Trafalgar Sunday - Exeter Cathedral - 23 Oct 16
On Friday morning, I was present on the Quarterdeck of HMS VICTORY for the annual Trafalgar Day Ceremony, where the Second Sea Lord laid a laurel wreath on the spot where Nelson fell during the battle, and then below on the Orlop deck, where he died. I was struck, as ever, by the size of the ship; because she is incredibly small by modern standards and it always amuses me that we require the tallest Royal marines officer we can find to accompany 2SL down to the Orlop deck, where the deckhead is about 5 feet! Nevertheless she was designed, and proved to be, an efficient and deadly gun platform: as a hundred gun ship, VICTORY’s opening broadsides at Trafalgar would each have launched one and a quarter tons of cast iron cannon balls at the French and Spanish fleet – a feat she was capable of repeating every 90 seconds. And, of course, the guns needed loading, aiming and firing, at the same time as the ship was sailed and manoeuvred – although every time I visit the ship I am at a loss to work out how the 821men onboard that day actually fitted in, living, working and fighting alongside one another so efficiently. That figure is even more incredible when you consider that HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, the new aircraft carrier which will come into service next year - the largest ship the Royal Navy has ever built and at least 20 times bigger than VICTORY - has a ship’s company of only 679.
Earlier this year on 31st May I was also privileged to take part in the national commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. The battle came at a time in WW1 when the Royal Navy, at all levels, was very much hoping for a decisive encounter with the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet. Both sides talked about – “der tag” – ‘the day’ – when the fleets would meet and do battle. But for the British, the concept went further: One hundred and eleven years after Nelson’s iconic victory, they sought nothing less than a ‘New Trafalgar’ – the decisive rout of German sea power which would inevitably shorten the war. Nothing less would do.
In this morning’s New Testament reading, we join Jesus during what is, whilst perhaps not a Trafalgar or a Jutland moment, almost guaranteed to be a prickly encounter: He is dining with a leading Pharisee, on the Sabbath, and controversially heals a man with dropsy – a nasty and possibly debilitating swelling. Things seem like they are about to kick off, and yet… instead, Jesus appears to offer some obvious, and probably routine social comment: He observes that when dining in a formal setting it makes sense to assume an air of humility, placing oneself in a lowly social position. That way, your host may well recognise you and call you higher, to a position of honour. To do otherwise risked the crushing indignity of being moved lower down the table. The potential loss of face would probably be enough to discourage even the most ambitious social climber, and shape their behaviour; but as a concept, it was probably obvious, and well understood by all present.
But then Jesus delivers his teaching: - He says, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”. In a moment, we switch from a comment on table etiquette, to prophetic guidance relating to our position in the eyes of God. All who exalt themselves before God will fall foul of him, for it is for God alone, the host of the heavenly banquet, to call people higher up the table: It is not within our gift to presume where we might sit. And we remember, of course, that Jesus, as “God among us”, lived this concept throughout his ministry. In pure religious terms, he associated with the “wrong” sort of people – the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, the impure – the complete opposite end of the social scale from his legally minded and religiously fastidious host. Philippians 2 memorably speaks of Jesus, “being in the form of God and yet not regarding equality with God - as something to be exploited or grasped. He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
So in Jesus Christ, we have our paradigm of humility and service – something not lost on Nelson, who famously prayed on the eve of Trafalgar:
For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, And may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully…
Back in the North Sea, late in the afternoon of 31 may 1916, the British and German battle fleets were steaming towards each other at a combined speed of over 50 MPH and both British and German sailors gradually realised that ‘der tag’ had finally come . On both sides, eyes strained to see the enemy, and on the edge of the British fleet the cruiser HMS CHESTER was dispatched to investigate the sound of gunfire in the distance.
CHESTER was a new ship – literally, brand new, entering service only 3 weeks before the battle. Her crew, although technically trained, were very inexperienced. One of those raw sailors was the 16 year-old Boy 1st Class John Travers Cornwell. Jack, as he was known, had joined the Royal Navy, aged 15, the previous year. He had done well in his basic training – (hence the 1st Class) and had joined CHESTER, his first ship, at Easter. Cornwell’s position was as the sight setter on the fore deck 5.5 inch gun.
At 5.30, the ship was operating in the vicinity of a bank of mist when she stumbled across 4 German cruisers of similar size to herself. In a brief but vicious action, perhaps lasting only 5 minutes, CHESTER was hit 17 times, and most of her exposed gunnery and upper deck crews were killed. We know that there were at least 4 hits in the vicinity Cornwell’s gun, and when ship had withdrawn from the action and the medical teams found Jack, he was surrounded by the dead bodies of his gun’s crew. He had sustained serious shrapnel wounds to his chest, but was nevertheless still stood at his gun sights, awaiting orders. Incapable of further action, the ship was ordered into port, and Jack was transferred to Grimsby hospital, where he died on the morning of the 2nd June – sadly, before his mother was able to arrive from London.
Jack’s body was released to his family and buried in a communal grave near his home in East Ham, but stories of his steadfast courage had begun to spread. It was reported that, for example, when asked in the aftermath of the action why he had remained at his post, he replied, simply, “In case I was needed”. Within 2 months of his death, Jack Cornwell was a national hero: He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and his body exhumed and reburied in a single plot with full military honours. The epitaph on Boy 1st Class Cornwell’s grave simply reads, “It is not wealth or ancestry, but honourable conduct and a noble disposition that maketh men great”. That year, on the 21st September, schools around Britain and the Empire celebrated Jack Cornwell day – an event repeated again in many schools in this centenary year.
A striking picture of Jack, showing him at his station, in the midst of the battle, surrounded by the bodies of his gun’s crew, hangs in the Anglican Church at the Royal Navy’s New Entry training establishment HMS RALEIGH, where new recruits learn of his gallantry and dedication as part of learning about the Royal Navy’s Core Values. Jack’s elevation from the lowest rank in the Navy, Boy Seaman, to the military’s highest award for gallantry, and his translation from communal grave to burial as a national hero is remarkable, and I am struck by the parallels with our New Testament reading. Jack didn’t seek greatness, he simply sought ‘to do his duty’ and when faced with the horror of war, he did it with immense courage and determination. It risks being a trite comparison, and I wouldn’t push it too far, but as we, on this 211th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, commemorate those who fought and died in the battle, and the peace that was secured through the victory they won, we remember all of our sailors, men and women, like Jack Cornwell who have given their lives for their country. Jack’s portrait is very challenging – he looks so young, so innocent – and so afraid: But he had no doubt of what was required of him. He had the courage and determination to sit at the bottom of his host’s table and sadly, only in death was invited higher.
Whilst the concept of ‘duty’ should be a natural concept to servicemen and women, as people of faith, we too are called to do our duty – each in our own lives and in our own way – and we all know what those duties are: To love God above all things, and to put the needs of our neighbour above our own. Perhaps it is no mistake that Nelson’s dying words, which, as we know from his chaplain, the Revd. Alexander John Scott, that he repeated over and over again, were “thank God I have done my duty”.
as we leave this place today, let each one of us be open to Jesus’ call to
humility and ready to reflect on how we might emulate him and do our
duty – to put God first and to show his love, in our actions, for our neighbour
and our community – those we love, and those we don’t. And
perhaps, in this Jutland centenary year, we might be particularly touched
by the 16 year-old Jack Cornwell’s willingness to serve, expressed in his
actions and his words – ‘In case I was needed’. Amen.
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