was bound to happen, Capt.Aime Le Medec ordered his crew to abandon ship, meanwhile the ‘Imo’ headed across the bay where it was beached.
The blazing ‘Mont Blanc’ billowing clouds of black smoke took about 20 minutes to drift and collide with Halifax Harbor Pier 6, which it promptly set alight. Crowds of people had come down to the dockside to see the unfolding drama. They didn’t know what was about to happen because the red flags flown by the ‘Mont Blanc’, along with other vessels carrying explosives, had been removed for fear of identification, and subsequent U-Boat attack.
The sailor that burst into Train Dispatcher Vincent Coleman’s little wooden telegraph shack did know! He screamed a warning that the Mont Blanc was about to blow!
In an act of supreme sacrifice, the young husband of Frances and father of 2 year old Eileen did not run. ‘Passenger Train Number 10’ with over 300 souls on board, was scheduled to arrive at Halifax Central at 8:55 am. Vincent knew that it would pass Pier 6 in a matter of minutes. He stayed at his desk, frantically tapping warnings with his telegraph key. Vincent Coleman’s last message read, “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”
Vincent had guessed right. It was! The ‘Mont Blanc’ blew up in a cataclysmic explosion and he disintegrated, his body parts washed into the bay along with everyone else that had been obliterated in the vicinity of Pier 6. The remains of the ‘Mont Blanc’s’ hull that weren’t atomized, were blasted over a thousand feet high. One of her deck canons was later found three and a half miles away, whilst part of her anchor was found two and a half miles away in the opposite direction! Nearly 2000 people were killed and over 9000 injured, many of them to die later of their wounds and/or hypothermia. Windows were shattered up to 30 miles away from the explosion, resulting in terrible eye injuries to many hundreds of people -.‘Twelve ophthalmologists treated 592 people with eye injuries and performed 249 enucleations (removal of the eyeball). Sixteen people had both eyes enucleated. Most of the eye injuries were caused by shards of shattered glass’ – British Journal of Opthalmology.
The Richmond District that overlooked the bay and Pier 6, was blown to pieces. In an instant, most of the Halifax Harbor area had ceased to exist. Not only had it been blasted and burnt, but a forty feet high Tsunami, created by the exploding ship, had swept away the houses and every living thing in its path. A colossal cloud, thousands of feet high had blossomed to serve as a brief tombstone for the shattered city. The skewers of cruelty drove even deeper into what remained of Halifax when, within hours, the blackened, twisted ruins, some still containing the injured and dying, were sanitized, almost beautified, by several feet of snow in the worst blizzard for years.
And Passenger Train Number 10? Vincent Coleman’s message tapped instantly into every station telegraph office along the route to Halifax. The receiving operators and signalmen worked frantically to drop all the semaphore-arm signals to ‘Stop’! The train did stop. Although severely damaged by the blast, it and everyone on board survived, and all thanks to the unselfish bravery of one man doing his duty.
The gospel of St. John, chapter 15, verse 13 reads, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. You were wrong mate! Vincent Coleman laid down HIS life for people he didn’t even know!
Meanwhile, only six days later, but on the other side of the Atlantic, another ‘accident’ with appalling consequences was about to occur. This too involved a train, but a train that couldn’t stop! To this day the ‘Frejus Railway’ or ‘Modane Train Disaster’ remains the worst railway accident in French history.
Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne near Modane in southeastern France is situated about ten miles from the Italian border. In the late summer of 1917, the Prussian-German Field Marshall Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (‘Paul’- to his friends) decided that Germany had to keep the forces of the Austro-Hungarian ‘on side’. He decided that he’d give them a hand by providing German troops to help give the Italians, ‘A damn good thrashing’. The Germans considered releasing poison gas, but were worried about using the (very) dodgy stuff without sufficient and accurate meteorological information (a weather forecast! especially one that predicted wind direction!) The ever helpful Italians inadvertently provided just what the German’s needed – a detailed weather forecast, broadcast over their radio!
During the November and December of 1917, the Alpine tranquility of the Rhône-Alpes region near the town of Modane had been regularly interrupted by troop movements connected to a series of battles in the neighboring mountains of Slovenia. French and Italian troops had been fighting German and Austro-Hungarians forces, battles in which, for the most part, the Franco-Italian alliance had been thumped. One of the reasons for their recent defeats was the use of German ‘Stormtroopers’
It was rumoured that the biological father of the bastard Alois Shicklgruber, may well have been Jewish. It now seems unlikely, but in any event, during the summer of 1876, the 39 year old Alois decided to change his name to that of his step-father’s family; Hiedler, Hüttle, or Hitler! In 1889, the 51 year old bastard’s 21 year old former housekeeper, and now wife Klara, gave birth to a sickly child who they named Adolf. Years later, the deluded sick offspring of Alois and Klara became obsessed with the heroes of German and Teutonic legend.
