Late on the afternoon of the 26th September 1915, 9th Suffolk had reached the limit of their advance.
In positions just to the further side of the Hulluch-Vermelles road, they dug in consolidating what they could of the German rear line positions the had just captured.
In shallow scrapes and taking fire from the village of Hulluch to the north and the german machine guns behind them in 'Chalk Pit' wood. The advance had veered widely south during the afternoon sweeping through an area which was to to have been taken by 11th Battalion, The Essex Regiment, who had themselves veered further south as well.
Over some 2000 yards, they advanced, but by the time the crossed the main Hulluch road, they had become disjointed and fragmented. As the shrapnel fire descended, the advance broke up. These tired, citizen soldiers had been thrown directly into battle and without acclimatisation to the conditions they were to face, they had understandably, run out of momentum.
The advance had ground to a halt. With enemy shrapnel taking its toll, what survivors remained, took cover in shell holes and ditches. Unable to hold on and with no reinforcements immediately available, as ammunition began to be expended, a retreat was unfortunately, inevitable.
In one of these shell holes, a lonely sergeant still fired gallantly at the enemy, even when all around him had long since retired. Sergeant A.F. Saunders, armed with a Lewis machine gun, continued to fire at the advancing enemy, allowing his comrades to retire. Watching his actions from a nearby shell hole, a wounded officer of the 6th Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders saw Saunders solo defence. He wrote:
"I saw the lines of the 24th Division moving forward and the Germans running back. The Suffolks came through where I was and seemed to be going well. Then they wavered, and to my horror I saw them and the troops on both sides of them doubling back and leaving me isolated again. But one stout fellow, Sergeant A. F. Saunders, refused to retire. He had a Lewis gun he had picked up with a full drum on it. He crawled over to me and said he'd stay and fight. He made to crawl over to the next shell-hole and as he did so a shell landed and blew part of his left leg off about the knee. I crawled over and got him into the shell-hole, putting a tourniquet on his leg and giving him my water bottle, as his was empty. I crawled back to my hole and a few minutes later on looking over the top I saw a fresh wave of Germans advancing. I was wondering what to do - whether to lie doggo or open fire. There seemed no point in opening fire as there were perhaps a hundred and fifty enemy advancing rather diagonally across our front. To my amazement I heard short sharp bursts of Lewis gun-fire coming from the shell hole on my right. This was Sergeant Saunders more or less minus a leg! The Germans were taken by surprise and bunched up, so I joined in and between us we took a heavy toll and the rest retired out of sight. I took down Sergeant Saunders's number, name and regiment. Stretcher-bearer parties from the RE got me and Sergeant Saunders on to stretchers but shells dropped close and we were abandoned. We were lucky, a stretcher-bearer party from the Scots Guards picked us up and got us to an Advanced Dressing Station, where emergency surgery was carried out. Sergeant Saunders, now without a leg, was awarded the VC, while I was given the MC. He and I correspond regularly.”
Arthur Frederick Saunders was born in Ipswich in 1878. The 13th child to Thomas and Ann Saunders, he joined the Royal Navy in 1893 at the age of 15 and went for training on board HMS Warspite, then moored in the River Thames. Serving for 12 years, he left the service in 1906, returning to Ipswich to marry his wife Edith in 1908. He joined the notable town engineering company of Ransomes, Sims and Jeffries and was still working for them when war was declared in August 1914.
After enlisting as a Kitchener volunteer, he found himself in the 3rd Battalion, but when his previous service was discovered, he was quickly transferred to the 9th (Service) Battalion and given the rank of Sergeant.
Following his recovery from the wounds received at Loos, he came home to Ipswich to receive a real heroes welcome. He was presented with a gold watch, an armchair and £30. In edition, the townsfolk of the borough had organised a collection for their hero, which enabled him to purchase a house in the town, where the family lived for the rest of his life.
An Honorary Freeman of the borough, he became a JP in 1928. During the Second World War, he returned to service again as Quartermaster of the 11th (Ipswich) Battalion, Suffolk Home Guard. He died in 1947. His widow Edith, presented his Victoria Cross (the actual medal shown in the previous post) to the Suffolk Regiment Museum in 1989 on the occasion of he 99th Birthday.
The officer who wrote the above account of the action was Second Lieutenant Christinson, who would later rise to become General Sir Philip Christinson, CBE, CB, DSO, MC. He kept in touch with Arthur throughout his life and insisted that he be made an Honorary Cameron Highlander. His account of Arthurs actions was a more factual than the official polished citation. A man of a Service Battalion, who had never been in action before, had won the Regiment the first of its two Victoria Crosses. The day, though one of failure, was also one of gallantry.
Welcome to our online 'blog' charting the history of the many Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment and the part they played in the Great War.
Starting back in March 2014, we have recorded the events of 100 years ago on the centenary of their happening.
Keep checking back to see how the Great War is progressing for the men of the Suffolk Regiment.