At 7.49am on Tuesday, August 4, 1914 ,10 blasts of Swindon’s Great Western Railway Works hooter signalled the start of the First World War.
Cheers rang out at the belief that the war would be over by Christmas. There were not many who doubted that Britain would put Germany in her place.
As a hub of the railway network at the outbreak of war, Swindon was soon swathed with troops arriving from the military towns in the south along the Midland and South Western Railway.
Soon the streets were alive with the sound of marching, as soldiers moved from one station to another to catch a train to transport them to the front line, filled with hope and pride that they would return as heroes.
As a 16-year-old Locomotive Apprentice at the Great Western Railway, Reginald Richard Hillier must have sensed this excitement.
Many of his colleagues would have been reservists called into action “to do their duty”. Perhaps this had prompted him to be one of the eager 360 young men who signed up to the Young Citizens League or Swindon Voluntary Force within a month of the outbreak of war.
“Swindon never saw a more delighted crowd than that which quickly thronged the streets, the afternoon was dull and marred by drizzling rain, but nothing could damp the gaiety of the demonstrators or spectators, bedecked with ribbons and flags.”- WD Bavin, author of Swindon’s War Record.
Reginald was born in the autumn of 1898 in the Highwood district of Swindon to Henry Hillier and Emily Pearce.
Henry and Emily had four children, but only Reginald and his sister Adelaide survived childhood.
Originally an iron worker, with the expansion of the GWR works at the turn of the century, Henry soon joined the three-quarters of Swindon’s workforce working there.
In 1911 the family found themselves living at 9 Kent Road in Old Town.
As soon as Reginald left school, he joined his father as an apprentice at the locomotive works, just as many other sons had before him, but this brief introduction to “normal” working life would be short-lived.
By early 1916, Reginald Hillier had become Private 46090 Reginald Richard Hillier, 58th Brigade Machine Gun Company, later the 19th Battalion Machine Gun Corp, and he now found himself fighting for his life on the Western Front.
Reginald’s service number indicates that he joined up in November or December 1915, shortly after his 17th birthday.
A rare picture survives, published after the war, in the GWR magazine to honour those workers who lost their lives.
Reginald would have been sent for training at the Machine Gun Company training centre in Belton Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire.
Receiving around six weeks’ training, it would have been minimal time to introduce himself to the workings of the likes of the Vickers .303 heavy machine gun and the complexities of machine gun warfare.
Reginald’s brigade disembarked at Le Havre on February 9, 1916. His training would not have prepared him for the horrors he would face on the front line.
Reginald would have seen action in some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.
His unit was involved in all the major phases of the Somme offensive through 1916, Ypres through 1917 and the Somme and Lys in 1918.
Against horrendous odds, Reginald survived through to Armistice Day.
On November 11, 1918, news reached Swindon, that the war was over.
“Swindon never saw a more delighted crowd than that which quickly thronged the streets, the afternoon was dull and marred by drizzling rain, but nothing could damp the gaiety of the demonstrators or spectators, bedecked with ribbons and flags” recorded WD Bavin, author of Swindon’s War Record.
It was a scene mirrored around the country in celebration that four years of heartache were over.
But Reginald, like many others, would never return home.
His unit began demobilization in December 1918 and Reginald must have believed it would not be long until he would be reunited with his family on home soil.
By January 1919 the unit were based in the Berneuil region of the Somme, but Reginald was not with his company.
On January 6, 1919, he lost his fight for life in one of the 16 hospitals in Etaples, northern France.
Although we may never know exactly how Reginald died, we do know an even bigger killer than any German war machine was sweeping the world at this time – Spanish flu.
Reginald was buried, along with 8,818 other British service personnel in Etaples Military Cemetery, near Boulogne, France.
He is one of the many who left with high hopes of serving their country, only never to return to the land they loved.