I first came across James Saunders in David Boulton’s book Objection Overruled (1967, republished 2014), a study of conscription and conscientious objection during World War 1.
When I read the details of Field Punishment No. 1 – inflicted over 60,000 times during the war – I wondered if I could carry on. I did – and so met a certain J. B. Saunders from Halesworth, Suffolk, near to the Old Independent Chapel at Walpole that I help to look after for Historic Chapels Trust.
James had been arrested in May 1916 and persuaded against his convictions to enlist. After enlistment his convictions reasserted themselves and he went absent without leave, was court-martialled and sentenced to a year’s detention. He was sent to Barlinnie prison north-east of Glasgow then after three months, secretly shipped to France under a false name to a different regiment. Here he refused to carry his equipment and was again court-martialled and after a week’s detention was sent to Alexandria, Egypt in April 1917, where he was court-martialled a third time for disobedience and sentenced to six months’ hard labour in Gabarree prison.
In August 1917 he wrote to his wife from Mustapha Camp, Alexandria:“You may believe what I say that I am not afraid of anything the military can do. I have been in chains and handcuffs, crucified to a tree in the broiling sun nearly every morning and evening, for five months have had bread and water and solitary confinement. I refused to do any work whatever, so leave you to guess what five months alone in a cell, doing nothing is like. Seven times I went down with dysentery, and seven times I managed to get on my feet and face the music. I fainted and had to be driven away in a barrow. This tropical sun and chaining up nearly drove me mad. I stuck it, and finally got bowled out, and was sent to 19th General Schools Hospital for seventeen days. I was offered RAMC work. I refused it, and asked to be sent back to prison to do full six months. I left hospital next day, and was doing seven days’ No. 1 Punishment diet, chained up in the sun etc. when suddenly I had the chains taken off and I was released. They have discovered at last that they cannot break me. They failed at Barlinnie, and I intend them to fail here.I am determined to sacrifice all rather than to give in. Many times I thought I should hang in the sun and die. I pleaded with the sentry to shoot me. I cannot tell you the misery of it…. I’ll die fifty times rather than endorse the wicked thing. I was flooded for weeks in my cell with water, two buckets of creosol were thrown in, and I was gassed. I was naked for several days and nights in chains. I had to lie on the concrete floor. However, I believe the doctor stopped these horrible proceedings.”
I felt sure James would not have survived the war. I put some feelers out in Halesworth and discovered a James Baldry Saunders lived in London Road in 1911, but that research into Halesworth men in WW1 had not found any record of his enlistment. I found out from the 1911 census that he was born in 1878 – so was 36 when war broke out – and a builder. A search produced 39 people with the surname Saunders in Halesworth today. So …where to start?
Then I had a stroke of luck. I remembered that there were some Saunders graves in our burial ground at Walpole. I scratched around and found a fallen stone commemorating a Frederick Baldry Saunders who was born in 1884 – it had to be his younger brother as it was customary at that time to give boys their mother’s maiden name as a middle name.
Information started to arrive from all sides. I made contact with James Baldry Saunders’ grandson, and to my delight and surprise, James did survive the War. I now have copies of photographs and of his funeral service which took place in Walpole Old Chapel on 16th February 1935 and was reported in the Halesworth Review & District News. His grave is unmarked, but we know for certain he lies there.
His grandson told me that when war broke out, James volunteered as a dispatch rider but was turned down, possibly because of his age. However by the time conscription was introduced in 1916, he had become utterly opposed to the war. His brother-in-law Reginald Aldridge had already been killed in combat in France.
Sadly, having survived all that he had gone through during the war, James died at the age of only 57 from a tetanus infection following a building site accident at Darsham. His son Mark taught woodwork to several generations of boys around Halesworth and lived for years in the house his father built for the family at Walpole.
James Baldry Saunders lies without marker in the burial ground at Walpole Old Chapel. Nearby lies the headstone he had placed on his brother’s grave, its inscription reading:
‘Oh Lord, scatter Thou the people who delight in war’ (Psalm 68.v.30).
James’s only son died in November 2014 and his memorial service was held at Walpole Old Chapel.