War history: Brave Arthur Saunders was Suffolk’s first winner of the Victoria Cross

Arthur is pictured on the extreme right of the middle row with the other members of the Sergeant's M

Arthur is pictured on the extreme right of the middle row with the other members of the Sergeant's Mess before being sent out to France. - Credit: Archant

One hundred years ago today the 9th Suffolks were fighting in France, in the bloody Battle of Loos.

Arthur Saunders

Arthur Saunders - Credit: Archant

Ipswich-born Sgt Arthur Saunders would be awarded the regiment’s first Victoria Cross for bravery. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, reports.

This morning at 9.45am, at the Christchurch Park entrance in Soane Street, Ipswich, a new memorial paving stone will be unveiled to commemorate Arthur Saunders VC.

Arthur was born in Cauldwell Hall Road, Ipswich, in April, 1878. He was the son of Thomas Saunders, a saddle and harness maker, and his wife Ann.

The family was large. Arthur and his 10 siblings moved from Cauldwell Hall Road to St Giles Terrace, 62 Spring Road, and Holly Cottage on Ringham Road, and on to 14 Argyle Street.

Arthur sitting on his bed in the hospital, where he was told, on April 1, 1916, that he had received

Arthur sitting on his bed in the hospital, where he was told, on April 1, 1916, that he had received the Victoria Cross - Credit: Archant

Arthur was educated at St John’s Church of England Primary School and California School.

On leaving school he set his sights on a career at sea, undergoing training under the Marine Training Society on board the former HMS Warspite and then the training hulk Boscawen.

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Arthur enlisted in the Royal Navy in February, 1894, and went on to serve as an able seaman at the Torpedo Training School, HMS Vernon.

He progressed through the ranks to petty officer class 2 and was discharged from HMS Pembroke in April,1908.

Leaving hospital after treatment

Leaving hospital after treatment - Credit: Archant

Later that year Arthur returned to Ipswich, where he married 18-year-old Edith Everitt. They set up home at 2 Notre Dame Terrace. The couple later moved to 180 Cauldwell Hall Road. Edith gave birth to three children.

Arthur worked as an engine fitter’s assistant at the Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies Ltd engineering plant in Ipswich.

Due to his military service, Arthur had been registered as a Special Reserve and shortly after war was declared he enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment’s newly-raised 9th Battalion. No doubt due to his previous service and aptitude, Arthur became Sergeant Saunders within a month of donning khaki.

The battalion sailed for France on August 30, 1915. A few weeks after landing, the Suffolks were involved in a major offensive involving British and French armies. Six British divisions were earmarked to take part in the initial offensive; a further three infantry and three cavalry divisions formed a reserve.

Relatives of Arthur Saunders and war veterans celebrate the plaque unveiling

Relatives of Arthur Saunders and war veterans celebrate the plaque unveiling - Credit: Archant

The British were responsible for the area between the La Bassee Canal and the small coal-mining town of Loos. The British Expeditionary Force was chronically short of modern artillery and so planned to use chlorine gas against the German army. The fighting took place across a depressing and non-descript battlefield spread across the dark coalfields, mine complexes and slag heaps of the Loos region.

The battle began on September 25, 1915; an unusual mix of old and modern technology and tactics. Bagpipes were played in battle as kilted Highlanders advanced as they had for centuries with bayonets fixed. Cavalry regiments waited behind the lines for the breakthrough.

At the same time, clouds of deadly gas swirled over the almost lunar landscape as machine guns swept the open spaces with deadly, almost robotic efficiency.

In this maelstrom were the Suffolks and Sgt Saunders.

The morning of September 26 heralded a German counter-attack that re-took a cluster of quarries captured by the British the previous day. A hastily-organised attempt to drive the Germans back out at 0645 hours failed.

Orders were then issued for a more deliberate attack against the German positions. The 24th Division, which included the Suffolks, was much depleted, as was the 21st Division, which was to attack on its right.

The Suffolks went into battle with the 11th Essex on their left. The attack began well but became disorganised as the advance ran into retreating British troops. The stragglers rallied and joined the advance again, alongside the Suffolks and the Essex.

However, the Germans brought machine guns and artillery into action. The situation was not improved by British artillery fire dropping short, among the sheltering troops.

The fighting raged until late afternoon. The Suffolks were ordered to hold their ground while the remainder of the brigade withdrew into captured German trenches. About 500 men held their ground and covered their comrades’ withdrawal.

Arthur Saunders had taken control of two Lewis machine guns after his officer had been badly wounded; he had kept up with the battalion throughout a trying day. This was even more remarkable as Arthur had been hit in the thigh and was bleeding badly.

When the retreat began, he did not withdraw. He grabbed one of the Lewis guns and crawled forward to a shell hole to join Lieu AFP Christison, manning another Lewis to hold back the German advance. The two men poured fire into the Germans and held them back while the British withdrawal was going on.

The two fought until a shell exploded and almost blew off Saunders’ leg below the knee. Christison applied a tourniquet and dressed Arthur’s wounds while under fire.

A few minutes later a wave of about 150 Germans began to advance toward the British lines. The two men again poured fire into the German formation. The attack faltered again and withdrew, allowing the British to prepare their defences in the old German lines.

During the night Saunders and Christison were relieved by the Scots Guards and carried to safety out of the line.

As a result of their defiant stand many lives were saved. Christison was later awarded the Military Cross and Saunders became the first man in the Suffolk Regiment to receive the nation’s highest award – the Victoria Cross.

Thankfully, Arthur did not lose his leg and after extensive treatment in the UK he returned to Ipswich, where the mayor gave him a public reception on June 22, 1916.

The people of Ipswich presented the returning hero with £365. Arthur bought a new home for his family at 354 Foxhall Road. A week later he received his medal from the king at Buckingham Palace.

Arthur’s wounds ultimately led to a medical discharge in November, 1916. He returned to Ransomes.

The people of Ipswich did not forget their hero. In April, 1920, Arthur was granted the freedom of the borough. He continued to work at Ransomes and when war broke out in 1939 became a member of the Home Guard.

He died in Ipswich Borough Hospital on July 30, 1947. There is a plaque on his old house at 180 Cauldwell Hall Road.

You can find out more about Sgt Arthur Saunders VC, Private Sam Harvey VC and the Suffolks’ experiences at the Battle of Loos Exhibition at Ipswich Town Hall today. Opening times noon to 5pm.

Would you like to organise your own bespoke group visit to the Western Front? Visit Galloway’s website to find out more.

You can follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles and find battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook page.

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