A WAR STORY: A digital story for Remembrance Day

My great grandfather Sapper Peter Molyneaux (second right) with his sons George, aged five and Robert, 18 months, his wife, Jim, aged 10, Peter (my grandpa) aged three and Harry, aged seven.
My great grandfather Sapper Peter Molyneaux (second right) with his sons George, aged five and Robert, 18 months, his wife, Jim, aged 10, Peter (my grandpa) aged three and Harry, aged seven.

As I watched a tear run down my grandpa’s face I realised the First World War hadn’t ended.

This proud man with clipped military moustache and silver hair sat in a chair across from front of me.

This was 20 years ago. I was a teenager and had been ushered in slightly reluctantly to talk to him on one of his visits.

We chatted awkwardly for a while. I’m not sure how it came up but he started to recall what happened in 1916 when his father died 70 years before.

There was just me and him in the room, a ticking clock and rain on the windows.

He cleared his throat and paused. He straightened his tie and he looked above me at the clock on the mantlepiece as he composed what he was going to tell me.

He was three, he told me, when his father left him. A Liverpool docker his dad was called up to become Sapper Peter Molyneux in the Royal Engineers.

Like his brothers he was six foot, the life and soul of the party his bulk towering over others.

His dad was sent to Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, to help protect oil supplies.

History tells that the British expected easy victory but were cursed in this inglorious backwater by disease.

A last letter home scribbled in pencil was cheerful but his weakened handwriting gave the truth away. Sapper Molyneux died of dysentry three days later on May 22 1916.

“But that was war,” my grandpa said. “That was what happened.”

Looking back, I can remember every tick of the clock and inflection in his voice as he told me the story. As he finished a tear came to his eye and he reached into his pocket for the pressed handkerchief he always carried. He wiped it away. And I sat unsure what to say. So I said nothing. The conversation unfinished and I knew with crystal certainty it would never take place again.

Months later on Remembrance Sunday alone with a radio and the Last Post his tear came to me unexpectedly and I buried my head and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

But my Grandpa, protective of his mother, didn’t tell me what happened next. This emerged at a family funeral years later.

My grandfather’s mother could not cope. Shattered by grief and care worn by feeding five children she married again too soon to a man too fond of drink.

One thing isn’t clear. Did he persuade her to leave her children behind? Or did she die of pernicious anemia the product of a poor diet? We’re not sure.  What is sure is that for three months the remaining children kept up the pretence of family life rooting for food in bins until their shame was exposed.

This was pain on top of pain on top of pain on top of pain.

I try hard not to, but even as a man with two children all I can see is life’s hard unseen hand slapping the small boy that grew-up to be my grandpa. A boy who looks strikingly like my own son.

Without a state to intervene the Molyneaux children were distributed to kind relatives.

As time went on, the boy grew up, married and was called up himself and sent in his father’s footsteps to Mesopotamia.  This time it was World War Two.

On a lull in his duties in the desert near Basra he searched without success for his father’s grave.

That he could not find that grave was a sadness I felt.

Years later and long after my grandpa’s death I took up the search online. It took five minutes on the Commonwealth War Graves site.

It was as easy as googling and it felt wrong he was not there to see it.

Sapper Peter Molyneux is buried at grave XXI row F20 in the Kut-al-Amara graveyard near Basra along with 4,620 others.

When he died, my grandpa left me a wooden desk with a secret draw. In it I found a creased envelope and things from the Second World War.

Inside the envelope was a handful of sand.

I like to think of my grandfather in the Second World War stopping and picking up that handful of sand in Mesopotamia and carefully storing it when his search for his dad’s grave failed.

It’s a conversation and a story unfinished. It feels unresolved and I’m just not sure how to resolve it.

It’s what I think of on Remembrance Sunday.

But maybe that’s the Liverpudlian in me. They’re sentimental like that, are Scousers.

Joe Slee
Sapper Molyneux’s great great grandson Joe Slee proudly sporting his Remembrance Day poppy.

But it’s not all sad.  My grandpa died achieving one of his aims in life. He became the oldest person to achieve an Open University degree aged 83 in the year he graduated.He also had three grandsons who have had seven grandchildren.Sapper Molyneaux’s great grandson – my son Joe Slee – bought a poppy for the first time this year.

He trooped into school with his 20p and came back with it on his jumper.

This is a good thing.

When he is older he may learn more about how war affected his family years before he was born.

So why is this story on a blog about digital?

Because the power of the connections that the internet makes cannot be over estimated.

It’s good to remind yourself of that – and other things.

2014 EDIT: My son is now 10 and for a school project we’re looking at Sapper Molyneux as being someone who died in the First World War. We’re researching him, his background and what life would have been life in Liverpool for him. We’ve already made some amazing discoveries and I’ll blog them later this year.


Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Sapper Peter Molyneux’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission page.

