Victoria Cross winners inspire for all kinds of reasons. But very few combine a shining example with young age. Jack Cornwell showed that age need be no barrier to heroism and devotion to duty.
At the age of 16 Jack Cornwell found himself serving onboard HMS Chester, a light Cruiser of the Royal Navy. Early in the battle of Jutland Chester came under fire. Cornwell, manning a 5.5inch gun, stayed at his post throughout a heavy bombardment that killed the rest of his colleagues and caused carnage on the Chester’s upper deck. All the time, Cornwell, although seriously wounded, waited obediently for orders and with no thought for his own safety. 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. Although Cornwell was taken to hospital after the battle, sadly he died on 2 June 1916.
Admiral Beatty, the commander of the British Battlecruisers at Jutland, reccomended in the strongest possible terms that Cornwell’s incredible feat should be recognised:
“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.”
In September 1916 it was announced in the London Gazette that Jack Cornwell had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross:
“The King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell. 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.”
Cornwell’s VC can be seen at the Imperial War Museum, London.