A YOUNG Helensburgh Army officer — son of the town’s Provost — survived fighting in the World War One trenches . . . only to die in Britain’s worst ever train disaster.
Lieutenant James Crawford Bonnar of the 9th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was one of 226 dead and 246 injured in the Quintinshill rail crash near Gretna on Saturday May 22 1915.
It remains Britain’s worst, and to this day is one of the worst on the world’s railways.
Lieutenant Bonnar, who was 27, was the only son of Provost James Dick Bonnar and his wife Isabella Crawford Bonnar, of Cairnsmore, 16 Queen Street.
Two other officers of the 9th Argylls, Captain Robert S.Finlay of Boturich Castle, Balloch, and Lieutenant John Jackson, of Rockville, Dumbarton, also died.
They were all involved in the Second Battle of Ypres, which began at dawn on Monday May 10. In his autobiography Rosneath man the Rev Charles L.Warr, at that time a Lieutenant in the Battalion, tells of being seriously injured that day and said that the survivors had no respite until the 18th.
"Worn out through indescribable fatigue, the survivors lurched back from the trenches through Ypres to the transport lines near Poperinghe, and two days later, home leave was granted to four officers and a number of other ranks," he wrote.
"The officers drew lots, and the apparently lucky ones were Captain R.S.Findlay, and three subalterns, Jackson, Bonnar and Kirsop."
Captain Findlay, second son of Robert E.Findlay, had been at the front for some time with his regiment and was coming home on a few days leave, having been in the trenches at Hill 60 for 44 days.
Lieutenant Jackson, second son of Daniel Jackson, was 26 and had joined the Territorial Force four years earlier.
He was at the front for some time and was invalided home suffering from shock from the sound of an explosion. After spending about a fortnight in hospital in London he was returning to Dumbarton on short leave.
Lieutenant Purvis Kirsop, of Bearsden, who was in the same carriage as Lieutenant Bonnar, was seriously injured.
He was asleep, and when the crash came he found himself pinned in between two mattresses. He was lying on the rails as the flooring of the carriage opened up in the collision. He assured the family that Lieutenant Bonnar’s death was instantaneous.
A contemporary book about the 9th Argylls in Flanders commented: “They had been granted short leave after a strenuous time, and it is strange to think they should meet with disaster in the homeland. These fine officers are a serious loss to the unit.”
In Helensburgh there was huge sympathy for the Provost, his wife and daughters Helen and Florence.
The accident, which involved five trains, happened close to a signal box with loops on each side on the Caledonian Railway main line, now part of the West Coast main line.
Those killed were mainly Territorial soldiers from the 1/7th (Leith) Battalion of the Royal Scots who were heading for Gallipoli. The precise number of dead was never established with confidence as the regiment’s roll was destroyed by the fire.
Their troop train travelling from Larbert to Liverpool collided with a local passenger train that had been shunted on to the main line, to then be hit by an express sleeper train to Glasgow which crashed into the wreckage a minute later.
Gas from the lighting system of the old wooden carriages of the troop train ignited, starting a fire which soon engulfed the three passenger trains and also two goods trains waiting nearby.
A number of bodies were never recovered, having been wholly consumed by the fire, and the bodies of the Royal Scots that were recovered were buried together in a mass grave in Edinburgh’s Rosebank Cemetery.
Four bodies, believed to be of children, were never identified or claimed, and are buried in the Western Necropolis, Glasgow.
It was later established that the cause of the accident was poor working practices on the part of the two signalmen involved, which resulted in their imprisonment for culpable homicide after legal proceedings in both Scotland and England.
The disaster was made much worse by the fire. The great wartime traffic and a shortage of carriages meant that the railway company had to use obsolete Great Central Railway stock.
These carriages had wooden bodies and frames, so had very little crash resistance compared with steel framed carriages, and were gas-lit.
The gas was stored in reservoirs slung under the carriages and these ruptured, the escaping gas igniting from the coal burning fires of the engines.
The gas reservoirs of the troop train had been filled before leaving Larbert and this, and the lack of available water, meant it was not until the morning of the next day that the fire was extinguished — despite the best efforts of railway staff and the Carlisle fire brigade.
The troop train consisted of 21 carriages, and apart from the rear six which had broken away during the impact and rolled back along the line a short distance, the entire train was consumed in the fire, as were four coaches from the express train and some goods wagons.
All four locomotives — the express was double headed — of the troop train, the local train and the express, were also badly damaged by fire and the intensity of the fire was so hot that all the coal in the tenders was burned.
Considering the double collision and the fire, casualties in the other trains were lighter than might have been expected.
On the local train two passengers died, with none seriously injured, while on the express seven passengers died, with a further 51 and three members of railway staff seriously injured.
The next Wednesday after the crash the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times described it as “a disaster unparalleled in the history of British railways, and one of the most serious which has ever occurred on the railways of the world”.
The local paper told how the Provost’s family found out about the Lieutenant’s death.
The report stated: “Some apprehension was felt on Saturday, as it was known the Lieutenant, after his strenuous labours amid many dangers at the front, was being allowed home on a brief furlough, and was expected to travel by the ill-fated midnight express from London.
“As the day advanced anxiety increased, as no message was received and he was known to be so considerate and careful.
“In the evening his sister, Miss Bonnar, and an uncle, Fred Cook, went down to Carlisle and made enquiries at the various infirmaries, but without success.
“On Sunday morning they continued their investigations, and ascertained that Lieutenant Bonnar was amongst the killed. His body was brought to Glasgow along with others that afternoon.”
