Ninety years ago today, Barcombe born Henry Alfred Saunders made the supreme sacrifice for his King and Country. This is his story:
Henry was possibly known as Alfred Saunders. Chailey Parish Magazine first notes him as Saunders, Private A, 3rd Royal Sussex, England and this information is then repeated monthly up to and including November 1916. In October 1916 however, the magazine notes Saunders, Pte H, 22nd London Regt, France. I think these are probably one and the same man.
On his short service attestation form dated 25th February 1916, Henry Saunders’s age is given as 27 years and three months. This places his date of birth to around November or December 1888. The 1901 census however, notes his age as ten years; the 1891 census notes his age as one year.
In 1901 the Saunders family was living at Littleworth, Barcombe, Sussex. The family was headed by George Saunders (aged 44, born at Glynde, Sussex and working as an agricultural labourer) and his wife Eliza (aged 51 and born at Ashington). Children living with them were: Thomas Saunders (aged 21, an agricultural labourer), George Saunders (aged 14, an agricultural labourer) and Henry (aged ten, a scholar). All three boys had been born at Barcombe. There were also at least two sisters who were not at the family home. Rose Eliza Saunders (aged sixteen) was working as a general domestic servant in Lewes. Her sister Emily Saunders was also working as a general domestic servant at Curd’s Farm, Barcombe. Like their brothers, both girls were born at Barcombe.
Henry attested with the Royal Sussex Regiment at Hastings on 25th February 1916 and was given the army number G/9117. He gave his address as Fir Tree Cottage, Newick and his trade or calling as gardener. He was five feet seven and sven eighths tall and weighed 140lbs. He was deemed “Fit with the exception of his right forefinger amputated 2nd joint when aged three.” He had previously presented himself at the recruitment office in Hastings, Sussex (on 2nd February 1916), the recruiting officer there recommending: “Should in my opinion be of use in a Pioneer Battalion.”
Henry joined the regiment at Chichester on 29th February and was posted to depot. On 3rd March he was posted to the reserve 3rd Battalion.
On 19th June 1916 he was transferred to the 3/22nd London Regiment and given a new number: 5695. This battalion had been formed in March 1915 at Tadworth and had remained in billets for the winter. In January 1916 it had moved to Winchester and on 8th April 1916 became a reserve battalion.
On 29th June 1916, Henry sailed for France and joined the 1/22nd (County of London) Regiment which formed part of the 142nd Brigade in the 47th (London) Division. By the time Henry joined it, the battalion had already been overseas for over a year.
On 11th July 1916 he transferred again, this time to the 1/12th London Regiment which formed part of the 168th Brigade in the 56th (London) Division. He was also given another number: 7834.
In August 1916, Chailey Parish Magazine noted, “Saunders, Pt H, 22nd London Regt, France”. That same month, on 17th August, Henry’s brother George was killed in action whilst serving with the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial.
Seven weeks later, Henry was killed in action too, in a failed attack on Dewdrop Trench on 7th October 1916 (although his service papers incorrectly note his date of death as 26th October). Chailey Parish Magazine recorded his death in its December 1916 issue, noting: “Rif H A Saunders, 12th London Regt, Killed in action, Oct 7th 1916, in France”.
On 13th May 1919, Henry’s surviving family members recorded their details on Army Form W.5080 and returned it to the Infantry Records Office.
George Saunders, Fir Tree Cottage, Newick
Eliza Saunders, Fir Tree Cottage, Newick
Full Blood Brother:
Thomas Henry Saunders (40), Dairy Cottage, Newick
Half Blood Brother:
William Ellis (44), 53rd Royal Sussex Regt, BEF, France
Edward [unclear] Ellis (43), Tower House, Newick
Full Blood Sister:
Emma Emily Saunders (38) [surname later crossed out and replaced with Jennings], The Lodge, Bineham, Chailey
Eliza Rose Saunders (35) [surname later crossed out and replaced with Hall] 42 Haddock Hill, Bexhill
On 13th December 1921, Henry’s father George received his son’s British War and Victory Medals.
The last recorded information in Henry Saunders’s burnt service record is a letter from his sister’s husband dated 10th July 1923. Writing to the Infantry Records’ Office in Hounslow, Edward Hall, living at 42 Haddocks Hill Road, Bexhill-on-Sea writes:
Will you please furnish me with particulars as to where Pt H A Saunders, No 7834 of the 12th London Rifles was buried, who was killed on October 7th 1916 somewhere on the Somme. As I and my wife who is his sister proposed visiting his grave very shortly.
Eight days later the records’ office responded as follows:
“No report of burial of the late No 7834 Pt H A Saunders, 12th London Regt, has been received by me. It is suggested that you make application to the Secretary, Imperial War Graves Committee.”
Like his brother, Henry has no known grave and is commemorated on pier and face nine of the Thiepval memorial in France. The Commonwealth War Graves’ Commission’s Debt of Honour register notes his age (27) and that he was the son of George Saunders of Fir Tree Cottage, Newick.