Mesopotamia campaign on Wikipedia.

Join the Conversation


  1. Dan, a wonderful post. Thank you.

    Several years ago, I looked up all of my namesakes or near-namesakes on the CWGC web site who were buried in France and Flanders. I was gobsmacked to find there were 54 of them. Over the next few years, I visited all of their graves and memorials. This has been (and still is) one of the most moving and thought-provoking experiences of my life. None of these guys was a direct relative – my immediate families worked in the mines and at the Woolwich Arsenal – but it truly bought home to me the scale of the loss of life in WW1.

    Your boy should indeed wear that poppy with pride, and tell the same story to his own kids.

    1. Thanks, Tom. There’s something quite amazing about that period of history and the fallout it created. Even more amazing that we’re still living through the consequences no matter how distant.

  2. lovely post Dan.

    the little bird and i spent this morning’s walk to school discussing war. she’s been learning a bit about it at school and was keen to test out what she’d learnt and to talk about remembrance day. in her words : “people start wars for all sorts of reasons, some of them seem quite silly. but if people have to leave their families to go and have a fight to look after us, then we should remember them every day not just on one day”


  3. Great post Dan – a reminder that the devastation war causes is not left to the battlefield alone.

    I know that all too well from my own grandfathers. My Dad’s Dad worked as an ambulance driver in WW2 and rarely spoke of the horror he saw. One day when I was in Grade 10 I rang him up to interview him about the war. My Dad and Uncle were shocked he spoke to me about it – he had stonewalled them with any details when they were growing up. Although he was proud to have served his country, he refused to march on Anzac Day.

    Mum’s Dad was a Japanese POW for a few years in Singapore. After he got back to Brisbane something wasn’t right… he and my Grandma had three children together, but one day in the early 1950s when my Mum was at school he left, never to return. That event had an absolutely devastating impact on my mother for decades after, a pain that I also feel for her.

    1. Neither of those, I’ll bet, will show up as statistics anywhere. But your mum’s family especially have been scarred by war too. It’s fascinating how, as you say, what happens away from the battlefield is also significant and yet is never captured and rarely spoken about so thank you for sharing, Matt.

  4. Oh Dan. Such a great story. Well written. Hadn’t seen that before tonight. Nice one.

  5. Reblogged this on Hopton's Herald and commented:
    Not the English Civil War, I know… But this brought a tear to my eye… And even though the re-enacting is fun, we do remember the devastation that war brings, in whatever time and place….

    1. Thanks, Hopton. I suppose the really strong lesson I drew from it is that the impact doesn’t stop at the battlefield or even when the war ends, but it goes rolling on and on…

      1. Yes, absolutely…. Your story really moved me – the two World Wars are particularly poignant at this time, & ‘lest we forget ‘… But also, we love the re-enactment, but it always strikes me that the English Civil War killed such a great proportion of British men….

  6. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of listening to those who will tell us of our past. Very touching. Reminds me of days long ago when I’d listen to my great-grandma’s memories.

  7. ‘Years later and long after my grandpa’s death I took up the search online. It took five minutes on the Commonwealth War Graves site. It was as easy as googling and it felt wrong he was not there to see it.”

    Yes, I get that. In a lump in the throat kind of way. And the sand, the sand.

    There are so many ghosts accumulating on my Facebook page I am wondering if the dead won’t eventually have wireless. Surely ectoplasm conducts?

    Can I ask another question? Is your great grandmother’s first name forgotten in the family? Or did you choose deliberately to not name her here?

    1. Hi Paula,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      Not a deliberate act. Her name is lost in the family, I’m afraid. Mum may have known it but she died 10 years ago so its a piece of jigsaw that’s missing.

  8. Very interesting and moving piece. One gripe, if I may…in the first photo with your great grandfather everyone is named except the woman I expect is your great grandmother. She is simply referred to as his wife. Please give her a name…and congratulations on being fresh pressed!

    1. Thanks, Jane. Simple answer is I don’t know, I’m afraid. I have a copy of the original photo which has notes on the back who everyone is copied over from the original. There wasn’t a note for who Mrs Molyneux’s first name was

  9. So glad I found you! A wonderful story….the sand really got to me….powerful image in my head of him stooping to scoop a handful of grains to make a connection. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, V. I was puzzled by the sand at first. Why would you keep a handful of sand in an envelope in a safe place for so many years? Then linking the pain he felt at his Dad’s death and his failed efforts to find the grave it feels to me like that was the significance. Why else would he keep it? I just can’t think of another reason.

  10. Reblogged this on maureencuz and commented:
    Thank you î really enjoyed your family story. My father fought in the second world war as a boy of 17. His 1st and only battle was among 3000 soldiers with just rifles and bayonets against Rommel and his tanks. He was lucky to be among the 800 survivors. I witnessed many a teary episode when he would go down memory lane.

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