Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Victims of war

Jack Cornwell VC and the Battle of Jutland

An exhibition at Portsmouth Dockyard in 2016 marked the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War, was a multimedia presentation chronicling the only major sea battle of World War I. On 31 May – 1 June 1916 British and German dreadnoughts blazed at each other, through the poor visibility generated by mist, cloud, a dark evening sky, and an increasing volume of smoke from burning ships caught by gunfire. But while the exhibition captured the terrifying noise of constant bombardment, and the confusion and horror of intense shellfire, the claim that this battle won the war rang hollow.

Jutland was an indecisive disaster for both navies despite both claiming a victory: the German  fleet retreated, but Britain lost more ships and  twice as many men, the German dead numbering 2,551 and the British 6,097. The faith which both Britain and Germany had placed in their navies, building up immoderate numbers of battleships, proved unfounded.

Britain had been confident of victory over the numerically inferior German fleet. The huge losses suffered by her “invincible navy” led to so much criticism of the naval leadership that the Admiralty considered censoring and delaying the official report on the battle.

Moreover, when Kitchener, the then popular Secretary of State for War, drowned five days later when a German mine struck the ship on which he was travelling, and when losses on the Somme numbered 19,000 on the first day of the battle on 1 July, there was a clear need to staunch declining morale in Britain.

Jack Cornwell  was fifteen years old when he enlisted in the navy in 1915. He was trained as a gun sight-setter and assigned to HMS Chester which took part in the Battle of Jutland. The ship received seventeen direct hits in the battle. Many of the gun’s crew were killed instantly and others were mortally wounded. The Chester retired from the action and reached relative safety. Medical assistants sent on board found Cornwell, severely wounded with shrapnel and shards of steel penetrating his chest, standing in the shattered gun mounting. He died in Grimsby hospital two days later and was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother arranged for his exhumation and reburial near their home in Manor Park Cemetery, East London. It was another pauper’s grave.

Two months  later however, on 29 July,  Jack Cornwell was exhumed again and reburied with full military honours; it was the largest public event which took place during the war. Crowds lining the streets witnessed the coffin born on a gun carriage, with a naval band, boys from Jack’s old school and others from the Chester marching behind it. The local MP, Bishop and Mayor accompanied the coffin, a bugler sounded the last post, and shots were fired over the grave.

When the official report of the Battle of Jutland had been published in early July it had included an account from the commanding officer of the Chester which described Cornwell standing alone at his post awaiting orders until the end of the action. Writers on The Daily Sketch had uncovered the reference and turned it into a  front-page story with a photograph of Cornwell’s brother George dressed in a naval uniform. With other journalists they fomented public pressure for recognition of Jack’s bravery, criticising the navy for allowing a hero to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

After the military funeral, the Admiralty awoke to the possibility of boosting public confidence in the war, and providing the navy with some face-saving publicity after the disaster of Jutland, by awarding Jack a posthumous Victoria Cross. On 15 September Jack Cornwell became the third youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, awarded for a conspicuous act of bravery. The citation read: “mortally wounded early in the action… Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all around him. His age was sixteen and a half years.”

The court painter, Frank Salisbury, portrayed Jack standing at his post by the gun, and prints were distributed to schools accompanied by booklets entitled “Faithful Unto Death” which  used his death to encourage concepts of duty and sacrifice. Six days after the award of the VC  schools all over Britain celebrated Jack Cornwell Day. A Cornwell Memorial Fund was established, and fund-raising badges were sold to children for 1d each raising  £18,000 to finance a ward for disabled sailors at the newly established Star and Garter Home in Richmond. Patriotic propaganda wielded the emotive story of obedience, courage, selflessness, and honourable conduct  to boost flagging resolve.

In truth it is hard to imagine that the poor boy could have  done other than to remain at his post. On the deck of a severely damaged ship, surrounded by the dead and dying, himself seriously injured, possibly traumatised, frightened, and shell shocked, where could he go? Probably no more or less brave than any other sailor, the strongest impression his story leaves is that a child of sixteen should not have been involved in the fighting at all, and that  his memory was cynically exploited in the interests of war time propaganda, to deflect criticism of the conduct of the Battle of Jutland and to revitalize dedication to the war effort.

                                *************************************

From 1915 onwards stone memorials had begun to appear commemorating the war dead and serving to promote military recruitment. London’s first memorial appeared on 4 August 1916 in the churchyard of St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate bearing the names of both Kitchener and Cornwell. A Pathe News of the time shows the Lord Mayor unveiling the cross and linking the popular ageing commander with the working-class boy hero as he reminds the assembled crowd that the cross drew together “the statesman-warrior”… and “a young, innocent and humble origined (sic) lad…cutting across all divisions of class and educational background in their sacrifice to a common cause.”  