The un-heroic Adolf’s experiences in the First World War formed much of ‘Corporal Hitler’s’ reasoning, although he did receive an Iron Cross for delivering a message on his bike! Anyway, the inadequate, failed artist, military bicycle messenger and alleged coprophiliac (don’t look that up before tea-time!) became a hero-worshipper of the concept of the dashing German ‘Stormtrooper’
Today, most people connect the name ‘Stormtrooper’ with the black and white armored androids of the ‘Star Wars’ films. A previous generation associated them with Hitler and Rohm’s feared ‘Black / Brown-shirt’ bully boys of the 1920’s & 30’s. However, before that, they were known and feared as the ‘shock troops’ of WW1. .German High Command had conceived ‘Stormtroopers’ as a way to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Small units of elite troops, supplied with specialist equipment; flamethrowers, functional body armour, shortened rifles and bayonets, rifle grenades and a variety of truly medieval ‘weapons’, custom made for use in the confined area of a trench. They were squads of highly trained ‘commandos’ that could execute fast and effective hit and run ‘shock’ raids.
The tactics were successfully employed in Slovenia from October to November 1917. Poison gas and ‘Stormtroopers’, had been the main reason for the rout of the Italian 2nd Army at the Battle of Caporetto.
A month later, on December 12th 1917, Military Train 612 was returning from Italy filled with French soldiers. They were being sent on leave after helping the Italians (and some British) in trying to regain territory lost at Caporetto.
The train, actually two trains coupled together, eventually consisted of nineteen carriages, crammed with over a thousand tired and wounded men, pulled by one totally unfit for purpose, 4-6-0 locomotive. Only three of the carriages had air-brakes, the others were fitted with hand-brakes or no brakes at all. The driver wasn’t so much concerned with moving the train, as stopping the flipping thing!
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
The train driver, ‘Adjutant Girard’ was well acquainted with the steep and winding route from Modane to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. When he had arrived at Modane station the 17 carriage train stopped for an hour in which time two additional carriages had been attached. In a wonderful example of the ‘Esprit de Corps’ of the time, most of the officers promptly left in order to board the Modane-Paris Express. This left the ‘other ranks’ packed like sardines aboard Train 612.
Driver Girard knew that there should have been 2 locomotives to cope with the braking necessary for a train of that weight and length before descending the steep incline to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, but wartime shortages meant that just the one engine was available.
He refused to proceed, and was promptly threatened with ‘Military discipline’ by his superior, Captain Fayolle, ‘Commanding Officer for Railway Traffic’.
Refusing a direct order in wartime was a court martial offence, for which the death penalty was as readily given out as crisps in a pub! Girard reluctantly obeyed. Military Train 612, with approximately 1000 passengers on board hissed and heaved itself slowly and strenuously away from Modane station. Rapidly gathering speed, the troop train rattled towards the valley gradient – and a predictable doom.
Train 612 had only traveled about 4 miles down the French side of the Alpine valley, when the brakes that did work overheated and set light to the wooden carriages. The electric lights in the train had not been working and the troops had resorted to candles. The wildly swaying train caused the candles to be thrown around inside the compartments, resulting in even more fires. The train’s speed reached 60mph, not the authorised 25mph maximum when the first carriage’s coupling broke – causing it to derail. The following, out-of-control carriages, piled one after another into the plummeting wreck.
The splintering mass of iron and burning wood then crashed through a rock cutting at close to eighty mph. The narrow pass not only caused a pile-up of mangled wreckage, but acted as a natural oven for the ensuing fire.
The inferno detonated grenades and other unauthorised explosives that troops had brought with them. The result was a funeral pyre for the hundreds of screaming soldiers trapped in the mountain of wreckage.
Meanwhile, Driver Girard had been totally unaware of what had happened behind him. His locomotive and coal tender had been unaffected by the broken coupling and he hadn’t noticed that the rest of his train was missing! Girard had been far too preoccupied with desperately trying to slow the unresponsive locomotive. He eventually managed to bring it to a halt at the station of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, where he discovered the appalling truth.
That appalling truth was; 424 identifiable dead pulled from the wreck, 135 burned beyond identification, an unaccountable number beyond recognition and reduced to ash, 37 found strewn along the track, bodies of men who had jumped or been thrown to their deaths.
Over the next 2 weeks a further 100 died of their injuries, with the final death-toll estimated to be between 700 and 1000+!
Six employees of the Paris-Lyon’Mediteranee Railway Company were subsequently tried at an especially convened court martial. They were all acquitted!
It appears then, that folk were getting away with, ‘Corporate Manslaughter’, long before that term ever existed. Well, “there was a war on”!
