Naval Gun from HMS Chester
This 5.5 inch naval gun was once part of HMS Chester, a light cruiser that took part in the Battle of Jutland which took place off the coast of Denmark in May 1916. In this battle, the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet confronted one another at sea for the only time during the First World War. Although Germany claimed victory, the Royal Navy retained control of the North Sea. The role played by HMS Chester at Jutland makes this gun one of IWM's most important naval artefacts. But like many objects in the IWM Collection, this rather anonymous and imposing piece of machinery can tell a number of surprising stories.
HMS Chester During The Battle of Jutland
On 31 May 1916, HMS Chester was scouting ahead of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, a massive formation of 150 British ships that had set sail from its bases the previous day in response to intelligence that the German fleet was putting to sea. Around 5.30pm, Chester was sent to investigate distant gun flashes amid a bank of mist. Suddenly, four German light cruisers appeared and opened fire. A hail of heavy shells fell all around Chester, hitting the ship seventeen times. Extensive damage to the ship's guns meant that she could take no further part in the battle and at dawn on 1 June was ordered back to port. The ship suffered casualties of 35 killed or died of wounds and 42 wounded.
The Gun On Board HMS Chester
During the shelling of HMS Chester, the forward 5.5 inch gun position was hit four times, killing or badly wounding all the gun crew apart from the sight setter, Boy (1st Class) John Travers (Jack) Cornwell. The badly wounded boy sailor remained at his post awaiting orders until medical assistance reached him. Although Cornwell survived long enough to reach hospital in Grimsby, he died of his wounds on 2 June.
Boy (1st Class) Jack Cornwell VC
Shortly after the battle, reports of Jack Cornwell's bravery began to appear in the press. On 7 July 1916, the Daily Sketch featured him on their cover with the headline 'Boy Hero of the Naval Battle'. This portrait photograph of him was used to illustrate many of the reports. It remains the iconic image of him. However, it is now generally thought that it actually shows one his brothers, most likely his younger brother George. Another brother, Ernest, was also used as a model by the artist Frank O Salisbury for a portrait of Jack at his gun.
Funeral Procession for Jack Cornwell
After his death in Grimsby, Jack Cornwell's body was returned to London and he was initially buried in a communal grave at Manor Park cemetery in Essex in June 1916. However, the Daily Sketch, the newspaper which had first publicised his bravery, began to campaign for a more fitting burial. The following month, in July 1916, Cornwell was reburied in the same cemetery but with full naval honours. The funeral procession included 80 boys from Jack's former school, six boy sailors from HMS Chester and local boy scouts.
Jack Cornwell's Victoria Cross
In September 1916, Jack Cornwell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for valour in the face of the enemy. The citation for his award recorded how 'mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, Jack 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 around him. His age was under sixteen and a half years'. Jack Cornwell's Victoria Cross was presented to IWM in 1968 and can now be seen in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes.
The HMS Chester gun on display
The 5.5 inch gun manned by Jack Cornwell was requested from the Admiralty by the Imperial War Museum in 1919 and was proudly displayed in IWM's first home at the Crystal Palace. However, Museum Archive files show that in 1926, HMS Chester'sgunnery officer visited and noticed that the Museum's gun was not Cornwell's gun at all. After enquiries were made to the Admiralty, it emerged that as the forecastle gun manned by Cornwell was considered still serviceable, they had retained it and given the museum a gun from another part of the ship instead. Concerned museum staff immediately took steps to rectify the matter and ensure that the correct No.21 gun, mechanism and sights were obtained from the Admiralty and quietly substituted.
Cornwell's gun during the Second World War
Jack Cornwell's gun has remained on display at IWM throughout most of its history. However, in 1940, after the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk, there was an acute shortage of equipment and weaponry needed to carry on fighting in the Second World War. Even the museum was asked to help by handing over a number of exhibits, including Jack Cornwell's gun. Though some exhibits were given up, the trustees refused to relinquish the Cornwell gun, recognising its significance to the museum.