Jack Cornwell, the heroic gunner of Jutland, 100 years ago this week

Jack as a 15 year old Boy assigned to the training ship, the old armored cruiser H.M.S. Lancaster which was based at Chatam during WWI to train gunnery crews.

Jack as a 15 year old Boy assigned to the training ship, the old armored cruiser H.M.S. Lancaster which was based at Chatam during WWI to train gunnery crews.

Born 8th January 1900 in Essex, John “Jack” Cornwell attended school for just eight years, dropping out in 1913 to work as a van boy for a baker. Still keeping up his commitment to the Boy Scouts, he won a special award for freeing a young girl from a drain.

He was that kind of kid.

At age 14 he tried to join the Royal Navy in the opening days of WWI, but was turned down. He kept trying and he was accepted as a Ship’s Boy just after his 15th birthday and shipped out aboard the freshly commissioned 5000-ton Town-class light cruiser HMS Chester as a gun layer, manning the sights and relaying firing orders through a headset and microphone at one of the ship’s 10 BL 5.5 inch Mark I (140 mm) /50 guns. The well-drilled RN crews on these exposed guns could fire 12 rounds per minute, lobbing a 82-pound shell out past 16,000m.

Chester and Jack found themselves up to their necks in German warships at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May.

Taking on four German cruisers of the High Seas Fleet’s  II Scouting Group in a night action, Chester was raked by no less than 18 hits. The Mark I guns of the cruiser had just a scant plate of armor on the front of the mount, with the backs and deck areas open to the environment. This meant that shrapnel from the German shells blasted down the decks and killed the exposed gunners at a staggering rate. Within minutes, 3 out of 10 mounts on Chester were out of action, their crews maimed.

At Jack’s mount,  the forward-most 5.5 inch gun on the forecastle, every single sailor had been killed or wounded outright, horribly maimed by the combat.

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During the action, Jack was credited with volunteering to go to the top of the turret to wipe the glass so that the rangefinder could line the target, and another report says that he managed to ram home one last projectile, close the breech and press the firing button and that this projectile exploded on the German ship SMS Wiesbaden, causing damage which led to her sinking. (Later evidence found post-war concluded that the shell that sank Wiesbaden came from HMS Invincible, but it does not make the tale of Jack and HMS Chester any less heroic)

Jack was found after the cruiser had disengaged, standing alone at his gun, still ready to fight. His body was riddled with shellfire, including splinters in his chest. He was still alive but barely, and eager for orders.

Damage to the deck of HMS CHESTER sustained during the battle of Jutland. Several sailors can be seen on deck including one bending down to inspect the hole. Boy (1st Class) Jack Travers Cornwell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for remaining at the forward gun on board the cruiser. The ship was badly shelled by four German cruisers and Cornwell's position was hit four times, killing all the crew apart from Cornwell. The badly wounded boy sailor was taken back to Grimsby where he died on 2 June. (Surgeon Parkes photographic collection of ships portraits ) https://www.facebook.com/182158581977012/photos/a.182161278643409.1073741827.182158581977012/282071908652345/?type=1&theater

Damage to the deck of HMS CHESTER sustained during the battle of Jutland. Several sailors can be seen on deck including one bending down to inspect the hole. Boy (1st Class) Jack Travers Cornwell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for remaining at the forward gun on board the cruiser. The ship was badly shelled by four German cruisers and Cornwell’s position was hit four times, killing all the crew apart from Cornwell. The badly wounded boy sailor was taken back to Grimsby where he died on 2 June. (Surgeon Parkes photographic collection of ships portraits )

As British ships came alongside HMS Chester, survivors of other gun mounts sat on deck, limbless, smoking cigarette and cheering the passing fleet. Many would not see the next dawn.

Jack passed away after an agonizing two day ordeal in the ship’s infirmary, giving his last, full, measure.

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His VC, awarded posthumously, states:

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.

He is the youngest recipient of England’s highest military honor.

His great grandnephew, Alex Saridis, is keeping the family tradition alive and is currently an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy. He asks in the above video only that future generations remember Jack, and those that fell alongside him and share their story.

On Jack’s grave, the epitaph reads

“It is not wealth or ancestry
but honourable conduct and a noble disposition
that maketh men great.”

john travers cornwall

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as GUNS.com, Univesity of Guns, Outdoor Hub, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the US federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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