Only a month later, on the 13 January 1917, the same war caused a very similar ‘accident’ only this one was hundreds of miles to the east in Romania, and resulted in even more deaths!
‘Pratcident’ isn’t a word in a dictionary, but it should be, because if ever a catastrophe was caused by a prat, it was the Ciurea Rail Disaster!
Railways really went downhill during WWI.
There were a lot of railway related accidents from 1914 – 18, and nearly all of them involved overloaded trains hurtling out-of-control down steep hills. Most of them were connected to, or caused by, ‘The Great War’, but not all. For instance – from around 1910, Mexico had its own unpleasantness with the whole country embroiled in, ‘The Mexican Revolution’.
In January 1915 the forces of Venustiano Carranza and the infamous Pancho Villa overthrew the Government. Carranza became President but punchy Pancho wanted to carry on with the revolution and thus a war began between Pancho and President!
On the 18th January 1915, troops loyal to Carranza captured the town of Guadalajara. The new boss immediately ordered the families and dependents of his victorious troops to join them. That is why an overloaded train filled with mostly women and children went chugging to disaster on or around the 22nd January 1915.
Somewhere on a steep gradient between the towns of Colima and Guadalajara, the driver lost control of the vastly overloaded 20 carriage train. The shaking, rattling, rocking and rolling train tilted alarmingly as it wheel-screeched around corners. People who had been traveling on the roofs, sitting between or clinging to the undercarriages were thrown to their deaths. Then – the final catastrophe occurred when the whole train, kit and caboose, fell into a ravine.
Of the roughly 1000 people on board fewer than 300 survived. Some of the victims were families of the indigenous Native American Yaqui tribe whose men folk were fighting for The President. On hearing of the disaster, some of them committed suicide, while others screamed vengeance and promised death to the train’s crew. However, the train’s crew couldn’t have cared less about being scalped or murdered by Indians. They were already dead in the wreckage!
Gravity AND stupidity were the reasons for one of the worst rail crashes of all time, and the following was certainly no ‘accident’. The most charitable explanation is that it was caused by pressing wartime conditions – and the least charitable explanation? – it was caused by the actions of a total prat!
On the 9th January 1917, the illustrious and highly respected German soldier, Field Marshall Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen (Ant to his friends?) was awarded the Grand Cross of The Iron Cross, an award originally intended for only the most distinguished of Prussian Generals. This was in recognition of his successful 1916 Serbian and Romanian Campaigns. Von Mackensen was a brilliant military commander, and like most victorious commanders he was given nicknames by his troops. Mackensen was known alternatively as; ‘Hindenburg’s Brain’, ‘The Last Hussar’, and interestingly, ‘Amerikanerfresser” – ‘Eater of Americans’. No Americans were involved in the impending disaster, but there were plenty of Russians.
Von Mackensen’s troops, an alliance of German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Ottoman Turks were in full pursuit of the enemies of the Kaiser.
Just 4 days after The Field Marshall had been twirling his handsome mustache, admiring himself and his new medal in the mirror, some of Romania’s Russian allies were desperately attempting to flee the German onslaught by rail.
Approximately 1000 wounded and exhausted Russian troops accompanied by a hotchpotch of refugees had boarded a train traveling north from Bârnova Commune (County) to Iaşi Commune on Romania’s north eastern border. The stage was set, the actors (and at least one prat) in place, all was ready for another rocking & rolling, brake-dance tragedy!
From the town of Bârlad to the hamlet of Ciurea is a distance of about 10 miles. The gradient of the railway line was/is 1 in 40, but in places as steep as 1 in 15. The heavily laden, 26 carriage train pulled by 2 locomotives began the 10 mile descent that would take it slowly through the little hamlet of Ciurea.
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
The carriages of a Romanian train circa 1917 had probably been built at least 30 years earlier. We’re not talking about something that resembles a gleaming metal, 21st Century Euro-star carriage. These were more like 19th century, wooden potting sheds, on a bed-frame with wheels! But they were still made of solid wood and iron, and that made them heavy!
Locomotives of the time occasionally blew up and killed people, but they were generally sturdy, powerful and reliable. However, 26 carriages, even in 1917, represented a very heavy load and, as has been described earlier, brakes were quite useful.
So!… only the gods of misfortune know why a squaddie, whose name has been lost to posterity, decided to faff around with the handle of the train’s perfectly adequate Westinghouse air-brake system! Our hero closed the train’s air-brakes pipe cock!
Thanks to him, the 26 carriage train immediately had no brakes! Add to that, the brake pipes that connected the train’s brake system passed from carriage to carriage, and were not designed to be trodden on, or used as a footway between moving carriages. Unfortunately, that’s EXACTLY what they were being used for, adding ‘system abuse’ to the ingredients of disaster.
