The Private Joe Saunders’ story
continues 105 years after his death
In 1914, young 19-year-old Joseph (Joe) Saunders, an attendant at Sydney Hospital and much-loved son of Mary Mann, stepson of Ronald Mann and his four siblings, was one of the first to join up with the AIF to serve in WW1 on 24 August 1914.
Joe and his older brother Frank both went to Randwick to enlist, however they knocked Frank back as he was an engineer on the railways, which was considered essential service. While enlisting, Joe insisted that he would never carry a gun and did not want to shoot another human, no matter if they were the enemy. No worries, the army signed him up as a stretcher bearer with the 1st and 14th Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps as he already had experience in that field from his work at Sydney Hospital.
‘Iodine Joe’, as he was later known, landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, the first day, on 25 April 1915, where he was one of the many stretcher bearers attending to the wounded and dead.
He was a first-day lander, along with other Freshwater boys, including brothers Arthur (later killed Gallipoli) and Alfred Hughes and Fred Reynolds, who is believed to be the first to die on that fateful morning of 25 April 1915. Joe would have been tending to the injured and dying immediately upon arrival, including the body of Fred Reynolds lying dead at the water’s edge.
His caring nature and happy disposition made Joe a much-loved figure as he picked his way around the hundreds of dead, wounded and dying. He was the first responder before casualties were taken to the hospital tent.
Even though he did not fight with a gun, he nevertheless went ‘over the top’ with his mates, just with his tin hat on and his weapons of war, iodine, lint and cotton wool to dress their wounds. With no way to defend himself, miraculously, he was able to save the lives of many soldiers before they succumbed from neglect of their injuries. He gave care and hope where there was none. Joe was eventually one of the last to be evacuated from Gallipoli.
To his close friends he was affectionally known as ‘Joss’, but to everyone else he was ‘Iodine Joe’. On many occasions he would pull a well-worn mouth organ out of his pocket and play all the popular tunes of the day. Sometimes to cheer the soul, sometimes to mourn, always to give comfort. At night he would play everyone to sleep. Even the Turks were quiet when he played. When a soldier was being buried, Joe would play a requiem as they shovelled in the grave dirt.
After Gallipoli, Joe went on to the Western Front in Europe, where he sustained a gunshot wound to the leg on 22 July 1916 and was gassed in October 1917, both of which entailed hospitalisation. He also managed to get himself in plenty of strife for being AWOL.
Unfortunately, fate caught up with him in 1918. On the night of 20 May 1918, while billeting in a former convent in Bussy les Daours, he was just going inside at 9.30 pm when a German war plane flew overhead and dropped a couple of bombs which exploded outside the door and Joe was hit in the head. He didn’t regain consciousness and died soon after.
Joe was buried the day after he died. Because of the high esteem in which Joe was held by his fellow soldiers, a special cross was made by his unit with great care and attention. His Red Cross files quote an informant saying, ‘Saunders was a most popular chap.’ Joe is buried in the Daours Communal Cemetery, Extension, Plot 3, Row C, Grave 2.
Only the day before he was hit, Joe had sent a letter to his mother telling her to fatten up a couple of chooks. After four years serving overseas in the army, he was just longing for one of his mother’s Sunday chicken roasts, and he was finally due to go home the day after he died. His mother Mary Mann, then living in Dowling Street Freshwater, received his letter well before she was advised of his death and had the fattened chooks ready. When the letter edged in black came from the army advising her that Joe had died, Mary, distraught with grief, let the chooks escape to run free through Freshwater.
The shock of Joe’s loss was almost unbearable and his stepfather Ronald, deep in grief, died early 1919 leaving his mother Mary caring for his 3 younger siblings.
His brother Frank, who had stayed in Australia as an essential worker, married and had 10 children. Unfortunately, Frank’s wife died suddenly, leaving Frank with some of his younger children still needing care, so he moved back to Harbord to be near his mother and sisters. Some of Frank’s children later served in the Second World War and were members of the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club, including one of the youngest, Eddie Saunders who told the story he’d heard at his grandmother’s knee of her enormous grief when she got the news that Joe had died and she let the chooks go. It must have made a great impression on Eddie hearing this as a little fellow. He carried the memory of his grandmother’s grief hearing of Joe’s death with him all his life.
In July 2023, Col. John Platt (retd.), President of the Harbord RSL sub-Branch received word that Joseph Saunder’s WW1 Memorabilia, including his medals, were donated by Joe’s nephew, Eddie Saunders, who was then living in Queensland, to the Kedron/Wavell RSL sub-Branch in Qld back in July 2007. Eddie Saunders aged 91, passed away in December 2022 and it was his wish that Joe’s medals be returned to Freshwater. It was also felt by the Kedron/Wavell RSL that Joe’s medals and memorabilia should be sent back to his ‘Spiritual Home’ of the Harbord RSL sub-Branch and arrangements were then put in place.
On Wednesday 13 September 2023, Mr. John McQueen and Mr. John McGhie, both Vietnam veterans and sub-Branch members from Kedron/Wavell RSL flew down from Queensland for a ‘Return of Military Medals’ ceremony held in Jacka Park on Thursday 14 September, which included members of the Harbord RSL sub-Branch.
President, Col. John Platt (retd.) told the story of Joseph’s life, his tragic end and how it affected a very young Ed Saunders, who heard his uncle Joe’s story from his grandmother’s knee.
After a moving ceremony in Jacka Park, the party walked down to Soldiers Avenue to the place where Joe’s tree and plaque stand, placed there by his mother in 1925. Mr. Sean Rout and Mr. Peter Harley, Chairman of The Friends of Freshwater and Soldiers Avenue Stakeholders Group addressed the audience, explaining the development of Soldiers Avenue including the trees representing the fallen soldiers and the memorial plaques placed in the footpath telling their stories.
L-R: John McQueen, John McGhie, Sean Rout, John Platt, President Harbord RSL sub-Branch, Nick Misco, Pam Hansen at Jacka Park
Returning later to the Harbord RSL club, the party had an opportunity to examine the medals and memorabilia, including the Memorial Plaque given to the next-of-kin of all British Empire service personnel who were killed as a result of the war.
The plaques 120 mm in diameter, were cast in bronze, and came to be known as the “Dead Man’s Penny”, because of the similarity in appearance to the much smaller penny coin. 1,355,000 plaques were issued, which used a total of 450 tons of bronze and continued to be issued into the 1930s to commemorate people who died as a consequence of the war.
Joseph Saunders 1895 – 1918 Memorial Plaque Arthur E Hughes Medals 1889 – 1915