The first World War One Memorial Cross to appear in London. St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate
Jack Cornwell is specifically remembered on the plinth,
as is Kitchener.

In 1920 pupils and former pupils of schools in East Ham placed a stone marker bearing a cross and an anchor on what had become the Cornwell family grave. With Jack were his half-brother Arthur Frederick, killed in action in France in August 1918; his father  who died in October 1916; and his mother who died in poverty in 1919.

Grave of John Travers (Jack) Cornwell, Manor Park Cemetery, East London

The grave carries a quotation from Ovid:

It is not wealth or ancestry

but honourable conduct and a noble

disposition that maketh men great.

The Ballad of Jack Cornwell by Charles Causley carries a less sententious and more poignant  message. Here are two  extracts:

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 downward 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.

………….

They gave me a second funeral,

I heard the rifles plain

And up in the wild air went the birds

As I went down again.

The great Sir Edward Carson,

First Lord of the Admiralty,

Asked men and women who grumbled

If ever they heard of me.

It was the second year of the war;

Thiepval, the Somme, Verdun.

The people were encouraged,

And the Great War went on.

“Too many died. War isn’t worth one life.”

My grandfather, Harry Manley, was the gentlest of men, and I cannot imagine what emotions he confronted and endured when, somewhere on the Western Front, he faced the prospect of killing other men. Like many of his generation he never spoke of the war. He always attended church on Sundays, so he must have attended Remembrance Services. He probably wore a red poppy, but I have no memory of it. All that I knew as a child was that the reason he walked with a limp was because he had been wounded in a long-ago event,  referred to by adults, who clearly had neither the inclination nor the intention to discuss it further, as “ the war.” This was strange because “The Second War” was a frequent subject of conversation and featured regularly in heroic films and novels.

The First World War only gradually took shape in my consciousness through History lessons, and English Literature classes where a passionate teacher  introduced us to the poems of Wilfred Owen.

Only in her own last years, when she began to talk a lot about her parents and childhood, did my mother share her own limited knowledge of her father’s experience. Somewhere in France or Belgium he had been wounded and was lying in a shell-hole, unable to move, when a field ambulance arrived. The ambulance was  full, and from what I have read of World War I, I would take that description literally. The  driver assured my grandfather that he had noted his position and would come back for him. This must have seemed a well-meant but unlikely promise: how would anyone locate one shell hole on a chaotic battlefield; fighting might resume at any time; the ambulance might be blown up and the driver himself killed. But  return he did, and my grandfather was duly transferred from a field hospital to a London one. My grandmother was summoned to nurse him: staff shortages or because he was not expected to survive? Either way she arrived with determination, and skills learned in the Cottage Hospital in Ellesmere Port.

My grandfather became one of the lucky ones who not only came home but retained his calm, gentle nature. He resumed his job as a brick layer and my mother was born in 1920. But frequently throughout her childhood, she told me, bits of shrapnel would rise to the surface of my grandfather’s wound and a terrible stench would fill the house. My grandmother, ever stoical, practical, and capable, would calmly remove the offending fragments and clean away the foul stinking pus.

My grandfather, Harry Manley
My grandmother, Sarah Ellen Manley
A postcard my grandfather sent home to his wife
Message written in pencil on the back
A postcard sent from my grandfather to his son

My grandfather died in the 1960s, but another Harry, Harry Patch,  lived until 2009, dying at 111, by which time he had found fame as “The Last Fighting Tommy.” Harry Patch refused to speak of the war for eighty years, but in 1998  he broke his silence to recall the terrible loss of so many lives and to assert the futility of war. Five years later he returned to Belgium, for the first time since the war, to lay a wreath in memory of  dead friends at the spot where he was wounded, and they were killed. In 2007, his book The Last Fighting Tommy, based on interviews conducted by Richard van Emden, was published.

