Posthumous decoration for North Otago man

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Captain Cyril Molloy will never be forgotten. The former Waitaki Boys’ High School pupil died at Passchendaele on October 12, 1917. As part of the centennial celebrations of that terrible battle, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage looked into Capt Molloy’s story for the Nga Tapuwae New Zealand First World War Trails.

Walk down Severn St in Oamaru and you will see a series of oak trees, each marked with a cross.

They stand in memory of the town’s fallen World War 1 soldiers and together form part of New Zealand’s largest war memorial.

One of these trees marks the life of Hakataramea-born Captain Cyril Molloy, a former Waitaki Boys’ High School head prefect, University of Otago law graduate and rugby player.

Capt Molloy was one of thousands of Allied soldiers to take part in the successful but costly Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917.

The New Zealand Division alone suffered 3700 casualties, including 700 deaths.

Capt Molloy was one of the injured. After the battle, he wrote to his mother, Bridget.

“I got a bit of shrapnel in the shoulder and the wound is almost healed now. When I look round and see some of the injured, I begin to realise how lucky I was.

“It was a great day and I would not have missed the experience for anything.”

Commander of the 4th Otago Company, Capt Molloy was among the first wave of New Zealand troops to attack the German trenches in front of Messines village.

He recounted the experience, with humour, to his probably mortified mother.

“I also got hit in the back of the head – the bit of shrapnel somehow dodged my steel hat.

“I have had my head X-rayed three times and there is nothing in it. Of course, I mean shrapnel.”

Although he survived the Battle of Messines, Capt Molloy was one of 842 New Zealand soldiers to lose their lives at Passchendaele on October 12, 1917.

This devastating loss of life remains the highest one-day death toll suffered by New Zealand forces overseas.

In reporting his death, the Oamaru Mail described him as “a good athlete and a brilliant pupil”. He would be “remembered by many friends as of a winning disposition and one fond of all sports.”

The North Otago Times published extracts of letters from Capt Molloy’s commanding officers praising him.

“He was one of our most brilliant officers,” wrote Brigadier-general William Braithwaite, commander of the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade.

“He did not know the meaning of fear. He was absolutely adored by his men, who would follow him anywhere.”

The Waitaki Boys’ magazine paid tribute to the school’s fallen son, one of many who inspired the construction of the Hall of Memories.

“At Waitaki, his lion-hearted prowess in the boxing ring, in football [rugby] and rowing will not be forgotten for many a year. But in far higher measure he served the school well.

“As prefect [head prefect in 1909], he set a tonic example of devotion to work and duty, and gained the abiding respect of staff and boys alike.”

Special place . . . The cross honouring Capt Molloy in Severn St, Oamaru. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

In January 1918, Capt Molloy was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for gallantry.

His mother received word from the New Zealand Minister of Defence, Sir James Allen the following month.

“I sincerely regret that he was not spared to receive personally such a coveted decoration,” Sir James wrote.

Capt Molloy lies in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium.