Turning a teenage casualty into a war hero

IssueApril - May 2016
Feature by Rupert Gude


Jack Cornwell first class stamp issued by the royal mail in 2006
as part of a series to mark the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross.

The First World War battle of Jutland, between Britain and Germany, took place 100 years ago, on 31 May 1916. Britain lost 6,000 men and six major and eight medium ships (115,000 tons). Germany lost 2,500 men and four major and seven medium ships (62,000 tons). The result was indecisive and a disaster for both navies but both sides claimed it as a victory. Britain’s royal navy is perpetuating the myth of victory by opening an exhibition in Portsmouth with the dubious title: ‘36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War’.

A 16-year-old lad, Jack Cornwell, was mortally wounded during the battle, and to encourage the others – and to deflect criticism – was awarded the Victoria Cross. There is no record he did anything brave, but a hero was needed for war propaganda purposes. The British public were reeling from the huge losses inflicted on the supposedly-invincible royal navy, the drowning of beloved lord Kitchener five days later, and the appalling loss of 19,000 soldiers on the first day of the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.

Jack Cornwell’s story can be told in two ways. Firstly, as it was seen at the time, and secondly, how it was orchestrated to deceive the British public.

The official story

The brave hero who stood by his gun and was ‘faithful unto death’

Jack Cornwell had recently joined HMS Chester and was serving as a sight-setter, helping to aim a forward gun on the light cruiser. The battle of Jutland was the only time the mighty royal navy engaged in a major battle with the smaller German navy. HMS Chester was engaged early on and received 17 direct hits. Many of the gun crew were killed instantly or died of wounds and three of her ten guns were disabled.

It took HMS Chester about 20 minutes to disengage and reach relative safety.

As the injured were gathered they found 16-year-old Jack Cornwell with shrapnel wounds to his chest and abdomen in the shattered gun mounting of his forward gun. Eight out of ten of his gun crew had been killed or severely wounded. Jack was taken down to the sickbay and HMS Chester docked at Immingham, Lincolnshire. He was transferred to Grimsby Hospital where he died two days later on 2 June.

Jack was buried in a pauper’s grave in Grimsby but his mother managed to arrange for his body to be exhumed and taken down to London where he was again buried in a pauper’s grave with a simple cross.

Captain Lawson wrote to Jack’s mother: ‘He remained steady at his most exposed post at the gun, waiting for orders. His gun would not bear on the enemy: all but two of the ten crew were killed or wounded, and he was the only one who was in such an exposed position. But he felt he might be needed, and, indeed, he might have been; so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God’s help to support him.

‘I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world. No other comfort would I attempt to give to the mother of so brave a lad, but to assure her of what he was and what he did, and what an example he gave.’

Fundraising Jack Cornwell ‘flag’ or badge
sold for 1d each to primary schoolchildren
throughout the British empire, raising
£18,000 (£1.5m today) for a ward for
disabled sailors.

Captain Lawson also made a report to the admiralty in which he recommended Jack for an award.

Afterwards, in early July 1916, admiral Jellicoe published his official report of the battle of Jutland. It included admiral Beatty’s account:

‘A report from the Commanding Officer of “Chester” gives a splendid instance of devotion to duty. Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell, of “Chester” was mortally wounded early in the action. He 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 all round him. His age was under 16½ years. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory, and as an acknowledgment of the high example set by him.’

And there the matter might have ended.

Following the publication of the official report, The Daily Sketch got hold of the story and visited the pauper’s grave. In the edition of 8 July, they gave him front page coverage together with a photo of Jack’s brother George dressed up in naval uniform. They criticised the navy for allowing a hero to be buried in a pauper’s grave and demanded that his bravery be recognised with military honours.

This call was followed by the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and The Times.

Some demanded he be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Jack’s body was exhumed and taken to rest at East Ham town hall. On 29 July 1916, he was reburied with full military honours with a band, a gun carriage bearing his coffin and a firing party. There was an impressive procession with boy sailors from HMS Chester, sailors and soldiers, boy scouts, two MPs and the bishop of Barking.

The bishop noted that Jack Cornwell had taken to heart admiral Nelson’s words that ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. Cornwell was faithful until death so that ‘he might receive the crown of everlasting life’.

T J Macnamara, the parliamentary secretary to the admiralty, reaffirmed the nobility of patriotic sacrifice: ‘John Cornwell went forth with others in the sacred cause to which the allied nations stand committed.’ Macnamara encouraged others to emulate this young hero and other heroes of other battlefields.

Robert Baden Powell became involved and awarded him a posthumous Bronze Cross of the Scouts.

In August 1916, the Scouts Headquarters Gazette announced a ‘Cornwell Memorial Fund’ to award scholarships or apprenticeships to ‘Cornwell Scouts’.

Admiral Beatty and Robert Baden Powell put their voices behind the popular clamour that his ‘bravery’ should be recognised.

On 14 September (the day before the VC announcement), the Cornwell badge for Scouts was announced. This was to be awarded to scouts who were of a pre-eminently high character and showed a devotion to duty, together with great courage and endurance.

The Cornwell memorial fund had been started after the funeral as a national memorial to Jack. It would raise money for a ward for disabled sailors in the Star and Garter Home in Richmond, set up in January 1916 to care for severely disabled young men returning from the battlegrounds of the First World War, under the auspices of the British Red Cross.

Portraits of Jack Cornwell were hung in classrooms around the land.