Was it boredom, mischief, or was he ‘having a laugh!’? The fact we know it was a soldier that closed the pipe, and that he had probably been observed by another soldier, lends weight to the ‘having a laugh’ theory, but no-one will really ever know for sure.
So many people were aboard the train, never mind in it, that the normal weight capacity had trebled if not quadrupled? Scores were clinging to the roofs and an equal amount sitting precariously between the swaying carriages, some even riding astride the buffers.
We do know what happened next! The 2 locomotives could not hold back the weight bearing down on them. Panic must have gripped the engineers, because it wasn’t far until the train reached Ciurea, and whether they knew it or not, there was a train stopped at the station – and, it was on the same line as them! They slammed both locomotives into reverse and released the anti-slip sand to the rails under the engines’ driving wheels, but all to no avail.
Unlike the French Modane disaster, the carriage brakes would not cause any fires – there weren’t any! As it swung wildly around curves at more than 60mph, the people on the outside of the carriages were flung to their deaths, either away from or under the train. The curving ribbon of track became a long straight descent. Ciurea and disaster were only minutes away. At the last moment the oncoming troop-train was switched to a loop line that in theory should have taken it around the station, away from the waiting train, and to where its 2 locomotives could have been brought to a halt.
But, it was going far too fast! As the locomotives careered around the bend of the loop, the train derailed, the carriages then slammed into each other, and the banks of a cutting. Many references say that the wreck caught fire and burned out. However the 2 photo’s of the crash that exist show a crowd, including many photographers (who must have taken a while to arrive?) standing around an admittedly horrific pile up, but not one that had burnt to the ground! One wonders whether inside that pile up of death and destruction was the individual that caused it all in the first place?…Other than the Kaiser that is!
There were many other fatal train ‘accidents’ during the First World War. Most were completely avoidable and most are now completely forgotten! Only some could be blamed directly on Kaiser Bill. Here’s just a few;
Neosho, Tipton Ford, Missouri – August 5, 1914 – United States – Head on collision between a passenger train and a petrol powered motor carriage. The petrol tanks exploded burning it to the ground 43 dead 38 injured
Ilford rail crash, January 1st – 1915 – United Kingdom– An express train from Clacton to London crashes into a local train after jumping two sets of signals. 10 killed, 500 injured.
Smithy Bridge, Lancashire. March 18th 1915 – United Kingdom – An express passenger train goes through a red signal and collides with back of an empty goods train. 4 killed and 33 hurt
Weedon rail crash August 14, 1915 – United Kingdom –The locomotive of an express train loses a coupling rod which damages the adjoining track. An express train coming in the opposite direction is derailed.10 passengers killed, 21 injured
Ratho Rail Crash: Scotland. January 3, 1917 – United Kingdom – ‘Unsafe hand signals’ (basically a prat of a signalman waving like ****!) results in 12 deaths when an express train is released into path of a locomotive in bad weather.
Catterick Bridge September 15, 1917 – United Kingdom – Ten carriages carrying troops run away and crash near Catterick Camp, Yorkshire 3 soldiers killed.
Bere Ferrers rail accident – Devon. 24th September – United Kingdom – New Zealand soldiers unaware of the British train system, exit carriages on the wrong side and onto the track- in front of an oncoming express train. 10 dead
The St.Bedes Junction Rail Crash. December 17, 1915 – United Kingdom – passenger train collides with banking engine in thick fog, 19 killed.
Shepherdsville train wreck, December 20, 1917 – United States –Shepherdsville, Kentucky. A rear end collision results in 49 dead. Chocques – April 11, 1918 -France-, – Troop Train explosion (possible shellfire?). 29 men of the 4th Battalion Kings (Liverpool Regiment) die. They are buried in the military cemetery at Chocques – Pas de Calais.
The Hammond Circus Train Wreck. June 22, 1918 – United States – Hammond, Indiana: An empty troop train runs into the back of a halted Circus Train, resulting in 86 deaths and 127 injured.
The Great train wreck of 1918. July 9, 1918 – United States –Nashville, Tennessee: A head on collision between two Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway trains.101 killed, 171 injured at Shops Junction-West Nashville, Tennessee.
Weesp Train Disaster. September 13th, 1918 – Netherlands – Heavy rainfall causes the embankment leading to a canal bridge to become unstable. A passenger train derails 41 killed and 42 injured.
Getå Railroad Disaster October 1, 1918 – Sweden – Sweden’s worst ever train crash. A landslide causes a passenger train to derail. 42 die, 41 injured.
The Malbone Street Wreck. November 1st.– United States –1918 – New York City. An inexperienced motorman (pressed into service because of a strike) drove one of the system’s subway trains too quickly into a sharp curve, the train derailed. (at least ) 93 were killed and over 100 injured.
