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Discovering the untold stories of the Great War

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 29, 2014

By John Workman

  • The Knowles family tomb at Wood Green cemetery, Wednesbury

  • Lieutenant Gavin Knowles who died on July 1, 1916, at Gommecourt at the start of the Battle of the Somme

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AS well as being the last resting place for local residents, over the years the majority of Black Country cemeteries have also become oases for wildlife and open spaces that can bring peace and tranquility to the spirit.

However, if you're able to wander through the regimented lines of graves and have a look at the inscriptions on the headstones, you may come across information that for the more inquisitive needs further investigation, and Wood Green cemetery in Wednesbury is a prime example of a green oasis in the Black Country with plenty to offer.

It is the perfect location to collect your thoughts, watch a busy robin fly from one headstone to another, and see a squirrel scampering up the nearest tree. But the cemetery also has some interesting inscriptions that tell a story, and one tomb above all others immediately draws the eye.

It's a huge vault that wouldn't be seen out of place filling the nave of a cathedral and is the burial plot of the Knowles family who were Wednesbury industrialists and manufacturers of tube-fittings. One of its foremost family members was Councillor John Knowles J.P. who held the post of Mayor in the town between 1894-96. On closer inspection the tomb reveals a memorial plaque in loving memory of Gavin Tenison Royle Knowles, the grandson of the former mayor. The rest of the inscription tells a fascinating story: "Lieutenant in the 1/5 South Staffordshire Regiment killed July 1, 1916, in the first line German trenches at Gommecourt, France, aged 21 years."

We couldn't dismiss this story of another Black Country hero from the Great War without doing some research, and as a result discovered this young man was possibly one of the first British army officers to be killed on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme. There are two eyewitness accounts of his final minutes as he commanded bombing parties of the 5/South Staffs that went over the top with the leading battalion, the 6/South Staffs. 6443 Sgt J Williams, D Company said, "I was in a bombing attack in the German lines with Lt Knowles on July 1, 1916, when about fifteen yards away retiring from wounds and loss of blood I saw him fall, shot."

9952 Pte A Hosell, D Company added. "We went over the top at 7.30, myself, Sgt Williams and Lt Knowles. We got into the German first line when we met a party of Germans and we started bombing. There was only about 8 of us that got to the Germans, and to our surprise we found that there were only four of us in that part of the line. Being a brave and noble officer Lt Knowles had no thoughts about retiring. Then we lost Sgt Williams after being wounded three times, then we lost the Corporal wounded. There was only me and Lt Knowles left.

"As we were getting short of bombs Lt Knowles had my rifle, sniping at the Germans keeping them at bay. I'm sorry to say he only fired one shot when he got shot in the head and fell down. I went to him and found he was dead. When Lt Knowles fell he made no sound and death was instantaneous. I remained with him about three minutes and took his head in my arms, shook him and called him by name, but there was no response. He was quite dead. I left his body where it was as the order was given to retreat."

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