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The Battle of the Somme: Major James Leadbitter Knott

James Leadbitter Knott, son of Sir James Knott the Newcastle shipping magnate, was a member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne (NHSN) who was sadly killed during WW1 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916

James Leadbitter Knott, image courtesy of the Sir James Knott Trust

‘This war has demanded the extreme sacrifice from me’

Major J. Leadbitter Knott had been a keen member of the Natural History Society since December 1906 as well as being an active participant in the social and political life of Newcastle. His father, Sir James Knott, the owner of a large shipping company – the Prince Line Ltd, joined the Society two months later in February 1907. The Society archives 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 who was the deputy managing director of his father’s company had been offered a safe position on a shipping board stationed in England but he had refused, wanting instead to fight at the front.

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; both headstones inscribed with the words chosen by the Knott family, ‘Devoted In Life In Death Not Divided’.

knott grave

Image Courtesy of Sir James Knott Trust

Before his death, Major Knott was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order medal in the Birthday Honours. Allegedly, the night before his death at the Somme, James dreamt of his brother Henry Basil and on the morning of his death, before the battle began, Knott wrote a letter to his parents only to be opened in the event of his death.

‘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”

After the deaths of the Knott brothers in the First World War, their father, Sir James Knott, gave a donation to build the bell tower at St George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, Belgium. The image to the left shows the memorial stone at St George’s Memorial Church, where the bell was to be rung 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 bears 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. Thankfully, Thomas was later returned home after being interned at a prisoner of war camp.

Major James Leadbitter Knott’s story serves to remind us of the North East’s huge sacrifice during the First World War, as well as highlighting the loss of a whole generation of young naturalists from the membership of the Natural History Society.

Sir James Knott set up his charitable Trust Fund in 1924 to support community projects in Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham. He maintained a close association with the Society which still benefits from grant aided support for many of its ongoing projects including our Access to Archives project (2015-2017). The funding has enabled groups of primary school children to visit the archives and see the work of local naturalists for themselves, an incentive we are sure James Leadbitter Knott would have approved of.

With special thanks to the Sir James Knott Trust.

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 in 2016.