Sadly, as that list shows, railway calamities weren’t confined to foreign countries. Great Britain’s worst ever rail disaster was in1915. Ironically it occurred near, of all romantic sounding locations, Gretna Green in Scotland.
There was NOTHING romantic about this horrific ‘accident’
The fog of war mixed with the thick smoke of the crash, conspired to keep this incident quiet until well after the war. The Quintinshill Rail Disaster was a series of blunders, rule-breaking, and sloppiness that was tantamount to Manslaughter, which is in fact exactly what later Court Cases determined it to be!
May 22nd 1915. Quintinshill Signal box was situated close to a system of rail loops designed to hold rolling stock in sidings until other faster trains had passed through. If everyone involved had followed the Railway Company’s rules & regulations there would have been no ‘accident’…but they didn’t.
First of the ingredients on the disaster list was an agreement between the two Quintinshill signalmen, George Meakin and James Tinsley. The pair had a cosy working relationship allowing whoever was on the Day shift, which officially commenced at 6:00 am, to occasionally have a lie in. The other would write down the night and early morning train movements on a piece of paper to be copied later into the official ‘train record’ book by the Day shift worker. Second ingredient, if a signal lever showing an out of position train had been locked, as signaling regulations required it to be, no collision would have occurred. Third ingredient, no one from Quintinshill sent the next signal box along the line at Kirkpatrick the message that the ‘Up’ line was blocked. Fourth ingredient, there were unauthorised persons in the signal box, railmen chatting about the war, chatting which may well have distracted the signalmen.
On that morning George Meakin had worked the night shift. Meakin had placed the 4:50am coal train on the ‘Down’ line to Glasgow from Carlisle. The train was parked in the opposite ‘Goods Loop’, furthest away from the signal box. A goods train of empty coal wagons had arrived and Meakin decided to place them in the other loop, closest to his signal box.
It was the usual practice that if the local train from Carlisle to Beattock was due to be shunted at Quintinshill, the signalman at Gretna would advise whoever did the day shift of the fact, so that they could hitch a ride thereby saving themselves a one and a half mile walk.
On the morning of May 22nd two express trains were running late, meaning the local train would have to be shunted at Quintinshill.
At 6:30 the tardy Tinsley duly arrived on the local train from Carlisle to Beattock which was traveling on the ‘Down’ line to Glasgow. Meakin decided to temporarily switch the local train onto the ‘Up’ line to Carlisle, while he shunted the empty coal wagons onto the other loop,
The local train was moved onto the ‘Up’ line and left more or less outside the signal box.
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
The local train’s fireman George Hutchinson strolled from the train to the signal box with Tinsley and made the literally fatal mistake of assuming things. He assumed that Meakin and Tinsley, being the consummate professionals that he thought they were, would have enacted a series of safety procedures. Firstly, his train was sitting there – blocking the main line. A message should have been sent to the next signal box at Kirkpatrick, informing them that the line was blocked. A collar should have been placed over a signal lever so that nothing could come onto the line until it was clear.
But, Tinsley was far too pre-occupied with the piece of paper Meakin had given him and was covering the tracks of their little snooze scheme, busily copying the morning’s events into the train register. The 2 brakemen from the goods trains were, against regulations, in the box discussing the war with Meakin, and amongst the general chat and banter, George Hutchinson simply did not remind the signalman of the presence of his train or check to see if the collar was on the signal lever. Quintinshill signal box had been a noisy place that morning, but it was about to get a whole lot noisier.
At 6:42 the nearest signal box at Kirkpatrick ‘offered’ a troop train to Quintinshill. In other words, it was a request for a train to be allowed to proceed into Meakin and Tinsley’s sector.
Meakin, it appears, had completely forgotten about the local train which was more or less in front of him, and ‘accepted’ the troop train.
The troop train comprised of 21 carriages being pulled by two locomotives, and the whole thing was now heading straight for Quintinhill’s stationary passenger train at about 50mph. The troop train’s rolling stock consisted of ancient wooden-framed carriages, gas lit and fitted with canisters (recently fully charged) fixed underneath the carriages.
It was packed with soldiers of the Territorial Army,1/7th Leith Battalion, Royal Scots Regiment, who were on their way to Liverpool and en route to an even bigger disaster, the beaches of Gallipoli.
Most of them never got there! The Troop train’s two locomotives smashed into Hutchinson’s parked Carlisle train, the carriages concertinaed caught fire and, fed by the escaping gas, quickly became an inferno. Things then got even worse!
The 5:50 express from Carlisle came barreling around the bend and piled into the blazing troop train. The finale to Britain’s greatest ever rail disaster had been performed!
