WWI Hero, 16, Awarded The Victoria Cross

WWI Hero, 16, Awarded The Victoria Cross

In 1915, Jack was only 15 years old when he decided he should join the Navy. He was a gun sight setter on HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland. After he died in one of the most catastrophic naval battles of the First World War, King George VI sent a letter to his mother, in which he was awarding Jack the Victoria Cross. The letter is now up for sale at an auction with a pre-sale estimate of £1,000.

Jack was the last man of his crew standing on the deck of HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland. All his comrades had been shot down. He looked up at his father and older brother who were also in the Navy and all he wanted to do was to fight for the country, ever since the war had started in 1914. Because at that time he was only 13, that was never an option for him. But he didn’t give up.

Jack was working as a newspaper boy when he decided to go behind his father’s back, made himself look like a 17-year-old and went to serve his country, the Mail Online reports. Nobody actually knew his real age until he was shot in the chest during the Battle of Jutland. He was taken to an English hospital where nurses learnt that he had lied about how old he really was. 97 years later, the letter King George VI wrote to Jack’s mother, Lily, has come to light. The official document was an invitation to Buckingham Palace, to receive the highest decoration for valour, posthumously awarded to her son.

The letter stated: ‘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.’

On May 31, 1916, freshly enlisted Jack Cornwell was on board of the HMS Chester, when four German cruisers began the attack. The ship was hit by 18 150mm shells. Although all his comrades on the gun were dead or fatally wounded, Jack, who had been hit in the chest by shrapnel, stood at his post until the end of the fight.  Despite being transferred to hospital in England, he died from several chest injuries. 29 men died on HMS Chester.

Jack’s mother went to receive the Victoria Cross from the King, for her son, on November 16, 1916.  ‘When his grieving mother received this letter telling her late son was to be awarded the VC it must have been a proud moment for her during a terrible time,’ said Matthew Tredwen of C&T Auctioneers in Kent.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE