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Boy sailor remembered on 100th anniversary of his death

2 June 2016
The sacrifice made by a 16-year-old boy sailor at the Battle of Jutland was remembered at HMS Raleigh on the 100th anniversary of his death (Thursday 2 June).

John Travers Cornwell VC commonly known as Jack Cornwell or as Boy Cornwell, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on board HMS Chester.   

Although buried at Manor Park cemetery in London, his memory lives on at the Royal Navy training base, in Cornwall, where his portrait, painted by the society artist Frank Salisbury, hangs in the church.

On Thursday, trainee sailors were joined by the Exeter District Explorer Scouts to lay wreaths and remember Jack.

Captain Rob Bellfield, the Commanding Officer of HMS Raleigh, said, “The Cornwell story is at the heart of our activity here at Raleigh. He was close in age to many of our recruits and we use his story to inspire them.  

"Although mortally wounded himself, Jack remained at his gun on board HMS Chester while his shipmates lay around him either dead or wounded. He displayed courage, commitment, discipline, respect, integrity and loyalty; values that we look to instil in our recruits during initial training.  

"Sadly, Jack died two days later in hospital in Grimsby and remains the third-youngest recipient of the VC, the highest award for gallantry, in the face of the enemy, that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.  

"One of training divisions for our new recruits is named Cornwell, after Jack. To mark the 100th anniversary of his death and the Battle of Jutland, our parade dais has also been refurbished to further honour this brave young sailor and ensure that his sacrifice and those made by others who took part in the battle, are not forgotten.”

The Cornwell story is at the heart of our activity here at Raleigh. He was close in age to many of our recruits and we use his story to inspire them.

Captain Rob Bellfield, Commanding Officer of HMS Raleigh

Jack Cornwell is also held in high regard by the Scout movement. Before joining the Royal Navy, Jack was a member of the fledgling organisation.  After his death the Cornwell badge was introduced, which is still awarded to this day to youth members for devotion to duty, courage and endurance.

Exeter District Explorer Scouts have been following the history of the First World War. Explorer Scout Leader Bob Ball, said, “Our 'World War 1 Journey', a four year 'values' programme so far has looked at the war’s causes. We marked the anniversary of the beginning of the war with a 'lights out' on Dartmoor. 

"A visit to the National Arboretum and a study of the 'Shot at Dawn' issues followed. We had a Remembrance Day visit to the 'Hunter Memorial' to celebrate the life of Captain Nigel Hunter who was killed in action in Flanders in 1918 at the age of 23 years. 

"During his short military career he was awarded the Military Cross twice. We’ve looked at the Gallipoli campaign and on Thursday we will honour Jack Cornwell.  Future plans involve the Somme and Passendale. 

"Although it is all over a hundred years ago it is important that today’s young people recognise and understand the sacrifice of those who were of a very similar age to them, who went to war and died doing their best.”

Jack Cornwell came from London; a very ordinary boy from a very humble background. His dad was a former soldier who had various jobs in civilian life – nurse, milkman, tram driver, while his mother raised the family.  He joined the Royal Navy in October 1915. After basic training in Devonport, the boy seaman headed to Rosyth to join cruiser HMS Chester at Easter 1916.

Six weeks later, the ship found herself in the middle of the greatest clash of warships the world had ever seen at Jutland.  Jack was a sight setter on a 5.5in gun – protected from the enemy and the elements only by a shield.  The cruiser was hit 18 times by German shells. Four landed near Cornwell’s gun, killing all but two of its crew and gravely wounding young Jack.

There was little Chester’s surgeons could do for him and doctors at Grimsby Hospital, where Jack was taken the following day, after the cruiser headed up the Humber, were unable to save him.  His mother Lily was sent for, but the boy seaman died on June 2 1916 before she reached his bedside. She later received a letter of condolence from Chester’s Commanding Officer Captain Robert Lawson hailing his bravery.

The young sailor was laid to rest in a common grave in Manor Park Cemetery, near Stratford in East London. When news of his bravery was revealed to the world – he was the only rating singled out in Admiral Beatty’s public dispatch on the battle – a clamour grew to honour him.  Cornwell’s body was exhumed then reinterred with full military honours in the same cemetery on July 29 in what was the largest public event of the entire war. 

The epitaph on the grave reads: “It is not wealth or ancestry, but honourable conduct and a noble disposition that makes men good.”

Last week it was announced that Jack’s grave would receive protected status as a Grade 2 listed monument.  A memorial paving stone dedicated to Jack was also unveiled at Jubilee Park in Leyton, about a mile from Jack’s first home.

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