|Mexborough’s Jutland Hero
Whilst researching the First World War, Bill Lawrence of the Society, has found one of Mexborough’s youngest men to serve in that war.
Seaman First Class John (Jack) Travers Cornwall was Britain’s youngest serviceman to be awarded the Victoria Cross (V.C.). Much has been written about him.
Jack was born in January 1900 in Leyton, Essex and left school at 14. He joined the Royal Navy in July 1915 when he arrived at the Naval Barracks at Devonport, Plymonth and trained as a sight setter or gun layer taking the service number J/42563.
On Easter Monday 1916 Jack left his training depot for Rosythe and joined his light cruiser, HMS Chester. It was on this ship that he was to take part in the last great sea battle of all time, the Battle of Jutland. It was the last battleship engagement of the 20th century which featured over two hundred ships belonging to the British and German navies. The battle took place between the 31st May and the 1st of June 1916.
Jack Cornwall’s ship was hit during the battle. He was severely wounded when the forecastle gun turret on which he was stationed was hit killing all but Jack who remained at his post still awaiting orders.
Jack survived for a short period but later died of his wounds in Grimsby General Hospital on the 26th July.
Jack Cornwall was initially given little recognition and originally buried in a simple grave. After a public outcry, his body was exhumed and after an impressive funeral reburied in Manor Park Cemetery. On the recommendation of Admiral David Beatty, Cornwall was posthumously awarded the V.C.
What is not well known, and perhaps not appreciated, is that Mexborough has its own Jutland hero.
He is William Barker, born in December 1899 and lived originally in Kimberworth, Rotherham. His father’s name was also William and so
the young William became to be known as Willie. The family moved to 8 Ferry Boat Lane, Mexborough sometime after 1911.
Willie (pictured left) joined the Royal Navy, like Jack Cornwell at the age of fifteen. He became Ordinary Seamen Barker and took the number of J/43351 and was occupied as a range finder. It will be noted that this number is close to that of Cornwall’s which suggests Willie may have trained with him at Plymouth and was a colleague of his.
Willie Barker too left the depot for Rosythe where he joined HMS Dublin, another light cruiser.
The Battle of Jutland commenced on the evening of 31st May 1916. HMS Dublin scored some success when it hit the German warship SMS Elbring, but as night was falling, later sustained serious damage when hit along with HMS Southampton. The Dublin saw three if its crew killed with a further 27 injured.
Prior to the shelling of his ship the Dublin, Seaman Barker must have witnessed something even more horrific. One of Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers was hit twice in a terrifying attack by one of the German’s own battlecruisers, Derfflinderer. The British battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary received a direct hit, immediately exploded, and became a raging inferno. She sunk within minutes with the loss of over 1,200 men. Only 18 survived.
One of Barker’s shipmates, William Cave was to give an eyewitness account of the sinking of the Queen Mary’s as HMS Dublin’s crew watch alongside.
Cave describes the horror in this way; “In every detail we could see officers, signalman and others. The ship was already doing 20 knots with the fore section blown forward causing a higher bow than before only listing slight to port, then skidding around starboard towards Dublin. We actually parted our helm to avoid hitting us but it proved unnecessary with increasing list she dived her fore turret guns at full elevation hot with firing giving off a loud hissing as they met the water. It was terrible to hear those poor souls so near yet so far and being unable to help”
One can only speculate on the adverse psychological effect this may have had on the young 16 year old Willie Barker,
The German High Seas Fleet managed to retreat to the German port of Wilhelmshaven in the early hours of the morning of the 1st of June.
Both side were able to claim victory. The German’s on the basis of the fact that they sunk 14 ships with a loss of ‘only’ 11 of their own vessels with only a third of British causalities. Over six thousand British seamen were killed compared to German killed of just over two and half thousand. The British were to claim victory on the basis that the Grand Fleet of the British Navy had virtually forced the German fleet into retirement, never again during the war putting to sea in such an engagement. From henceforth the Germans relied on submarine warfare utilising their U-boats.
The fact remains that Seaman Barker lost 6,094 of his comrades in the space of a few hours.
This is not the only action that Willie Barker witnessed. In May 1917 HMS Dublin left Rosythe for a sweep between the Forth and the Humber in pursuit of a Zeppelin menacing vessels 17 miles off the east coast. The Dublin tried to destroy the Zeppelin but there were a number of U-boats in the area. One U-boat fired a torpedo and the crew of Dublin spotted it crossing her bows. Two other torpedoes were fired at Dublin from a second U-boat, a yet a third U-boat was seen which was avoided.
During these distractions the Zeppelin, being almost directly above the Dublin, attempted to bomb her but HMS Dublin rapidly swerved to starboard and avoided any potential bombing. It is almost certain that Willie Barker experienced this incident and again witnessed a very unpleasant experience which would most likely, have some detrimental effect on the young man.
Seaman Barker received some leave in early June 1918, almost exactly two years after the Battle of Jutland. The Mexborough and Swinton Times of 29th June 1918 records that Seaman William Barker had recently been killed on the Midland Railway at Kilnhurst. What it didn’t record is that Willie Barker had actually committed suicide on the 8th June. The verdict of suicide whilst temporarily insane, suffering from a disturbed mind was returned by the coroner at an inquest in Rotherham the following week.
The report in the Barnsley Chronicle of 15th June says that Barker: “Since the Battle of Jutland had suffered at the time from headaches,” He should have returned to his ship on Thurday the 7th of June but did not leave his home in Ferry Boat Lane until the Friday morning and threw himself in front of a express goods train between Swinton and Kilnhurst”.
The verdict of suicide on a serviceman was never widely broadcast. Suicide at this time under English law was perceived as immoral and a criminal act, an offence against God and the sovereign. It did not ceased to be a criminal offence until 1961. During the first world war to announce the death of one of His Majesty’s Armed Forces by way of suicide would have potentially create low morale. There were in fact many servicemen who could not endure any more of that which they faced on a daily basis and they ended it by taking their own lives.
The inescapable conclusion is that Willie Barker’s experience at sea was responsible for his state of mind and consequently the taking of his own life. He would have been suffering what would today be considered as post traumatic stress.
William Barker is buried in Mexborough Cemetery in a grave with a services’ headstone. The words upon it reflect the youthfulness of the one that lay beneath it. It simply says. “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”.
One gets the sense that the young Willie Barker’s family were deeply religious and a close loving family. They placed a piece in the ‘Memoriam’ section of the Mexborough and Swinton Times in 1919, one year after his death. It reads: “In loving memory of our dear son Willie Barker who passed away June 8th 1918. Thy purpose Lord we cannot see. But all is well done by three. Ever remembered by his Father, Mother and Family.
This young man is every bit a hero as John Travers Cornwall V.C. He is Mexborough’s, our own Jutland hero
William Barker’s Grave in Mexborough Cemetery
Mexborough & Swinton Times, 29th June 1918 & 7th June 1919
Barnsley Chronicle,!5th June 1918
Rotherham Advertiser, 15th June 1918
Malvern News, 10th June 1916
The Sailor’s War 1914-1918 , P.H. Liddle (1985)
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