First World War: ‘Suffolk should be proud of what men like great-grandfather did’

William Molineaux, second from the left, was one of the soldiers drafted in to help keep the country

William Molineaux, second from the left, was one of the soldiers drafted in to help keep the country moving during the 1912 national miners' strike - Credit: Archant

The memory of William Molineaux will never fade – not if his proud family have anything to do with it. Steven Russell hears the story of one of the very first Suffolk Regiment soldiers killed in The Great War

Members of the Molineaux family by William's grave outside Le Cateau. Keon is in the centre, wearing

Members of the Molineaux family by William's grave outside Le Cateau. Keon is in the centre, wearing the beret, and wife Julie is in the back row, on the right - Credit: Archant

It was a pilgrimage. That’s the word. A family travelling to France to honour an ancestor who gave his life.

A week after returning, after seeing his great-grandfather’s grave for the first time and being stunned to find William’s name on a memorial dedicated to The Suffolk Regiment, Keon Molineaux is still clearly moved.

The ex-Paratrooper had worn his red beret and smart blazer as he and 12 other members of the family paid tribute. It was 100 years to the day after William Molineaux fell, during the opening exchanges of the Battle of Le Cateau.

He had been in France for just 12 days. The father of four was 33 years and 11 months old and The Great War barely three weeks old. Two months later, Alice Ivy, his fourth child and only daughter, was born.

A man we should all be proud of. William Molineaux

A man we should all be proud of. William Molineaux - Credit: Archant

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At Le Cateau, men from the Suffolk Regiment had been among the troops trying to hold back the German advance and buy the British forces some time as they retreated from Mons. The idea was to stand and fight, slowing the Germans’ progress, and allow men to slip away under cover of darkness.

It proved a courageous but costly act of defiance.

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William, above right, is not forgotten.

His family was amazed to find outside the town of Le Cateau the memorial to the Suffolk Regiment casualties – and the Manchesters, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Royal Artillery Batteries who’d supported them – and even more stunned to discover William’s name among the list of the dead.

A tribute to William Molineaux from his descendants

A tribute to William Molineaux from his descendants - Credit: Archant

They’d had no idea it was there.

In France, by his ancestor’s grave, Keon had a few words.

“I was saying ‘Well, great-granddad. I never got to see you. But I’m standing here now with your swagger stick. You’d have looked up and seen “string-bag” planes, and as a Para I was jumping out of planes years later.’

“I think it was more of a shock when I saw his name on the memorial – the first time I’d seen his name in print, so to speak: five from the top.

“It’s the legacy he’s left behind that’s important. I wanted my youngest niece to go. She’s three. Our family has had quite long lives. In 100 years’ time, thanks to medical science, she could possibly even be out there with her own great-grandchildren. You never know.

“I even said that in my will I’ll leave a bequest of a couple of thousand pounds as a bond, so if anyone from the family wants to go out there in 100 years they can have a drink on me and remember him.”

William John Molineaux was born in the Kennington/Vauxhall area of London on September 7, 1880. The bricklayer’s son worked as a labourer after leaving school. Then, two weeks shy of his 19th birthday, he followed the example of brother Stephen and joined The Suffolk Regiment.

The young private spent about a year fighting in the Boer War, between 1901 and 1902.

He earned the Queen’s South Africa Medal, with four clasps to denote key campaigns in which he was involved.

Military life seems to have suited him. William was promoted to lance corporal in 1903 and by the spring of 1911 was a sergeant. He was a good shot, too – his skills rated as 1st class every year except one.

In 1907 he married Alice Young, the daughter of a brush manufacturer, in Woolwich.

They’d have four children, starting with William George, who was born in 1908 when they lived at Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds.

Soldier William was in Ireland when the First World War began on August 4, 1914 – troops there because of the threat of civil war ? and on the 13th left Ireland. He and his comrades were bound for France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, arriving at Le Havre two days later.

The next few days were full of long marches, including 17 miles on the very hot 21st of August, and slow train journeys. The following day they marched across the Belgian border to the town of Hainin. It was near Mons, where the first British shots of the war were fired.

A few months ago, William’s grandson Alan Molineaux wrote for his own grandchildren a summary of what happened. He explained: “On the 23rd August the British commanders realised that the Germans greatly outnumbered the British, had enormous quantities of big guns, and were far too strong for them, so they retreated south.

“This became known as The Retreat From Mons, and they marched back the way they had just come, and on the 24th August they were back in France.”

William and his colleagues marched in heavy rain back to Le Cateau, where they had got off the train a week earlier. The next day they continued a little bit further, to the other side of town, “by which time they were exhausted after so much marching and little or no sleep. They reached a cornfield which had just been harvested so all the corn was in small stacks (called stooks) ready for the farmer to collect.

“They were ordered to halt there and get ready for battle but there was no time to dig trenches.”

The Suffolk Regiment’s 2nd Battalion was part of the 14th Brigade ? the troops who would meet the first enemy attack once it was decided to stop and fight, rather than continue an exhausting retreat. (Soldiers from the Royal Field Artillery at Colchester were also there at Le Cateau.)

A German spotter plane flew over at one point.

At about 6am on the 26th, William’s platoon opened fire on a German patrol. One enemy soldier was killed.

In his book The History of The Suffolk Regiment 1914-1927, Lieu-Col C Murphy says: “The corn stooks had scarcely been flattened down and the shallowest of trenches dug when one of the enemy’s guns opened fire. The second shell landed in the middle of No.15 Platoon, killing 2nd Lieut. Myddleton and Sgt. Molineaux.”

The battle raged until about 2.30pm, when the British were overwhelmed by the German army and its weight of numbers.

The Suffolks had fought for nine hours.

The commander of the British troops stated later that the efforts of those men and other units had disrupted significantly the enemy advance, and it was “the blow to the Germans delivered on the fields of Le Cateau which upset their plans and prevented their descent on Paris”. There were 998 soldiers in the Suffolk’s 2nd Battalion when they arrived in France; 720 were killed or wounded in this battle.

William Molineaux was buried in a military cemetery on the edge of Le Cateau, overlooking the fields where the fighting took place.

Alan Molineaux wrote: “The Battle of Le Cateau is remembered as the greatest day for the Suffolk Regiment because of the bravery shown by the soldiers. The Germans asked them to surrender but they wouldn’t.

“I don’t know if Sergeant William Molineaux was a particularly brave soldier as he didn’t really get much of a chance in France to prove it, but I’m sure he was a good soldier and you can be very proud of him. I am.”

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