MAY 1916


David Childs

May 1916 began with the end of the Irish rebellion and ended with the beginning of the Battle of Jutland. In between there was much activity on the eastern front and in the Middle East and Africa while, on the Western Front, the charnel house of Verdun continued to slaughter thousands. Jutland was the encounter which the British public had awaited with eagerness convinced that the might of the Royal Navy, combined with its professionalism and tradition, would overwhelm the German High Seas fleet and bring the war to a rapid conclusion. It was not to be like that: the magazines of British warships showed themselves to be explosively vulnerable to plunging fire in the short engagement where our casualties were higher than those of the enemy. Nevertheless, as it was the Germans who retired and decided that they could not risk a similar battle. Jutland proved to be a British strategic victory.


John Travers Cornwell, a sixteen year old boy seaman, was the sight-setter on the for'd gun of HMS Chester. When the rest of the crew were killed and he mortally wounded, he stayed at his post instead of seeking medical aid. His posthumous Victoria Cross is probably the most famous ever won by a serving sailor. Below is an extract from the Ballad of Jack Cornwell written years later by the Cornish ex-seaman, Charles Causley.

Ballad of Jack Cornwell

Mother don't watch for postie,
I shan't have time to write,
I'm off to the Battle of Jutland,
And there's no shore leave tonight.
Don't weep on the kitchen table
If a letter I don't send.
Today is the Battle of Jutland
And there won't be a make and mend.

Who are all those swimmers
Knocking on our bulkhead,
Gazing face-down at their fortunes
On the stone sea bed?
With the ramming waters
They no longer toil.
Their breath is turned to quiet salt,
And their lungs to oil.

Suddenly around me
The Gunnery Jacks all spoke
Their terrible words of gunpowder
And sentences of smoke.
The deck blew up like a candle,
I heard the Gunner's Mate say,
It looks more like November the fifth
Than the thirty-first of May.

But the Catherine wheels were made of iron,
The stars were made of steel,
And downwards came a scarring rain
The sun will never heal
Death came on like winter
Through the water-gate.
All I could do by the forecastle gun
Was stand alone and wait.

Mother, all around me
My freezing comrades lie,
And though to each I speak his name
No one makes reply.
All around me, mother,
Their coats of sleep they wear
As if for a long journey
They must now prepare.

I put my hand in my flannel,
The air was black, was read,
And when I pulled it out again
I knew that I was dead.
They took me down to London,
They launched me up the nave,
They sank me in a wooden boat
Into a poor man's grave.


©  Tisbury History Society
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