An heroic story John Cornwell

"It is not wealth or ancestry but honourable conduct and a noble disposition that maketh men great." Inscription on John Corwell's gravestone.

"England expects that every man will do his duty" Nelson

From the most ancient days of the Royal Navy ships boys have played an heroic roll in the fighting ships of England. From Nippers to Powder Monkeys they have had to grow up too quick and have seen action which caused men to tremble. Here is one such story...

In October 1915 at the height of the First World War, John Travers Cornwell joined the Royal Navy. He was just 15 years old. In those days boys could be drafted into the Royal Navy to serve along side men. While he enlisted without his fathers permission he did have references from his headmaster and employer as his father was currently in the army and was fighting in Flanders as was his older brother. He was posted to the HMS Chester which was part of the 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron in the Spring of 1916. He was rated as a sight setter (gunlayer) and assigned to the forward gun mount. The gun mounts of British cruisers during this period were shielded but only to a few feet above the deck. Shell splinters from near misses could and did cause traumatic amputations of the lower limbs of the gun crews.

Six weeks later HMS Chester was heavily involved in the Battle of Jutland during which she sustained 35 killed and a further 42 wounded. Amongst those not long to survive the action was one of the 5.5 inch guns’ sight setter, Boy Cornwell who although mortally wounded early in the engagement and with the rest of his gun’s crew dead around him, had stayed at his post heroically waiting for orders “with just his own brave heart as protection” from the heavy shell damage HMS Chester was continuing to receive.

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.

His recommendation for a Victoria Cross from Admiral David Beatty said in part, "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."

Endorsed by King George V, his mother received her son John's VC from the hand of the King on the 16th of November 1916.


A poignant and emotive painting currently hangs at the RN Training Establishment HMS Raleigh, in Devon. It may been seen here...

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