SANDERS John Thomas 1890 – 1918


73310 Private John Thomas Sanders, 2nd Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 21 March 1918, aged 27.  He is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, Pas-de-Calais, France[1] and the Witton Park war memorials.

Family Details

John Thomas Sanders was born 1890 [2]at Etherley, the son of William and Jane Sanders.  There were 2 children:[3]

  • John Thomas born 1890 at Etherley
  • Daniel bc.1893 at Etherley

In 1901, the family lived at Phoenix Row where 45 years old William worked as a coal miner (hewer).[4]  In 1911, the family lived at Black Road, Witton Park where William worked as a coal miner (hewer), 20 years old John worked as a, “Drapers’ Assistant” and 18 years old Daniel was employed as a colliery labourer. [5]  Later John Sanders worked as a labourer.[6]

Military Details

11 December 1915, aged 25 years 3 months John T. Sanders enlisted at Bishop Auckland into the Durham Light Infantry and joined the 5th (Reserve) Battalion.[7] He was transferred to the Army Reserve Class B [8] until 24 August 1917, a total of 1 year 255 days when he was mobilized.  He stood 5’5” tall and his religion was Church of England.[9]  John’s mother Jane Sanders, 6 Black Road, Witton Park, was named as his next of kin.[10]  John T. Sanders underwent a medical examination 17 January 1917.  His trade or occupation was, “Labourer”.[11] 

DLI Cap Badge

Private John T. Sanders entered France 27 January 1918 and immediately was posted to the 2nd Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry (2/DLI) being allocated the service number 73310. [12]  He joined 2/DLI, in the field, 5 February 1918.[13] 2/DLI was a Regular Army battalion which had been on the Western Front since September 1914 and had been involved in many battles and engagements in France and Belgium.  2/DLI came under the orders of 18th Brigade 6th Division and by early 1918, the 18th Brigade comprised:

  • 1st Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment
  • 2nd Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry
  • 11th (Service) Battalion, the Essex joined October 1915
  • 14th (Service) Battalion, the DLI joined November 1915 but was disbanded 1 February 1918
  • 18th Brigade Machine Gun Company formed February 1916, left to move into the 6th Machine Gun Battalion 1 February 1918.
  • 18th Trench Mortar Battery formed April 1916 [14]

The long anticipated German attack was launched against British troops during March and April 1918.  The violence of the onslaught surpassed anything yet delivered.  

The German Offensive, Spring 1918: an overview [15]

3 March, Soviet Russia made peace with Germany and her allies by virtue of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  As a result, Germany could now transfer troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front.  More importantly, these Divisions included the original elite of the German Army – the Guards, Jagers, Prussians, Swabians and the best of the Bavarians. In all, 192 Divisions could be deployed in the West.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions.  A single division numbered about 19,000 men.  Ludendorff could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.  Thus, the Germans now held superiority in numbers.  

The German High Command needed victory to be gained before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America entered the war 6 April 1917 and in the July, Pershing General of the Armies of the United States asked for an army of 3 million men.  The first of her troops arrived in France 26 June 1917.  The training and build-up of troops obviously took time but eventually by June 1918, the Americans were receiving about 250,000 men a month in France.  This amounted to 25 divisions in or behind the battle zone and another 55 in the United States ready to join the action.

Elsewhere in the Alliance, the French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of inactivity but the British were worn down by continuous fighting during the summer of 1917 with major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai.  The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918 producing a manpower crisis.

21 March 1918:  the German Offensive was launched.  There were 5 phases:

  • 21 March – 5 April: Operation Michael, against the British Third and Fifth Armies, the Battle of Picardy (otherwise known as the First Battle of the Somme 1918)
  • 9 – 11 April: Operation Georgette, against the British, the Battle of Lys sector near Armentieres
  • 27 April: Operation Blucher-Yorck, against the French sector along Chemin des Dames, the Third Battle of Aisne
  • 9 June: Operation Gneisenau, against the French sector between Noyan and Montdider, the Battle of the Matz
  • 15 – 17 July: Operation Marne-Rheims, the final phase known as the Second Battle of the Marne.

