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I am very honoured to be part of this ceremony and part of the proud family of independent schools. I am very honoured to be part of this ceremony and part of the proud family of independent schools.
The reading (Ecclesiasticus) mentioned those that have “left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.”
But – just as importantly, it mentions some which have no memorial; are become as though they had never been born.
I know because I owe my existence to two of those who perished one hundred years ago in the single biggest act of warfare that this country has ever known, and which we remember – with other conflicts, today.
Both my mother’s grandfathers lie buried in military graves of the First World War.
One, Magnus Cormack, lies buried by a level crossing of a railway in provincial Northern France, killed 51 years to the day before I was born, in September 1917. But, as the reading goes on, their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. My son, whose middle name is the same as his great-great-Grandfather, stood alone beside that grave only last month, as his school visited the Battlefields of the Great War.
The reading says their bodies are buried in peace, like that of Private Magnus Cormack, but of course so many are not. My son also stood at the great Thiepval Arch, some kilometres down the road, under the name of Private Terence McSherry – the little brother of my mother’s other grand-father, who died on the Somme in 1916 and of whom, like so many, there was no trace at all.
There are more lost bodies on that single memorial than have walked the paths of Loretto since 1827. But his name does live for evermore. My grandfather, his son, his son and several others dotted around Edinburgh and Leith were all Terence McSherry.
But is that Private McSherry’s big brother, my great-grandfather James, who brings me here today. We do know where he lies, another casualty of war. His grave is easy to find, and his funeral was in open view and with great ceremony.
But this is not because he was a famous man of great power or counsel. Private James McSherry was a 24 year old territorial in the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots when war was declared. The 7th Battalion was raised almost exclusively in the then separate and proud city of Leith as well as the ancient – and to you familiar – town of Musselburgh.
Those territorials joined the regiment before the war, and would have met every week in the Drill Hall on Dalmeny Street off Leith Walk, which still stands today. More importantly, for me at least, Private McSherry was – unlike many of his colleagues, already married, to Mary Tarbet of Leith, and had two young children – Terry, my late granda, and my late, wee Auntie Maggie.
Terry had five children, one – the fourth - who came with me today, is my mother.
James McSherry’s regiment was destined for the dusty and dreadful campaign in Gallipoli in 1915. But he is one of the few soldiers who never even made it out of Scotland, and whose military grave lies only a few kilometres from here.
On the 22 May 1915, a small tender train was left, by mistake, on the mainline railway south out of Scotland, at the Quintinshill signal box near Gretna Green. Before the signalmen had time to realise their error, the troop train carrying the 7th Battalion – 500 strong - from barracks in Larbert near Falkirk to the troop ships in Liverpool steamed down towards the Scottish Border, and ploughed full speed into the stationary tender.
To make matters worse, if at all possible, only minutes later the regular London-Glasgow express train came flying north, and smashed into the fiery wreckage that was all over the tracks. In the process, the troop train that had been 213 yards long, was three times shorter with the impact. Wooden trains, gas bottles for lighting, ammunition and fuel all burst into flames.
In total 230 people died and another 246 were injured. Of the troop train, only 58 men and seven officers of the 7th Battalion escaped Quintinshill alive and still able to answer the roll call that afternoon. James McSherry was not one of them, although – as his widow, my great-granny said - “at least we got him back”. Many of the bodies simply vanished in the inferno.
James was one of those, who in a procession lasting several hours, was carried from the same drill hall on Dalmeny Street to Rosebank Cemetery and buried with more than 200 of his friends and colleagues in a mass grave there – victims of what is still Britain’s worst rail disaster.
Every year, the Royal Scots gather to remember those who died, but this year the 100thanniversary was marked with a much bigger ceremony as part of Scotland’s official WWI ceremonies. The chair of the organising panel, and a former Headmaster of this school, asked me to be the families representative and see what we could do to ensure that as many of the 216 were remembered, in person, by their own descendants in whom their name liveth for evermore.
I started with about 10 people, living locally, who knew of the crash and their connection with it. But these are different times, and with the aid of a Facebook site, Twitter, online newspapers and so forth, by the time we gathered on a sunny day this May, there were over 150 people in the cemetery as direct descendants of those who had died 100 years before.
A highly decorated soldier, in the Canadian Army, whose great-uncle had been the Pipe Major, flew over, and marched in uniform with the Royal Scots as they retraced the funeral procession through Leith, as the pipes played the tune written in his ancestor’s memory.
A woman from England’s Great Uncle was killed at Quintinshill. His younger brother, of the Royal Scots, (her Grand-dad) had been killed only 5 weeks previously at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle. Their older brother, a Lance Sergeant in the Royal Scots, the other Great Uncle, was to die 4 months later at the Battle of Loos:
“It's hardly any wonder that my Granny became agoraphobic and suffered from what they used to call 'nervous exhaustion'.”
The granddaughter was there of Michael Kerr, and his wonderfully named brother Napoleon Bonaparte Kerr, who were killed in the disaster. Their brother Johnny Kerr survived the crash. Michael's youngest child, Peggy, was born 4 months after his death, died at the beginning of May 2015, aged 99 years and 7 months – just days before the centenary events.
I take issue with any of those who find such commemorations excessive, maudlin or backward looking. They are not a celebration of anything, merely the quiet reflection and recognition of our todays made possible by them. Each of you will have someone like that in your past, who struggled that you might be here in peace, from whatever country or whatever background. It is all to easy to forget how real, and how normal it was for one generation after the next to lose loved ones in the fields of what are now our closest allies and places of work and rest.
As was mentioned, I worked for some of the institutions of the European Union, where many still cling on the belief that the divisions of World Wars, or the Cold War, have been made now materially impossible. But even your world is far from mine, just as James and Magnus’s is unimaginable to me. But today, for a short while, we remember that we all stand on the shoulders of others, not Giants, just those who came before us.
In a minute, the Chaplain will explain why here, today, at Loretto, the story of Quintinshill still resonates. But when the silence falls in a few minutes, if you have no-one close to you and your family to bring to mind, remember one of those whose grave was never found. Or one of those who lie unidentified in graves under Rudyard’s Kipling’s famous inscription “Known unto God”.
Or those families, like many of us here, left ripped apart then thrown together by the loss of a loved one.
Or those millions of innocent bystanders, civilians, then as now, caught up, displaced, exiled, or worse, by the ructions of war and of armed strife.
And remind yourself, that if they did die yesterday for our tomorrow, how many chances you will have, in this wonderful school community and in the world that awaits your adult self, to honour them by your good work, your good company, your good intentions and your good humour.
I think that alone is the monument or memory they deserve.
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