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James Cornwall

What does it take to become a hero? My aging mother, now 88 years old has spent her life telling and collecting stories. I recently heard one that got me pondering, I had probably heard it before but this time it coincided with her acquiring some handwritten letters which gave this story a new level of credibility.

James Cornwall was born about 1836 and apparently while only a young boy joined the Royal Navy. He probably served on several ships learning his trade, but we know for sure that he served on three: HMS Fox, HMS Ajax and HMS Cossack because three letters have survived.

The one from HMS Fox is dated 26 May 1853 and details the action he saw in Burma, and was sent from Rangoon. The next was dated 26 July 1854 after he had transferred to the HMS Ajax and his involvement at the beginning of the Crimean war. The third is from the HMS Cossack dated 11 Feb 1855, in which he complains about the cold, and hopes for an early end to this war because “it is killing work”.

Although the spelling is a bit vague, it would appear that he spent quite a bit of time in the Baltic Sea around Kronstadt and Helsinki. The HMS Cossack was a brand new steam corvette with 20 guns which was originally being built for the Russians, but with the outbreak of the Crimean War in April 1854, she was confiscated, renamed HMS Cossack, and launched on 15 May 1854.

On 5 June 1855 the HMS Cossack was shelling a small outpost on Aland, an island near Helsinki and the enemy forces on shore raised a white flag in surrender. A boat was despatched under the command of midshipman James Cornwall. As they approached the shore the enemy opened fire killing all the crew except one, who miraculously escaped. When the boat drifted out of range of the shore, the one survivor was able to row back to the ship with his slain shipmates, who were then buried at sea.

A lock of James Cornwall’s hair was sent back to his mother, which was then enclosed in a memorial broach and ring engraved with his name and date of his death, and the comment aged 19 years.

Why bother telling this story? Obviously it is part of my family heritage, but also it is a reminder that God calls each of us to walk a different path. I don’t know if James died a heroic death but I do know that he laid down his life doing what he knew was right. This proud tradition of the RN has been passed down to anyone who serves in the armed forces and every day when young seamen join a boarding party to check a refugee boat, near Ashmore Reef, or young soldiers do a patrol in Afghanistan or young airmen fly in a C130 on a humanitarian rescue mission, they take that same risk.  Is that “heroic” no, it’s just part of the job and typifies the Defence values we own. What values guide your life?

Chaplain Ian S Whitley

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