When I first went to school, there was a picture in our classroom that, for me, had a fascination tinged with just a little bit of fear. It was of a young sailor standing beside a naval gun on the foredeck of a ship, with other sailors lying on the deck around him. Underneath was the phrase ‘Waiting for orders’.
When I asked what the picture was about, I was told that it was of a boy seaman called Jack Cornwell who, during the First World War, had won the Victoria Cross for his bravery. For some reason I was never quite happy with that explanation and felt I wasn’t being given the full story. As I got older, I asked more questions and discovered I’d been given a watered down or nice version of the true but very sad story.
The action in which Jack Cornwell won his gallantry medal was the Battle of Jutland, the decisive sea battle of the First World War. The battle was fought between the British Grand Fleet, under Admiral Jellicoe and Vice Admiral Beatty, and the German High Seas Fleet, under the command of Admirals Sheer and Hipper. Both sides claimed a victory, and in a strange way both did win a victory. The Germans sank more British ships than they lost, so in that respect they won. However, from then on the numerically inferior German Fleet never had the strength or the courage to face the British fleet on the high seas again, so in that sense the British won.
During the battle, which lasted for 72 hours and took place over two days, the 31st of May and the 1st of June 1916, 100,000 men and 250 ships engaged in mortal combat in the North Sea, off Denmark’s north-west coast. The Germans lost 11 ships with over 3,000 casualties. However, the British Grand Fleet fared far worse, losing 14 ships and sustaining almost 7,000 casualties. A number of British ships simply blew up, due to lack of armour allowing German shells to penetrate their magazines.
John Travers Cornwell, known as Jack, left school at age 14 and worked as an errand boy until October 1915. Then, with the war raging and his father and older brother fighting with the British Army in France, he joined the Royal Navy as a boy entrant, with references from his headmaster and his employer but without his father’s knowledge or consent. He did his training as a gun layer in Plymouth and was then sent to join his ship, HMS Chester, a light cruiser, at Rosyth in Scotland.
On the 31st of May 1916, Jack’s ship, scouting ahead of the main battle fleet, was one of the very first vessels to come in range of the enemy when a number of German light cruisers suddenly burst out of the mist and opened fire. HMS Chester only managed to fire a single salvo before the German ships’ combined fire found the range and the Chester was so badly damaged by shell fire that she was obliged to turn away and find sanctuary in the mist.
Jack’s action station was as gun layer and communication number on HMS Chester’s forward 5.5-inch gun, positioned on the ship’s bow. One of the first German shells to strike the Chester exploded on the bow, and shrapnel and steel splinters cut down all the gun’s crew, except Jack. Although Jack had received steel splinters in his chest and was mortally wounded, he remained standing at his action station, wearing the headphones and clutching the microphone of the communication set, waiting for orders.
Once the ship was away from the battle area, she headed for the nearest British port, which was Grimsby. There, Jack was transferred to hospital where he died of his injuries before his mother, who had been summoned, arrived. Because his family was poor, Jack was buried in a common grave, and that seemed to be that for the young war casualty.
However, while Jack had steadfastly stood by his gun, mortally wounded and waiting for orders, the captain of the ship had witnessed his devotion to duty and put forward a report recommending Jack be considered for a posthumous gallantry award. At first the Admiralty delayed or ignored the request because they were having problems of their own. There was considerable criticism of the navy over the conduct and outcome of the Battle of Jutland; the British people had expected a resounding victory against the German High Seas Fleet, but what they had was at best a draw and at worst a pathetic defeat. The Admiralty needed some good face-saving publicity, and after some more prompting by the Chester’s captain they found it in the bravery of a 16-year-old boy seaman first class called Jack Cornwell.
Jack was awarded Britain’s highest gallantry award, the Victoria Cross, and his body was exhumed and reburied with a full military honours. Also, a well-known painter was commissioned to paint a picture of Jack standing by his gun while his companions lay dead around him, with the famous epitaph ‘Waiting for orders’. It was just what the Admiralty wanted to focus the nation’s concerns of the battle onto the bravery of those who had given their lives. And to be honest it was what the nation needed to unite it and give it a sense of the navy’s invincibility and a certainty that, despite setbacks, they — the Royal Navy and the British nation — would win through.
When you get to read Jack’s sad story, you come to realise that the lad didn’t actually die being brave or courageous, or at least no more so than the rest of his gun’s crew, or the thousands of others who died in that battle. He was just a very young sailor doing a man’s job. He did remain at his post, ‘waiting for orders’ probably because he was too shocked and injured to do anything else.
So did Jack deserve the country’s highest gallantry award? From this great distance, it is easy to be cynical and argue that he didn’t, but I’m with the Admiralty on this — that VC was given not just for Jack Cornwell, but for all those who died and for all the rest who fought bravely and weren’t recognised. In a way, it represented the bravery of all the men at sea in the Royal Navy and the fighting spirit of a seafaring nation. Even 40 years later, when I first saw the painting and heard the story, it had the power to inspire me to want to join the Royal Navy as a boy entrant, which — despite my mother’s protests — I eventually did.