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The Battle of the Somme


Major James Leadbitter Knott

Major James Leadbitter Knott DSO, son of Sir James Knott, was a member of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. He was killed during WW1 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

He had been a keen member of the Natural History Society of Northumbria since 1906 as well as being an active participant in the social and political life of Newcastle. The archives of the NHSN reveal Knott’s role in the First World War, and specifically, the Battle of the Somme.

The Report of the Council for 1916-1917 notes that ‘several of the younger members of the society, men of promise and ability, have made the great sacrifice during the year under review’.

Significantly, the year under review witnessed the bloodiest battle of the Great War, the Somme Offensive. On the opening day of the battle, 1st July 1916, there were 57,470 British casualties, among them was Major J. Leadbitter Knott. Knott was part of the Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire) regiment, of the 10th Battalion.

On the 1st July 1916, Knott was second in command, he was only 32 years old. At 7.30am Major Knott and his men advanced. At 7.28am three mines were detonated, and as a result the men were trapped between the enemy’s front and second positions. The enemy emerged from their dugouts and opened fire on Major Knott and his men. Over 700 men from this battalion were killed on the 1st July 1916 alone, including Major Knott who led the advance. Notably, Major Knott had been offered a safe position on a shipping board stationed in England but he had refused, wanting instead to fight at the front.

Graves of two sons at Ypres

Major Knott’s brother, Captain Henry Basil Knott, died in 1915 at Poperinghe casualty station after being fatally wounded by a bullet to the head. Despite being killed almost a year apart, and being buried around 70 miles from each other, the brothers were eventually reunited. Their graves are side by side in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, reading the inscription ‘Devoted In Life In Death Not Divided’ which was chosen by the Knott family.

Before his death, Major Knott was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order medal in the Birthday Honours. On the morning of his death Knott wrote a letter to his parents which was to be opened after his death. It read as follows:

My Dearest Father and Mother,

If you are reading this letter it means that this war has demanded the extreme sacrifice from me…It is not in any sense a message from the grave because whatever I may or may not doubt, I have very complete faith in the Life Eternal…Momentous events are looming and I have a premonition that I may not return to you. I have been dreaming of Basil recently… My medals are yours but I would like them destroyed when you both join me… My clothes, furniture and motor car must be immediately disposed of, everything which reminds you of my death must be removed. This is my urgent desire and wish…

Your devoted son, Jim


Memorial stone at St George's Memorial Church, Ypres, Belgium

After the deaths of the Knott brothers in the First World War, their father, Sir James Knott, donated the bell tower at St George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, Belgium. The image to the right shows the memorial stone at St George’s Memorial Church, where the bell was to be rang in memory of the Knott brothers. The Knott brothers have also been remembered closer to home, in Fenham, Newcastle, at St James and St Basil’s Church. The tenor bell inside the church bares the inscription ‘We ring in memory of James and Basil Knott, God knows’.

The oldest of the Knott brothers, Thomas, was also feared dead during the war and this added to the devastation of Sir James Knott and his wife. However, Thomas was later returned home after being interned at a prisoner of war camp.

Major J. Leadbitter Knott’s story serves to remind us of the North East’s connections to the First World War, as well as the links between the NHSN and the conflict. It further highlights the importance of going beyond the statistics thrown at us by history, in order to commemorate the individuals who sacrificed themselves as part of the Great War.

Written and researched by Ashleigh Jackson, a History and English Literature undergraduate student from the University of Edinburgh on a summer placement with the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Natural History Society of Northumbria


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