The Germans enjoyed spectacular territorial gains particularly during the initial phases of the offensive.  23 March, the Kaiser declared a “victory holiday” for German schoolchildren.  The cost in manpower was enormous:

  • Between 21 March and 10 April the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 303,450 men – 1/5th of their original strength.
  • The April offensive against the British in Flanders was eventually computed to have cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000.

The German High Command calculated that it required 200,000 replacements each month but only 300,000 recruits stood available taking into account the next annual class of 18-year olds.  There were 70,000 convalescents available from hospitals each month but even counting them, the strength of the German Army had fallen from 5.1 million to 4.2 million men in the 6 months of the offensive.  It could not be increased on the estimated scale required. To add to this dilemma, in June 1918, the first outbreak of “Spanish Flu” laid low nearly 500,000 German soldiers.  This epidemic was to reoccur in the autumn and wreak havoc throughout Europe and the wider world.

German troops suffered from poor diet, battle fatigue, discontentment with the military leadership, social unrest at home and a general realisation that their great effort was beginning to wane.  As a result, the Allies counter attack in mid-July began to seize the initiative.  Sweeping victories over demoralised German forces eventually led to the resignation of Ludendorff 27 October, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II 9 November, and the signing of the Armistice 11 November 1918.

March 1918: 2/DLI [17]

The only Durham battalion actually in the line when the storm broke was 2/DLI which held part of the Third Army line north of the Cambrai/Bapaume road in the Morchies sector.[18]

By this time, 2/DLI was much different to the Regular Army battalion which entered France in September 1914.  It now consisted of one or two regulars, old India and South Africa veterans; Special Reservists from 3/DLI and 4/DLI, some of whom had been out since 1914; Territorials who had been out since 1915, “Derby men” and conscripts.[19]

1 March, 2/DLI left Beugnatre Camp and marched up to the front line in the Morchies sector, relieving the 1/West Yorkshire Regiment.  The next 3 days were quiet but rumours of the German attack were rife.  They were relieved on 13 March, returning to Beugnatre Camp.  19 March 2/DLI relieved 11/Essex in the front line – B Company on the right, D Company on the left, A and C Companies in reserve.[20]

21 March at 5am, the German bombardment opened, a heavy barrage of gas shells fell on the battalion positions, communications were cut.  Runners were sent out to find out what was happening.  Privates Mathews and Turnbull managed to reach the front line Company Commanders and return to Battalion HQ with news that they were holding on but casualties were heavy.  The lack of information reaching the battalion command post was a serious problem.   Privates Mathews and Turnbull were sent out again but did not return.  At about 9am, men in the reserve trenches felt comfortable enough to take off their respirators as the gas dissipated somewhat.  At about 10.20am the Germans had already taken the front and support lines, attacked the reserve line.  The following account written by Second Lieutenant Hubert McBain provides some detail:[21]

“the Germans advance towards our reserve line in extended order but are mown down by our rifle and Lewis gun fire and after two or three attempts give up.  At 10.45 hours a bombing party of Germans work down the communications trench and attack our battalion headquarters which causes a momentary panic.  But we soon counter attack with bombs and soon kill and wound them all and establish a block in the communications trench and fire rifle grenades with good effect at the next party of Germans.”

Although the artillery bombardment had ceased, the Germans kept up heavy machine gun fire on the reserve lines.  Fighting continued until 1850 hours when the position became impossible to defend and the decision was made that after dark they should withdraw.  By 1915 hours, the mist began to descend and as the fog got thicker the order was given for every man had to make his own way back to the Corps line.  As the men of the DLI and the West Yorks left, the Germans entered the trenches and shell holes.  It was estimated that of the 300 men that left the Reserve line, 250 made it to the Corps line.[22] During the earlier fighting, of the 2 front line companies (B & D) only 2 wounded officers and 1 man who accompanied them back to the Regimental Aid Post got back.[23] The Officer Commanding C Company, Second Lieutenant Eccles and 90 men plus Second Lieutenant Spencer and 56 men with him made it back to the Corps line.[24] 

The enemy artillery opened up again and the transport lines came under heavy shell fire during the night of 21/22 March.  Fighting continued as the Germans closely followed the remnants of the retreating 18th Brigade during 22 March as they fell back to Morchies and then Achiet-le-Grand.  By the next day, it was learnt that the Germans were in possession of Mory.  Those of the 18th Brigade dug trenches around Achiet-le-Grand, being the centre of the Divisional Front. 