Harry Patch left no doubt of his reluctance to go to war: “I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to…why should I go out and kill somebody I never knew, and for what reason?”1 I could never understand why my country could call me from a peacetime job and train me to go to France and try to kill a man I never knew.”2

Nor was he in any doubt of the consequences of non-participation: “(The officer) had his drawn revolver and I got the distinct impression… that anybody who didn’t “go over” would be shot for cowardice where they stood.”3

He drew a raw picture of  the trenches: “the noise, the filth, the uncertainty and the calls for stretcher bearers.”4 “There was no sanitation at all and the place used to stink like hell.”5 “We lived with rats… When you went to sleep you would cover your face with a blanket and feel the damn things run over you.”6 “We were sitting in a sea of shell holes…They were half full of water and one,…well, the stench was terrible, a half-rotting body was in there.”7 “The bodies of wounded men who were dying… would sink out of sight in the morass. They would never be buried.”8 “A lad was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist, and lying in a pool of blood…he looked at us and said “shoot me.””9  “I saw one German… a shell had hit him and all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor.”10

Harry and the other members of his Lewis gun team had a pact; “We wouldn’t kill, not if we could help it… We fire short, have them in the legs, or fire over their heads, but not to kill, not unless it’s them or us.”11

On 22nd September 2017 Harry was wounded, the others in his team were killed. Harry wrote, “That day, the day I lost my pals, 22 September 1917 – that is my Remembrance Day, not Armistice Day.”12

Harry’s visceral loathing of  the war he was forced to fight resounds from the pages of his book: “At the end of the war , the peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn’t they do that at the start, without losing millions of men?”13 “The politicians who took us into the war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalised mass murder.”14 “War,” he averred, “ is a calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings,” and affirmed, “Too many died. War isn’t worth one life.15

Of Remembrance Day, Harry wrote, “For me 11 November is just show business… the Armistice Day celebrations on television…it is nothing but a show of military force…I don’t think there is any actual remembrance except for those who have actually lost somebody they really cared for in either war.”16

Harry Patch was determined not to have a state funeral but, as the last veteran of any nationality who had served in the trenches, he agreed to a public one. His funeral was held in Wells Cathedral with a theme of peace and reconciliation, and, in accordance with his instructions, the soldiers from Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom who accompanied his coffin were not allowed to carry their ceremonial weapons. A memorial stone beside the Cathedral Green commemorates his life.

Memorial to Harry Patch beside Cathedral Green, Wells

But Harry Patch chose to be buried at a private ceremony near the graves of his parents and brothers, in St. Michael’s churchyard in Monkton Combe.

Harry Patch’s grave, Monkton Combe
Harry Patch’s grave is the one bearing red poppies
Harry Patch’s grave is the one bearing red poppies

And that is a where I go to remember: Harry Patch; my grandfather, Harry Manley; the other men who came home to live ordinary lives;  the millions, mostly young, who lost their lives or health in that pointless war; and their wives, lovers, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, and friends  whose lives were forever diminished by their loss.

  1. Harry Patch with Richard van Emden, The Last Fighting Tommy, Bloomsbury, 2018, p.59.
  2. Ibid., p.137
  3. Ibid., p.91
  4. Ibid., p.74
  5. Ibid., p.77
  6. Ibid., pp.104-5
  7. Ibid., pp 98-9.
  8. Ibid., p.99
  9. Ibid., p.94
  10. Ibid., p.93
  11. Ibid., p.71
  12. Ibid., p.203
  13. Ibid., p.137
  14. Ibid., pp.188-9
  15. http://news.bbc.co.uk  Veteran, 109, revisits WW I trench.
  16. Patch, The Last Fighting Tommy, p. 20

https://www.ppu.org.uk The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies to reassert the original message of remembrance: “never again.” They are a symbol of remembrance of all victims of war, of a to challenge militarism, and of a commitment to peace.

https://www.wri-irg.org War Resisters International is a global network of grassroots antimilitarist and pacifist groups working for a world without war.

Ivan Franko and The Stonebreakers

For over six weeks Ukrainians, led by the brave and seemingly tireless Zelenskiy, have been fighting to protect their homeland from an evil and brutal invasion. And even as they have fought in defence of their country, they have negotiated too, working and hoping for a political compromise which allows them autonomy and freedom to choose their own way of life.

There are no words for the horror, ugliness, and violence of war. Every night we have watched the news on television, every morning read the newspapers. War is death, injury and mutilation, homelessness, hunger and degradation, fear of an ever-present threat. Part of a privileged generation in a privileged country who have not known war in our lifetimes I cannot claim to empathise, to know anything of the feelings of those who have fled or the fears of those who remain. I can feel only shame for our own government’s failure to welcome refugees.

In happier times I travelled around Ukraine on the Ukrainian railways. Then the distinctive blue trains with their yellow stripe provided a comfortable intercity sleeper service for tourists like me,  and the carriage guards greeted us with tea in the mornings. In recent weeks, those trains have been involved in a massive evacuation programme,  carrying as many as 200,000 people a day, two million in the first two weeks of the war alone, to the west of the country, returning packed with humanitarian aid.