More details came from burgh man Donald Kerr, of Messrs Kerr, Carlton Restaurant, Glasgow, which had the catering contract for the troops in the White City, London.
He came north on the wrecked express on his way to Helensburgh, where his wife and child were staying with Miss Burge at 75 West King Street.
He escaped without a scratch, and his only injuries were minor ones sustained while helping in the rescue work.
Afterwards he was reluctant to talk about the disaster, saying that it was too ghastly and awful.
But he did say: “We worked among the wounded for over five hours, and I hope never again to have the experience. The sailor men worked like Trojans, as, indeed, did everyone who could. But you cannot visualise the fearful scenes.
“Imagine a man with his hand stuck below a truck. I saw his hand being cut off in order to free him. Another man was hanging between two trucks, and when the party proceeded to help him down they found his head had been cut off.
“There were dozens of such cases, and the burning, overturned carriages, the groans of the injured, the prayers for death of brave men suffering agony constituted a scene of such sheer horror as staggers the mind.
“Our driver put the brakes full on immediately he knew he was in collision, but still we went crunching, crashing into the carriages of the other train. The sensation was terrible.”
Lieutenant Bonnar, who had two sisters Helen and Florence, was born and spent the most of his life in Helensburgh, and was educated at Larchfield Academy.
He trained as a stockbroker, and was in the Glasgow office of his uncle, Fred Cook, where a promising post-war career beckoned.
In March 1914 he joined A Company of the 9th Argylls, and was an enthusiastic and popular young officer. He was appointed to the command of the transport, an important duty which he performed well.
This post placed him frequently in very perilous positions, but his comrades said he never flinched in the face of danger. His courage, tact, and skill helped to cement the reputation the 9th Argylls had won at the front.
After a month in the trenches and many fierce conflicts with the Germans, the battalion was allowed a brief respite, and Lieutenant Bonnar was granted a short furlough, which he decided he would spend at home.
His father was the son of a United Presbyterian minister, and led the Town Council from 1912-18. He died in 1946 at Fistral, Henry Bell Street, at the age of 90, a few years after his wife.
The funeral took place on the Tuesday at St Columba Church, with large crowds gathered outside on Sinclair Street.
The Rev J.R.Hutton B.D. led the service, and there was a packed congregation, nearly all of whom were visibly affected by a service which the local paper said was “beautifully conducted”.
The coffin was draped with the Union Jack, with the Lieutenant’s sword and cap on top.
The organist played Chopin’s Funeral March, and the congregation sang the 23rd Psalm. During the prayers there were few dry eyes in the building.
The minister thanked God for the happiness which the young soldier had known, and for the affection in which he had been held in his home and among all his friends.
He also referred to the courage and unselfishness which had led him to put his life in jeopardy in the service of King and country.
Afterwards the funeral procession formed up outside the church, led by the firing party under the command of Captain William Robertson of Dumbarton.
The glass sided hearse followed, and immediately behind were carriages covered with wreaths from many civilian and soldier friends.
The immediate relatives were followed by the public, by members of the Royal Garrison Artillery under Lieutenant Anderson, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Argylls under Major Rorke, and representatives of the local Citizen Training Force.
A considerable number of soldiers at home recovering from their wounds attended the service, as did Lord Inverclyde, Lord Lieutenant of the County, Colonel Brock of Darleith, and F.C.Buchanan, Convener of the County.
After a solemn procession to Helensburgh Cemetery Mr Hutton conducted a simple but moving service at the grave, the firing party fired three rounds, and the Last Post was sounded.
Soon after Provost Bonnar received a telegram from the King stating: “The King and Queen deeply regret the tragedy you and the Army have sustained by the death of your son in the service of his country.
“Their Majesties truly sympathise with you in your sorrow.”
At the next meeting of Helensburgh Town Council, Bailie Allan, presiding in the Provost’s absence, paid an appropriate tribute.
He said: “Lieutenant Bonnar was a young man of much promise, and was highly respected by those who knew him.
“He made a hearty response to the call of his King and country, and had for some time been in charge of some important military duties in France.
“We can well imagine — on having been granted a brief furlough — his looking forward with glad anticipation to the enjoyment of a happy home reunion.
“But, sad to relate, when practically on the threshold of these bright hopes being realised, he unfortunately fell a victim to the terrible railway disaster, of which you have heard so much.
“Someone has said, when referring to future events, that ‘God kindly seals our eyes’.
“And it is well for human hopes and aspirations that the way from the known to the unknown is but a step.
“On behalf of the Town Council and the community, I extend to the Provost, Mrs Bonnar and family our deepest sympathy in their sad bereavement.
“I also beg to move that the Town Clerk be instructed to put on record this expression of sympathy, and an excerpt of the minute be sent to the Provost.”
The motion was unanimously agreed, and the members of the Council stood in silent tribute.
A memorial to the dead soldiers was erected at Edinburgh’s Rosebank Cemetery soon after the accident and there are a number of other memorials at various places in Scotland and England — including two erected by the Western Front Association near the crash site.
An annual remembrance service is held at Rosebank Cemetery.
In his book, Mr Warr asks the question: what would have been the fate of his four friends had they remained in Belgium?
This is his prognosis: "When they departed on that disastrous leave, the 9th Argylls were not finished with the Second Battle of Ypres. Three days later the depleted battalion was back in the line, and by the end of a week was virtually annihilated. All who remained standing were two subalterns, the M.O., the Quartermaster and eighty-five men."