The final death toll will never be known. It was put at 226 dead with 246 injured. One reason for the uncertainty was the fact that the regiment’s roll list was destroyed in the fire.16 out of the 21 carriages were incinerated, the others having detached after the collision, rolling back down a slope.7 passengers on the express died and 2 on the local train. The limbless torsos of 4 children from the express were never identified, and no one ever came forward to report any children missing. However, intense fire does strange things, including shrinking a mature human to the size of a small child, so they may not even have been children.
The fire burned for nearly a day as there was no water aboard the trains and no firefighting equipment to hand.
A later Board of Trade Enquiry resulted in Hutchinson, Meakin and Tinsley being sent for trial at Edinburgh High Court. In the event, Hutchinson was reprimanded but acquitted, Tinsley received 3 years ‘Penal Servitude’ (Hard Labour) and Meakins received a 3 year prison sentence!
Trains still pass the scene. There’s nothing special about the place, and nothing much at the actual scene to inform the passing traveler of the deaths of so many in such a totally avoidable ‘accident’
Meanwhile, the Great War’s insatiable meat grinder kept churning out blood, bones and gristle. On the 1st July 1916, one of the bloodiest battles in human history began. The ‘Battle of the Somme’ lasted until 18 November 1916, and resulted in over 1 million casualties. The British public was absorbed with what was going on ‘Over there’ and so, to paraphrase a remark from more recent times, “it was good time to bury bad news”.
Some very bad news was buried on Monday 21st August 1916, along with a lot of the townsfolk of Bradford, Yorkshire. (Coincidentally, with this article in mind, Bradford is only a short distance from a town called Halifax!)
Work was in full swing at ‘Factory No.182- The Low Moor Munitions Company’. The ingredients for another ‘accident’ had been put in place, and were about to be added to the whimsical mix of fate. Once again, if rules and regulations had been observed, a lot more people from Bradford would still have been alive on August 22nd!
The company was flat-out producing explosives for the war effort. In particular they were producing ‘picric acid’ (C6H3N3O7) a powerful explosive known as ‘Lyddite’. Special precautions were used not only in its manufacture, but in the transporting of the VERY dangerous material. Put simply, it was an acid that through various filtrations, washing and drying processes, was refined into a dried crystalline substance, crushed and put into barrels. The barrels would then be stored in the company magazine before their contents were transferred to boxes and sent away to be put into artillery shells.
Incidentally, it was particularly unfortunate that the Bradford Corporation Gas Works was situated as close as it was to the munitions factory.
Anyway, on that fateful, sunny day, just after lunch, employee James Broughton was unloading barrels of processed picric acid from a hand cart. He was unloading them either inside, or by the door of the magazine.
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
It was about 2:25 pm when Broughton heard a ‘sizzling’ noise coming from the first barrel he had unloaded. ‘Sizzling’ is not a good noise to hear in the vicinity of an explosives store. Eye witnesses are divided as to exactly where the fire started, some say at the top of the uncovered barrel, others say from its base. They all agree that they saw an eruption of flame which spread quickly through the picric acid, dust laden air of the company magazine!
Broughton should have had a cover over the contents of the barrel. He and everyone else rolling barrels, should have rolled them on the rubber mats that had been supplied. Picric acid reacts to all metal except tin. The barrels were tin plated iron inside a wooden casing. Broughton et al were used to rolling the barrels across the flat cobblestones (the ubiquitous Yorkshire ‘setts’) The barrels were not in the prime of life and where they had been constantly spun and rolled around on their bases, they had worn away, bringing the tin ever closer to the iron. Sooner or later there was bound to be contact! If contact did occur, salt of picric acid, ‘picrates’, was formed. Encrusted picrates salt on the outside of the barrel was even more explosive than the stuff inside, and could be set off by percussion, such as that caused by a barrel being dropped or rolled on cobblestones! (For folk of a certain age, think ‘cap-guns)
The chemical reaction was inevitable, but sadly for everyone concerned, the reaction couldn’t have occurred at a more unfortunate place – It was bound to happen one day, and it did so on that Monday in August 1916. – The first act of the drama began as the magazine burst into flame.
The ‘Charge man’ of the magazine, Frank Beverley, attempted to put the fire out with a nearby fire hose, but as in a similar incident a couple of weeks previously, only a dribble of water appeared. Apparently the last time a fire had started, it had been extinguished by men hitting it with their caps! The factory had its own firefighting team, but it was obvious they needed help, and fast! At approximately 2:30pm, there was an extremely large bang as the magazine exploded! The local Fire brigade had arrived in time to be greeted by the explosion and a shower of broken bricks, slate tiles, iron pipes and other red hot shrapnel.
The situation was now totally out of hand and the local brigade needed urgent help!