The admiralty had not been convinced initially, but eventually decided as an expedient for raising morale that Jack should be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The award of the medal was announced in the London Gazette on 15 September 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 around him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.’

Schools all over Britain celebrated Jack Cornwell Day on Thursday 21 September 1916 (six days after the VC award was announced). The story of Jack’s death was told to all children and used as an opportunity to encourage the concept of duty and sacrifice. Booklets entitled ‘Faithful unto death’ were distributed. Boy Cornwell ‘flags’ (stamps) were sold for a penny in primary schools throughout Britain and the British empire. These sales to the empire’s schoolchildren raised £18,000 (equivalent to over £1.5 million today). Postage stamps were issued and cigarette cards made.

Court painter Frank O Salisbury made a portrait which now hangs in the chapel in HMS Raleigh, Plymouth. Jack is standing apparently unwounded beside his gun. There is only one wounded sailor depicted of the rest of the ten-man crew. Yorkshire painter Fred Elwell painted a commemorative painting in the grand style (Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre) showing Jack Cornwell on a quayside.


“Jack’s mother Lily, now a widow, was destitute and she received no help from the huge amounts accrued for her son’s fund.”

Jack’s father, doing home service with the royal defence corps, died of pneumonia on 25 October 1916 and was buried alongside his son. Jack’s step-brother Arthur was killed in France on 29 August 1918.

Jack’s mother Lily, now a widow, was destitute and she received no help from the huge amounts accrued for her son’s fund. She died on 31 October 1919, aged 48, and was buried alongside her husband and son.

In the early 1920s, three of her children emigrated for a better life to Canada.

Jack even had a peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains named after him. There is a gun in the Imperial War Museum that is said to be the one he stood by. Combined Cadet Force units have taken his name and no doubt they will be marching this May to commemorate him.

The other story

The frightened 16-year-old who was blown up and who died two days later – whose memory was distorted to make propaganda

HMS Chester received 17 direct hits. As rescue parties gathered the injured, they found 16-year-old Jack Cornwell, with shrapnel wounds to his chest and abdomen, in the shattered gun mounting. Eight out of ten of his gun crew had been killed.

It is probable that Jack Cornwell had been severely affected by the blast from the exploding shells, not only receiving shock waves in his body but also in his brain. He would probably have been deafened. He was in a state of shock with dead and severely-wounded men around him. He had shrapnel wounds to his chest and abdomen.

He hung onto his gun as a place of safety as HMS Chester zigzagged out of harm’s way. Apparently no named individual who saw him at the time was used in his VC citation. He was taken down to the sickbay, transferred to Grimsby hospital where he died two days later, on 2 June, of peritonitis, just before his mother arrived from London.

The letter from captain Lawson to Jack’s mother said he would ‘place in the boy’s mess a plaque with his name on it and the date and the words “Faithful unto death”’. By invoking a biblical phrase from Revelations 2:10 Lawson was memorialising Cornwell as a faithful martyr to God, king and country.

The battle of Jutland was a disaster for the navy with many ships sunk and many sailors killed. A row ensued about the battle plan. Admiral Jellicoe was criticised heavily for his defensive attitude to sea warfare (he was replaced by admiral Beatty later in 1916). The press were openly critical of the naval leadership after news emerged of the heavy British losses. The admiralty discussed the possibility of press censorship and delaying the official report.

Admiral Beatty wanted to counter the press criticism and asked to add his account:

‘I am looking to the publication of the dispatches to knock it out. It is hard enough to lose my fine ships and gallant pals but to be told I am a hare brained maniac is not my idea of British fairness and justice. So I ask you to have my story published’.

A national campaign to raise morale within the navy and the nation was organised by the admiralty via the navy league, probably supported by the war propaganda bureau based at Wellington House. The press was co-opted very effectively.

Jack’s military funeral was used shamelessly to raise morale. Lord Charles Beresford, former commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet, active both in the house of lords and the navy league, lobbied the state to pay greater tribute to Jack Cornwell’s sacrifice.

Beresford was instrumental in organising the Boy Cornwell Fund and spoke in the house of lords on 26 July 1916 suggesting the award of the Victoria Cross: ‘An honour paid to Cornwell’s memory would be an example to the boys of the empire at their most susceptible age. It would encourage that splendid specimen of humanity, the British boy’.

On 14 September 1916, the day before the official announcement of the award of the Victoria Cross, a painting was commissioned from court painter Frank O Salisbury. This was unveiled on 24 March 1917.

Edward Carson, first lord of the admiralty, stated: ‘The man who is not prepared to do all that is necessary in the way of sacrifice to bring about the results that this boy was aiming at is not worthy to be counted a British citizen’ – partly aimed at the labour unrest in the shipbuilding yards.

So a myth grew of Jack Cornwell’s bravery which was used extensively by the state to boost morale and encourage the belief in the war effort.

Depictions of Cornwell’s ‘heroism’ and ‘happy ending’ offered a way to romanticise individual sacrifice in this war of mass attrition. This was perpetuated in the 2006 issue by the Royal Mail of first class stamps commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross.

It is still being perpetuated by the national museum of the royal navy in Portsmouth who are promoting a major exhibition with the claim that: ‘Jutland’s significance in turning the tide of the First World War must not be underestimated. We are proud to be able to tell its story’.

The centrepiece of the exhibition will be a portrait of Jack Cornwell.

There is nothing like building up a heroic myth to disguise a military failure (or at best a stalemate) and to deflect the question of why so many British lives were sacrificed for strategic interest and to maintain ‘honour’.

Topics: First World War