Four local men died on 23rd April 1917: Private John Evelyn Biddle and Private James Miles, both of the 11th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment; Lance Corporal Thomas Abel Holmes, of 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, and Captain Edward Maurice Gonner M.C., of the 16th Church Lads Brigade Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
The Battalion war diary of the 11th Royal Warwicks (on the Ancestry website) notes the Battalion reached their position in Laurel Trench on 3.30am on 23rd April, having set off marching at midnight. At 4:45 am, orders were received to move to Hurrum and Hussar Trenches and the battalion moved forward in artillery formation through very heavy enemy artillery barrage. Heavy shelling of the whole area continued throughout the day.
At 3:50pm orders were received for an attack on Greenland Hill and at 5:45pm the Battalion formed up for an attack on Black Line (Chili Trench). At 6pm, the artillery preparation ceased and the Battalion moved forward in artillery formation and dug in a line 100 yeards east of Gavrelle-Roeux Road. They were unable to advance further owing to heavy machine gun fire from the chemical works on the battalion’s right and the fact that the Division on the same side had been held up. They held the position until 3am on 25th April when they were relieved by the 6th Bedfords. Two of the fatal casualties during this time were men from the Solihull Rural District.
John Evelyn Biddle‘s birth was registered in Solihull between January-March 1897. He was the elder of the two sons of parents Frank Herbert, a chemist, and Evelyn Dora (née Taylor) who had married in West Bromwich in 1895. Their second child, Joseph Leslie, was born in 1903 and died in 1969. Known by his middle name, he was too young to have served in the First World War, but was an ARP Warden in Solihull during the Second World War.
The boys’ father, Frank, had a chemist’s shop in Olton Hollow and took up photography, selling postcards in the shop of the local views he took. Eldest son, John, acted as his father’s assistant on these photographic excursions. John attended Wellesbourne School, Acocks Green, and went on to study at Birmingham University.
Unpublished research by the late Alan Tucker indicates that John had led “an earnest, Christian life” and was an active member of Olton Congregational Church and Sunday School. He joined the 2nd City Battalion, (Birmingham Pals) and was wounded on the Somme in September 1916. He had only just returned to France as a despatch rider when he was killed in action.
After John’s death, his father packed away all the photographic equipment the pair had used and never took another photograph. John’s mother, Evelyn Dora (apparently known as Dora) died at Birmingham General Hospital on Christmas Day 1924, aged 49. Information from family members is that she was a district nurse and died after being knocked off her bicycle in Dovehouse Lane, Olton. In 1926, Frank remarried, marrying Anne Beatrice Cooper whose brother, Arthur Llewelyn Cooper was killed in the war in 1918. Frank died on 11th October 1953, aged 80. His second wife was much younger than he was, and they had a daughter and a son born in 1928 and 1930 respectively. Annie died in 1976, aged 77.
John Biddle has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. He is also commemorated locally on memorials at St Margaret’s Church, Olton and Olton United Reformed Church, as well as on the roll of honour of Wellesbourne School in St Mary’s Church, Acocks Green.
Also killed on the same day was fellow Royal Warwicks soldier Private James Miles, who was born on 11th April 1889 and baptised at St Mary’s Church, Temple Balsall on 14th July the same year. He was the only child of parents, Charles and Fanny, who had married around 1883. Charles was born in the Reading/Swindon area, whilst Fanny (also recorded in some records as Annie) was from Berkswell.
The couple set up home in Fen End and lived there from at least 1889 until at least 1911. By 1911, Charles was working as a labourer on the roads for Solihull Rural District Council. His son, James, a bricklayer’s labourer, married Mary Hamer at St Mary’s Church, Temple Balsall on 14th December 1908. They appear to have had four children: Ellen May (born 1909); Charles Henry (1911-1995); Annie (born 1915); and Frederick George (born 1916).
James is buried in Chili Trench Cemetery, Gavrelle, France. He is also commemorated locally on war memorials at Balsall Common and Temple Balsall.
Thomas Abel Holmes was born in Marston Green in 1894 and baptised at Sheldon, Birmingham. He was the third of the seven children (four sons, three daughters) of parents, Thomas Abel and Ellen (née Mitchell) who had married in Birmingham in 1889.
Thomas (jun.) appears to have been born and brought up on his grandfather’s farm in Marston Green, as was his father. All three generations appear together on census returns 1891-1911. Grandfather John Holmes was born in Yoxall, Staffordshire, but came to the Coleshill area as a game keeper, and then became a farmer. His son and grandsons helped him out on the farm and his son Thomas (sen.) had taken over as farmer by 1911, although 80-year-old John was still recorded as the head of the household.
We don’t know when Thomas Abel Holmes joined the Army, although it doesn’t appear that he saw active service overseas before 1916. He was killed in action and, having no known grave, is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. He is commemorated locally on the war memorial at Marston Green.
Edward Maurice Gonner was born in Knowle in 1895,whilst his father, Rev. Canon Eric Peter Gonner, was the Vicar of Nuthurst-cum-Hockley Heath from 1894 until 1898. Known by his middle name of Maurice, he was the only son of parents Eric and Emily Gertrude (née Trapp) who had married in Manchester in 1891. He had two sisters, Olive Mary (1892-1928) and Margaret Helen (1898-1975). Neither of his sisters married, and both died, almost 50 years apart, in Dawlish, Devon, giving their home address as Nuthurst, West Cliff Road, which seems to have been the family home as their mother also died there in August 1939.
Maurice was educated at Dean Close School, Cheltenham, where he played in the Hockey First XI and was awarded the Prefects’ Reading Prize at the school’s annual prize day in July 1914.
After leaving school, he began studying at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he passed Moderations (first examinations) before being commissioned Temporary Second Lieutenant with the King’s Royal Rifles at Rayleigh, Essex in March 1915. The 16th (Service) Battalion was made up of members and former members of the Church Lads’ Brigade and, given that Maurice’s father was a clergyman who had supported the establishment of the Boys’ Brigade in Birmingham in 1893, it is not surprising that Maurice was a member of the brigade.
He first entered a Theatre of War on 17th November 1915 and, after being held in reserve during winter and spring, the battalion was part of the second wave of the big “Push” on the Somme in July 1916. The battalion suffered heavy casualties when it was sent in to relieve a number of other battalions at High Wood. The Brigade magazine, June 1917 mentioned that Captain Gonner had “proved his value on many occasions, and particularly in High Wood… and his work was commended more than once by the Brigadier who some time ago submitted his name for special distinction.”
On 23rd April 1917, Captain Gonner led a company into deployment position at 3:30am, ready for “zero hour” of 4:45am, when their objective was the German front line. The battalion war diary notes that the objective was achieved with little difficulty but requests were received at battalion headquarters for more bombs throughout the day. Reinforcements were sent at 7:20am (300 bombs) and at 8:45am (430 bombs) as well 54 buckets of Lewis Gun ammunition at 11am, 40 boxes of bombs at 12:15pm, and ten boxes of bombs at 1pm. At 2:30pm, “retirement took place owing to lack of bombs and failure of tanks to get up”. Amongst a number of casualties was Captain Gonner, described in the battalion war diary as “wounded and missing”. His body was never identified, and he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. He is also commemorated on war memorials at Dean Close School and Lincoln College, Oxford. Having left Knowle as a small child, he is not commemorated in the Soldiers’ Chapel at Knowle Parish Church.
If you have any further information on these men, please let us know.
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