Alarm bells began ringing at the Bradford Central Fire Station at 2:33. 18 fireman on their new fire engine ‘Hayhurst’ had arrived at the factory and were just about to connect their hoses to a hydrant when, at approximately 3:16 pm, just 30 minutes after the first explosion, the main act began with a sensational double bang. Half the factory had blown up taking with it the adjoining gas works and its gas holders. Witnesses from many miles away felt the heat and saw a bright, orange-yellow ‘mushroom cloud’ ball of swirling, tumbling flame, rolling up and over into the clear Yorkshire sky.
6 firemen were killed instantly. Their shiny new fire engine was destroyed, with parts of its motor being found many miles away at Heckmondwike Railway Station.
There were 22 explosions during the rest of the Monday, some larger than others. At approximately 6:00 pm there was another colossal eruption as the upper sifting and packing shed blew up, flattening most of what remained of the factory.
By the end of that Monday, the death toll from the factory had reached 34 with 60 injured. Many more injuries from flying glass and debris were reported from as far as a mile away Property in the area was flattened, the local railway goods yard blown away, about 50 houses totally destroyed and some 2000 severely damaged.
Despite Lord Baden Powell’s motto of ‘Be Prepared’ It seems that, the great British tradition is to be exactly the opposite! (Even today!)
In 1913, even when there was overwhelming ‘writing on the wall’ of an approaching war, Britain’s production of TNT was about 20 tons a year. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme a British artillery barrage would have used more than that in a 24 hours!
Whether the Low Moors incident had been reported in the newspapers, read by the good folk of Ashton-Under-Lyne and remembered is not known. It would seem not, because less than a year later and only a stones throw away on the outskirts of Manchester, another ‘unfortunate incident’ resulted in even greater loss of life. The insatiable requirements demanded of the Munitions industry seems to have encouraged speed over caution and correct procedures.
On June 13, 1917, the Hooley Hill Rubber and Chemical Works were engaged in the production of explosives: this one factory alone producing 25 tons of TNT a week!
Because of the need to produce more TNT, and quickly – the factory and half of Ashton-under-Lyne appears to have gone bang as a result. However, unlike the Bradford bang, this was a borderline accident rather than a full on ‘pratcident’
A ‘Nitrator’ is basically a large tank in which a chemical reaction takes place. I’m not a scientist, but I believe it’s where one nasty substance turns into an even more nasty substance. In this case Nitric Acid became nitro-glycerin. In any event it was VERY important that the chemicals being processed were kept at the correct ratio. Failing to keep the correct balance would result in loud noises and much woe!
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
Late in the afternoon of June 17th chemist Sylvain Dreyfus was working in the nitrating section when, for whatever reason (‘accident’?) the contents of one of the nitrators became ‘unstable’.
Despite heroic efforts to rectify the problem, the reaction continued and the Devil’s brew bubbled and vomited out of the cauldron. The wooden platform on which the nitrator stood burst into flame…the fire spreading rapidly throughout the building, then at 4:20pm the fire reached kegs containing 5 tons of TNT and …BANG!
….Bits of Dreyfus were later found in the yard
The explosion destroyed 2 gas holders of the accompanying gas works, blew the waste acid tanks into the canal, completely destroyed buildings in the immediate vicinity and damaged hundreds further afield. The human cost was 43 dead, 23 of them factory employees; other victims included adults and 9 children from the surrounding area. Two craters, the larger being over 90 feet across and over 5 feet deep served as a reminder as to what had happened on that day. A now forgotten day that, ‘would be remembered for ever’!
Incidentally, in October 1918 just over a month before the war ended, a similar accident (?) took place at the Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant in New Jersy USA. That bang resulted in the destruction of over 300 buildings, did more than 18 million dollars damage and killed approximately 100 people.
If the Great Molasses flood of 1919 was an encore to WWI, then the 1914 sinking of another (then) famous ocean liner would serve as a ghastly introduction. Everyone and their budgie has heard of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, but how many of us knew of the loss of the RMS ‘Empress of Ireland’?
1,514 died on the Titanic, but only 2 years later on May 29th 1,012 died when the ‘Empress’ sank. There must have been an awful lot of coal ships on the high seas when coal was THE world energy source? The Norwegian collier the SS Storstad was a particularly awful one on that dark and foggy May night! Like its deadly relative the SS ‘Imo’, the coal ship that took out the ‘Mont Blanc’ and most of Halifax Nova Scotia, the SS Storstad also brought death and destruction to Canada.