When my train took me to Lviv I visited the Lychakivske cemetery  where I found Ivan Franko (1856-1916), nationalist poet, journalist, activist, and reformer, he was a co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party in 1889. On his grave a massive sculpture of a  stonecutter “crushing the granite wall” references his poem Kamenyari, The Stonebreakers, an allegory of the Ukrainian struggle for liberation from her oppressive past under the Polish, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. For foreign oppression is not new to Ukraine. In the 1340s the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and The Kingdom of Poland split the country between them. As the power of Lithuania declined, Poland tightened her hold until a challenge by Russia in the seventeenth century subjugated Kyiv and Northern Ukraine, while  the Poles remained in the West. In the eighteenth century  the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires carved up Poland between them and the Austrian Hapsburgs  annexed Lviv and the West. Against this background of colonisation and foreign dominance, Ivan Franko took a leading part in the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the nineteenth century. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the turmoil of the Russian Revolution allowed Ukraine a very brief period of independence after the First World War, but the Polish-Ukrainian war (1918-1919) effected a return to Polish ascendancy in the West, while the Polish- Soviet war (1918-1921) precipitated the incorporation  of most of Ukraine into the Soviet Union. Occupied at separate times in the Second World War by the Nazis and the Soviets, Ukraine emerged under Soviet domination. At last, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine obtained a fragile independence in 1991, until on 24 February this year a new Russian invasion brought war.

In the same cemetery as Franko  l discovered Maria Konopnika, (1842-1910), Polish poet, novelist, translator, advocate of women’s rights and Polish independence from Prussia and Russia, and the flowers were piled as high on her grave as they were on Franko’s. Even more surprisingly I stumbled upon the burial ground of the  Polish Eaglets, young Polish volunteers who “defended” Lviv in the Polish-Ukrainian War. Polish workers began the restoration of this cemetery within a cemetery, which had been used as a truck depot after World War Two, in the late eighties, and following Polish support for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, it officially reopened in a joint Polish-Ukrainian ceremony in 2005. And today it is the old enemy, Poland, which has opened its borders and whose people have welcomed more than two million refugees.

In the last week, the war in Ukraine has taken on ever darker and more evil tones,  Russian forces sinking to new depths attacking civilian targets including schools and hospitals, and from Bucha  footage  has emerged of civilians who have been shot with their hands tied behind their backs. A Russian missile strike on a crowded railway station in Kramatorsk, where four thousand people were waiting to board the trains which would evacuate them  to safety, killed over fifty people  and injured more than a hundred. In the face of these war crimes  the possibility of any  reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians seems a naïve and absurd hope. I know how easily in those circumstances I could soon burn with indiscriminate hatred for Russians, and who can fail to understand any Ukrainian who feels that way.

And yet many brave Russians although fully aware of the consequences for themselves have dared to oppose their government’s  war: Marina Ovsyannikova who held up signs during a state TV news broadcast reading “Don’t believe the propaganda,”  and “Russians Against the War”,  was arrested and detained by riot police . Others have had their homes vandalised and lost their jobs for signing petitions against the war. Anti-war protests have been criminalised, and even referring to the attack on Ukraine as war or invasion, carries the threat of fifteen years in prison. Protestors have responded by holding up blank sheets of paper, placards reading “two words” or bearing eloquent asterisks. Blue and yellow flowers materialize at war memorials  and anti-war graffiti appear. Tens of thousands, described by Putin as traitors and enemies of the state, have left Russia and now gather at protests around the world, and independent Russian journalists are working in Ukraine to break the Kremlin’s stranglehold on information; one of them, Oksana Baulina, was killed by a Russian missile in Kyiv while filming damage in the city from an earlier attack.

Franko’s poem spoke not just of smashing through rock with sledgehammers but also of building a strong dwelling and a new life. The determined courage of the Ukrainians, the generosity of the Poles, the bravery of Russians who stand up to their government, and the well-tended graves in the  Lychakivske Cemetery foster hope even in the darkest of times that there will come a day when the war is over and Ukraine is free again, and the blue trains with their yellow stripe  carry only carefree holiday makers,  when old hatreds while not forgotten are forged into new friendships, and a new memorial may find a place alongside Franko, Konopnika,  and the Polish Eaglets, remembering those Russians who stood with Ukraine.

Ivan Franko, co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party
Maria Konopnika, Polish Nationalist
The Polish Eaglets

6.30am Lviv station in happier times

The blue and yellow train about to depart Lviv for Odessa
Morning tea on Ukrainian Railways

Slava Ukraini

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén