A memorable evening before the mast
Last night I was a guest at a charity auction banquet to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland held at the Mansion House in the City of London on behalf of the White Ensign Association and The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity. The dress code was given as ‘Black Tie (with decorations) or Ladies Equivalent (knee-length or longer) and serving officers are invited to wear Mess Undress’ so – as I wasn’t a serving officer – readers may understand why I opted for black tie rather than the ladies’ equivalent.
My detailed description of the evening will be necessarily brief. Security was tight and among the non-services ‘great and good’ I spotted but didn’t speak to were Peter Snow and James Landale (broadcasters), Digby Jones (former director general of the CBI) and any number of commercial and industry notables that I didn’t know from Adam.
As regards the service personnel, I can honestly record that I have never seen such an array of small medal sets, gaudy military uniforms of every style and hue covered in acres of ‘scrambled eggs’ on epaulets and jacket sleeves. The unwary might have felt he’d stumbled across a dressing room at theatrical costumier’s where the cast of a new West End production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance had gone for a fitting.
I arrived on site knowing only two or three of the two hundred and fifty attendees in advance and so initially did my usual ‘wallflower’ impression whilst necking a succession of glasses of champagne until one of the chorus from the aforementioned light opera introduced himself.
We soon struck up an animated conversation and thereafter gradually unfolded what for me was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding evening over a raucous three-course meal punctuated by grace, toasts and speeches, occasionally accompanied from the gallery above by a band from the Royal Marines.
Twice mentioned during the speeches was the famous ‘boy VC’ from Jutland, John ‘Jack’ Cornwell, at sixteen years of age the third-youngest ever recipient of the Victoria Cross, who though mortally wounded remained on duty at his gun on board HMS Chester after eight out of ten of his crew had been killed or incapacitated.
Last night the opening speaker read out the letter written by Captain Robert Lawson of HMS Chester to Mrs Lily Cornwell, Jack’s mother – I make no apology here for quoting it in full:
‘I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your boy during the action of May 31. His devotion to duty was an example for all of us.
The wounds which resulted in his death within a short time were received in the first few minutes of the action. He remained steady at his most exposed post at the gun, waiting for orders.
His gun would not bear on the enemy, all but two of the ten of the crew were killed or wounded, and he was the only one who was in such an exposed position.
But he felt he might be needed – as indeed he might have been – so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God’s help to support him.
I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world. No other comfort would I attempt to give to the mother of so brave a lad, but to assure her of what he was and what he did, and what an example he gave.
I hope to place in the boys’ mess a plate with his name on and the date, and the words ‘Faithful unto death.’
I hope some day you may be able to come and see it there.’
During the evening I heard two extraordinary facts about the Jack Cornwell story that I had not known previously.
The first was to do with his burial. Although he lived long enough to succumb to his wounds in a Grimsby hospital two days after the Battle of Jutland (31st May 1916), this occurred before his mother could travel there to see him and he was initially and quietly laid to rest in a common grave at Manor Park Cemetery in the East End of London.
Later, after the Navy finally decided to recommend him for a VC (this partly for propaganda purposes), his body was exhumed and marched in a procession through the East End of London with full military honours to be reburied with suitable pomp and ceremony in the same cemetery.
The second was to do with the famous portrait image of Jack Cornwell by court painter Frank O. Salisbury [see left].
It is not actually a portrait of Jack Cornwell at all, but of his brother Ernest – who stood in as a model for Jack for several photographs, drawings and paintings completed during the course of WW1.
Towards the end of the evening, amidst all the tales and discussions of naval strategy, both WW1 and modern, the detailed events of the Battle of Jutland and the vivid impressions of an engagement in which over 8,500 sailors died and 170,000 tons-worth of ships went to the bottom of the ocean, I had my own reminder of mortality whilst sitting at my table.
I had been in conversation throughout with a former naval officer of about my own age. That is to say – inasmuch as I had given any thought to the subject at all, which wasn’t much – I guess I had placed him in my mind as approximately eight to ten years older than myself, judging purely by his appearance and bearing. (One thing you note about military people is that they all exude a certain ‘presence’ and confidence that I suspect ‘comes with the territory’).
As things drew to a close, however, we were in mid-discussion about our kids and their lives when said gent confided that his were in their twenties and that he had ‘retired early’ seven years ago.
As it happens, my kids are in their thirties, so I suddenly found myself begging leave to be impertinent and ask how old he was.
He looked slightly puzzled at the request (as well he might) but answered:
I was stunned by this revelation. I am ten years older than him (and counting) …