Jack Cornwell bigraphy, stories - Recipient of the Victoria Cross

Jack Cornwell : biography

8 January 1900 - 2 June 1916

John Travers Cornwell VC (8 January 1900 – 2 June 1916), commonly known as Jack Cornwell or as Boy Cornwell, is remembered for his gallantry at the Battle of Jutland. At the age of only 16, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. Cornwell is the third-youngest recipient of the VC after Andrew Fitzgibbon and Thomas Flinn.


John "Jack" Travers Cornwell was born as a third child into a working-class family at Clyde Place, Leyton, Essex (now in Greater London). His parents were Eli and Lily Cornwell. The family later moved to Alverstone Road, East Ham. He joined the Boy Scouts but left Walton Road School at the age of 14. At the outbreak of the First World War, ex-soldier Eli Cornwell volunteered for service and was fighting in France under Lord Kitchener. The older brother Arthur also served in an infantry regiment in Flanders.

In October 1915, Jack Cornwell gave up his job as a delivery boy and enlisted in the Royal Navy, without his father's permission. He had references from his headmaster and employer. He carried out his basic training at HMS Vivid Keyham Naval Barracks at Plymouth and received further training as a Sight Setter or Gun Layer and became Boy Seaman First Class. On the Easter Monday of 1916, Cornwell left for Rosyth, Scotland to join his assignment in the navy. He was assigned to HMS Chester.

Victoria Cross

Three months later, Captain Robert Lawson of Chester described the events to the British Admiralty. Though at first reluctant, the Admiralty eventually decided to recommend Cornwell for a posthumous Victoria Cross and King George V endorsed it. The recommendation for citation from Admiral David Beatty, reads: "the instance of devotion to duty by Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell who was mortally wounded early in the action, but nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun's crew dead and wounded around him. He was under 16½ years old. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory and as an acknowledgement of the high example set by him."

Jack Cornwell was initially buried in a common grave (Square 126 Grave 323) in Manor Park Cemetery, London, but his body was exhumed on 29 July 1916 and he was reburied with full military honours also in Manor Park Cemetery Square 55 Grave 13. CWGC Debt of Honour Register Jack Cornwell's father Eli, who died on 25 October 1916 from bronchitis during home service with the Royal Defence Corps, was buried in the same grave on 31 October 1916. CWGC Debt of Honour Register. The epitaph to Jack Cornwell on his grave monument reads, "It is not wealth or ancestry but honourable conduct and a noble disposition that maketh men great."

The award of the Victoria Cross appeared in the London Gazette on Friday 15 September 1916; the citation read The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below.

Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun's crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.

On 16 November 1916, Cornwell's mother received the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace. Court painter Frank O. Salisbury made a portrait of Cornwell, using his brother Ernest as a model, depicting him standing in his post. Boy Cornwell Memorial Fund was also established. After that, the rest of the family was effectively forgotten. After Eli Cornwell's death on 25 October 1916, his stepbrother Arthur Frederick Cornwell was killed in action in France on 29 August 1918. Impoverished Alice Cornwell died at Stepney on 31 October 1919 at 745 Commercial Road in rooms she was forced to take when her son's memorial fund refused financial aid at the age of 48. The two of her children remaining at home were granted £60 a year in a pension from the fund after Alice's death, but this proved insufficient and they both emigrated to Canada in the early 1920s. Jack Cornwell's elder half-sister, also named Alice, loaned Jack's Victoria Cross to the Imperial War Museum on 27 November 1968. Salisbury's portrait of Cornwell hangs in the Anglican church within the Royal Navy's Initial Training Establishment HMS Raleigh, perhaps selected as an appropriate place also because the ship's Chaplain, The Rev. Cyril Ambrose Walton, was also killed during the action.

==Remembrance== On 31 May 1916, Chester was scouting ahead of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron at the Battle of Jutland when the ship turned to investigate gunfire in the distance. At 17:30 hours, the Chester soon came under intense fire from four Kaiserliche Marine cruisers each her own size which had suddenly emerged out of the haze and increasing funnel smoke of the battlefield. The shielded 5.5-inch gun mounting where Cornwell was serving as a sight-setter was affected by at least four nearby hits. The Chester's gun mountings were open backed shields and did not reach the deck. Splinters were thus able to pass under them or enter the open back when shells exploded nearby or behind. All of the gun's crew were killed except Cornwell who, although severely wounded, managed to stand back up, and despite the entire gun crew around him dead or wounded, he remained standing at his post for more than 15 minutes until Chester retired from the action with only one main gun still working. Chester had received a total of 18 hits, but partial hull armour meant the interior of the ship suffered little serious damage and the ship was never in peril. The situation on deck, however, was dire. Many of the gun crews had lost lower limbs due to splinters passing under the gun shields. British ships report passing the Chester to cheers from limbless wounded gun crew laid out on her deck and smoking cigarettes, only to hear that the same crewmen had died a few hours later from blood loss and shock.

After the action, ship medics arrived on deck to find Cornwell the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, looking at the gun sights and still waiting for orders. Being incapable of further action, Chester was ordered to the port of Immingham. There Cornwell was transferred to Grimsby General Hospital, although he was clearly dying. He died on the morning of 2 June 1916 before his mother could arrive at the hospital.

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