In a parallel to the Halifax disaster a sequence of nautical oversights and cock-ups made the ‘accident’ inevitable. The Empress was en route to Liverpool from Quebec and initially the weather was clear. It was a short while after the ‘Empress’ had reached the open sea that her crew spotted the mast lights of an approaching vessel. Shortly after that, a thick bank of fog arrived to spoil the evening. As in the ‘Halifax Narrows’ a symphony of steam-sirens struck up. Unlike the Halifax collision, the captains of both vessels survived and made statements at the inquest. According to them, the collision was impossible. Both ships had turned off their engines and were stationary! Each blamed the other for the collision. Well, somehow, and with quite a lot of force involved, the ‘stationary’ Storstad whacked into the front side of the ‘Empress’ and…
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
The great liner’s portholes were very close to the waterline and passengers’ had opened many of them to get some fresh air! The damage caused by the Storstad had flooded the lower decks so quickly – because watertight doors were open! The ship listed rapidly to starboard making it not only impossible to launch lifeboats, but introducing the open portholes factor into the equation.
About 10-12 minutes later, the ‘Empress’ rolled onto her side, passengers in the lower cabins had no chance of escape and drowned in the dark confines of the ship. Others had scrambled through open portholes or had climbed the rolling decks and were now collected on the ship’s port side. Nearly 700 passengers were huddled together, thinking that the great ship had run aground and that she was now lying on her side. She wasn’t!
2 minutes later, approximately 15 minutes after the collision, The Empress of Ireland’s stern rose briefly, the passengers were swept into the icy water, and the ship nosedived the 130 feet to the seabed.
*NB. I found the following particularly gruesome account. If you don’t like gruesome stories, or just in case you’re about to have lunch? BE WARNED!
” One of the first divers to visit the wreck was Edward Cossaboom from New York. He was on the wreck recovering bodies and sending them to the surface when a strong current caused him to stumble. As his lifeline to the surface had gone slack, he slipped off the Empress’ bow and plunged 65 feet below to the riverbed. The 65 feet provided too great an increase in pressure too quickly and poor Cossaboom’s heart, lungs and other internal organs began to explode. On impact with the bottom, the water pressure was so great his flesh was literally stripped off his bones and the vast majority of his soft tissue was compressed into his copper diving helmet.”
Mmmm? Well, I did warn you!
The last story in this particular catalogue of disasters occurred at the height of the Great War and two years before America’s entry. It’s another seafaring tale of doom, but in this case the ‘accident’ had started when the SS ‘Eastland’ was still on the drawing board. It was basic bad design that sealed her fate. Essentially she was too narrow. The ship was only 36 feet in width which had made her very fast (22mph) indeed her nickname was ‘Speed Queen of the Lakes’, but there had been consistent rumours about her instability. Rumours were so rife that one of the ship’s owners offered a prize of $5,000 to anyone who could prove she was unsafe. No one took up the offer, but as it turned out they should have done, unless of course, they’d been aboard on the 24th July 1915 when they might have had a problem getting their winnings! Designed as a fast steamer to operate on the Great Lakes, the SS ‘Eastland’ had extremely high sides with very low gangways, the aft gangways being only 18 inches above the waterline! This meant that the ship had very little lateral stability, and a list of between 7.5 and10 degrees was enough to bring water onto the lower decks. On that fateful day, the ‘Eastland’ was moored to the dock on the south side of the river, in the port of Chicago, Illinois. It was going to be ‘picnic excursion’ for the employees and families of The Western Electric Company.
Here’s where it all REALLY went wrong!
At 6:40 am, approximately 5,000 passengers began swarming aboard her starboard side gangplanks with a view to ‘getting the best seats’. The SS ‘Eastland’ had been upgraded earlier in the year to accommodate an extra 500 souls, bringing her total passenger capacity to 2,500. By 6:41 there were so many people aboard that the ship listed to starboard towards the dock. At 6:53 the Chief engineer ordered the portside ballast tanks to be filled in order to straighten her out. One minute later she resumed an even keel. But folk were still streaming aboard at the rate of 50 a minute. What happened over the next 30 minutes was a frantic emptying and filling of ballast tanks by the ship’s engineers to try and keep the ship even. Every time she slowly rolled from one side to the other, more water was being shipped. The list went from 10 to 20 degrees in just a few minutes. Many of the passengers thought this great fun as the crew shouted urgent instructions for them to move from side to side. Then, between 7:25 – 7:28am the Chicago Fire Boat passed the ‘Eastland’ and blasted a greeting with its steam siren. The shrill sound of its whistle was enough to attract a mass of humanity to the port side to get a good view. The ‘Eastland’ immediately listed 45 degrees to port but this time she kept rolling. By 7:30am the ship had literally ‘keeled over’. The lucky ones had managed to drag themselves up and over the now vertical deck and onto the ship’s side. The unlucky ones who did not drown in or under the ship, were swept to their deaths in the swirling currents of The Chicago River. The final death toll of this pleasure trip ‘accident’ was 844. It is still the worst tragedy in Chicago’s long and turbulent history.