24 March, the remnants headed for Mondicourt and marched as far as Puisieux-au-Mont where they entrained for Mondicourt near Doullens then travelled north to Belgium, the following day, eventually ending up at Road Camp, Sint Jan-ter-Biezen.[25]

The Regimental Historian S.P.G. Ward summarises the situation regarding casualties, as follows:[26]

“Out of the 30 officers and 639 NCOs and men in the trenches on 21 March, only Major Brereton, Lieutenant Spencer and 58 men were present in the evening of the 22nd.  The fate of the others cannot be established with certainty.  Twelve officers and 52 NCOs and men were certainly killed; 6 officers and 286 NCOs and men were wounded; the rest were missing, including many who were killed and wounded or died in captivity.”

Along with many others, Private John T. Sanders was initially reported, “Missing” but by 5 October 1918, his death was presumed, by the lapse of time, as having occurred on or since 21 March 1918.[27] Many of those reported as “Missing” were captured by the advancing German forces and held as prisoners of war. 

Later research records that 2/DLI on 21 March 1918, lost 2 officers and 110 other ranks killed in action or died of wounds.[28]

Private John T. Sanders served a total of 2 years 101 days, 54 days of which were in France before being killed in action, 21 March 1918.[29]

Awards and Medals

Private John T. Sanders was awarded the Victory and British War medals.[30]

Medal Roll Card Index


John T. Sanders’ mother Jane received his pension.[31]


Private John T. Sanders is commemorated at Bay 8, the Arras Memorial which commemorates almost 35,000 servicemen from the UK, South Africa and New Zealand who died in the Arras sector between spring of 1916 and 7 August 1918 and have no known grave.[32]

The Arras Memorial


John T. Sanders was born in 1890, lived at Witton Park and worked as a labourer.  He enlisted at the end of 1915, was mobilised August 1917 and entered France, January 1918 joining the 2nd Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry to provided much needed reinforcements.  2/DLI was in the front line as the German Spring offensive hit the British Third and Fifth Armies in Picardy, France, 21 March 1918. 73310 Private John Thomas Sanders was killed in action 21 March 1918, aged 27.  He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, Pas-de-Calais, France.  He was a single man.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Note: Both CWGC & SDGW incorrectly record his name as Joseph Thomas Sanders.

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.180 Auckland 1890 Q4

[3] 1901 & 1911 census

[4] 1901 census

[5] 1911 census

[6] Army Form B.178?

[7] Army Form B.2512

[8] Probably enlisted as a result of the “The Derby Scheme” – the need for recruits never waned and after the surge of the Kitchener appeal, recruitment slowed down.  Named after Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby who was Kitchener’s Director General for Recruiting, the scheme identified those men who were not in essential occupation by using a National Registration scheme.  They were encouraged to volunteer for war service.

[9] Descriptive Report on Enlistment

[10] Information supplied by recruit

[11] Army Form B.178 ?

[12] Army Form B.205 (?)

[13] Army Form B.103


[15] Various sources including,, “The First World War” Keegan J. 1999, “First World War” Gilbert M. 1994, “The IWM Book of 1918 Year of Victory” Brown M. 1998.

[16] “Faithfull: The Story of the Durham Light Infantry” 1962 S.G.P. Ward p.402 Note: The Map is not shown here due yo poor quality

[17] “The Steel of the DLI: The 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry at War 1914-1918” 2009 John Sheen p.231 – 246

[18] Ward p.399

[19] Sheen p.237

[20] Sheen p.234 &235

[21] Sheen p.238 & 239

[22] Sheen p.240 & 241

[23] Sheen p.241

[24] Sheen 242

[25] Sheen p.243

[26] Ward p.400

[27] Army Form B.104 dated 9 September 1918 & Statement of the Services

[28] Officers and Soldiers Died in the Great War (ODGW & SDGW)

[29] Military History Sheet

[30] Medal Roll card index and Roll dated 3 June 1920

[31] Pension card index

[32] CWGC