Boys die first


John Travers Cornwell VC (8 January 1900 – 2 June 1916)

A recent podcast about the Battle of Jutland, courtesy of the History Network, reminded me of a tragic constant:  boys die first in war.

I do not speak of children-soldiers, although there have been examples of children in the world’s armies. I speak instead of older sons who feel the rush of patriotism. They have fire in their veins. We can do little to stop that motion of youth:  that very effort can build an army in a short time. Yet as soldiers, they must learn the hardened lessons of men in horrific conditions. Many fail to return.

Jack Cornwell was a 16 year-old seaman on HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland. He ran to his battle station, a 5.5-inch gun, with his shipmates prior to a fierce engagement with the German navy. Having never been a sailor, I won’t picture the environment around young Cornwell with any success. But there were sure to be explosions, klaxons, howling wind and the shouts of sailors. Wooden splinters and metallic shrapnel passed under his shielded gun station. In the aftermath of this hellish confusion, as HMS Chester escaped the German salvos, Jack Cornwell was the only member of his gun crew to survive. But he had been seriously wounded.

Admiral Beatty wrote the following commendation for his sailor:

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 until the end of the action, with the guns crew dead and wounded around him. He was under 16 1/2 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 acknowledgment of the high example set by him.

That “special recognition” was the Victoria Cross.

Silent seamen. Drummer boys in the Civil War. Young conscripts in a jungle militia. Why must their deaths mark the sorrow of our mistakes? Why was Jack Cornwell put to rest in a landscape of memorials? We shudder at his heroism, grieve for the loss in a generation, and pray to settle our differences in a time of peace. Boys die first in war. That is the constant. . . and one we must break. It is as good a reason as any to prevent our future strife.





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