Private John Hillan, Airdrie's Oldest Casualty

Private John Hillan, Airdrie's Oldest Casualty

B/7536 Private John Hillan*, 1st Battalion Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), was Airdrie’s oldest WW1 casualty.

John Hillan was born about 1863 or 1864 in Pointzpass, Newry, County Armagh, Ireland. He was the son of James Hillan, a Nail Maker, and Catherine Hillan (nee McAteer). According to a local newspaper report John grew up to become a professional soldier and saw active service in India and the South African War. The newspaper report, written after his death, was filled with inaccurate details so this early life information must be regarded with some circumspection.

By 1897 John was a 34 year old civilian, working as a Coachman in domestic service at Tubal Park Stable, Barrhead, Renfrewshire. That year he married Elizabeth Donaldson Finlayson, a Domestic Servant from Barrhead, who was 13 years younger than him. They had at least six children together.

The Hillan family moved to Coatbridge sometime between 1905 and 1907 where John found work as a Tube Work Engineer’s Labourer. In 1911 the family were resident at 328 Main Street, Coatbridge. By 1914 the family had moved to Aitchison Street, Airdrie and John was working in the Imperial Tube Works at Coatdyke.

On the outbreak of World War One, despite being about 50 or 51 years old, John Hillan managed to enlist in the Army at Coatdyke. He was at least 10 years over age, so he must have lied about his date of birth. He joined the Cameronian (Scottish Rifles) Regiment. His eldest son, Jack Hillan (aged 16), joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. After training, Private John Hillan arrived in France on 3rd May 1915. He was sent to join the 1st Battalion Cameronians in the trenches at Bois Grenier near Armentieres. (The 1st Cameronians War Diary noted on 6th May "a draft of 25 other ranks arrived - mostly oldish men".) The 1st Cameronians remained in the trenches and in billets near Bois Grenier for a few months after John’s arrival. In August they were moved to the Bethune area. In all this time the battalion was regularly under fire. In late September 1915 the 1st Cameronians took part in the Battle of Loos, attacking in the vicinity of Cambrin.

Private John Hillan died of wounds on 2nd March 1916 at Rouen in France. The circumstances of where and when he received his wounds have not been discovered. He was buried at Bois Guillame Communal Cemetery, Rouen. Most of the servicemen who were buried in this cemetery had been patients at No 8 General Hospital in Rouen.

In the local newspaper article reporting John Hillan’s death it was stated that he had taken part in the big engagements at Hill 60 and Ypres, neither of which he could have been at. It also stated that his son’s battalion was serving for a while in the same area and that they had fought "side by side" through the Battle of Loos. Whilst this is a colourful and attractive story it is not supported by Army records. Jack Hillan served in the 12th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He arrived in France only a week before the Battle of Loos and his battalion was not deployed in the Loos area. Jack Hillan was transferred with his battalion to Salonica in November 1915 and survived the War.

At the age of 52 or 53 John Hillan is the oldest casualty commemorated on Airdrie War Memorial.

[* John’s surname was spelled "Hillen" in his surviving army records]

More info: 

B/7536 Private John Hillan, 1st Battalion Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). (c) Airdrie Local Studies / CultureNL
B/7536 Private John Hillan, 1st Battalion Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). (c) Airdrie Local Studies / CultureNL
The Hillian family in the 1911 Census.