Charles Causley -Ballad of Jack Cornwell – Second World War poet’s verdict on Jutland

Above picture -‘Windy Corner of the Battle of Jutland’ By George Dixon, Lifted from ‘Wikipedia’ public domain.

I first noticed Charles Causley’s work  featured in ‘ ‘The War at Sea’ edited by John Winton; part of the ‘Freedom’s Battle’ series , (1967) .

A largely prose history featuring some poetry, about World War 2. Causley’s  life apart from his war service, was spent in Launceston,Cornwall, where he was a school teacher. .He was later to win prestigious awards such as The Queen’s Gold Medal and The Ingersoll/TD Elliott Award as well as becoming a CBE and  receiving an Hon DLitt from the University of Exeter. The Charles Causley Trust helps to maintain his legacy, with a special emphasis on Cornwall. A distant relative, Jim Causley, has used Causley’s poetry as a basis for folk songs.Charles Causley’s poetry is recognised in definitive collections of World War 2 poetry. His biographical entry in ‘The Terrible Rain- The War Poets 1939- 1945, An anthology selected and arranged by Brian Gardner ( first published 1966, updated 1987 )

In the Navy from 1940 to 1946, mostly with the Communications Branch. Orkneys, Altantic, Gibraltar. Teacher, poet and broadcaster. With B.BC. 1953-1956. Causley’s first volume of poetry was published in 1951. Collected Poems (Macmillan 1975)

These details can be confirmed  in  the Causley biography  ‘All Cornwall Thunders At My Door’ by Laurence Green  (2013) : Causley also wrote some short stories and sketched out his naval service in a collection with the delightful title of ‘Hands To Dance and Skylark ‘ ( originally from 1951 but updated 1983).

Looking at Charles Causley’s ‘Collected Poems 1951-2000’, there is a huge sense of a ‘war at sea’ tradition though the range of subjects that his poems refer to were far reaching.. The poet’s own naval service is drawn on but other poets are referenced such as Keats, John Clare, Gorky.  There are a couple of mischievous titles , such as ‘On being asked to write a school hymn’ , which  seems to be a parody of  W B Yeats’  ‘On being asked to write a War Poem’.

Also worthy of note is that Causley was intrigued by history and folk song ‘-’Ballad of Samuel Sweet’ is a prime example of Causley writing about an incident that took place after the Duke of Monmouth’s failed rising in 1685.

Fellow World War 2 poet, Vernon Scannell, ‘Not Without Glory-Poets of the Second World War’ (1976)  stated ;

“ Causley is never dull, but, as war poems, they generally contrive to evade direct confrontation with the material with which most war poetry deals, actual violence, terror, loneliness, separation and death “ .

War of course can be about serving in the background. Blockading an enemy at sea, decoding messages, cracking ciphers, surveillance, running medical services. The Great War at Sea Poetry Project  has already  featured the work of Jeffrey Miles Day, whilst a member of the Royal Naval Air Services on patrol.

Verse 2 of ‘The North Sea ‘

Day on the drear North Sea!–
Wearisome, drab, and relentless.
The low clouds swiftly flee;
Bitter the sky, and relentless.
Nothing at all in sight
Save the mast of a sunken trawler,
Fighting her long, last fight
With the waves that mouth and maul her.”

The deliberate repetition of ‘relentless’ highlights the monotony .

Perhaps Causley’s most famous war related  poem is ‘The Chief Petty Officer’ . a caustic attack on a pompous ass with delusions of self-importance, most likely based on such a character he encountered whilst serving in Gibraltar , This is far removed from evoking what some war poetry enthusiasts have called ‘combat gnosticism’ . But ‘The Chief Petty Officer’ is popular with naval and ex-naval personnel who seem to draw on their own experiences of service.. This poem appeared in the ‘Poems of the Second World War ‘ Oasis Trust selection  from 1985.  Also in the seminal ‘Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse , selected by Philip Larkin in 1971.

Ballad of Jack Cornwell

A far lesser known poem by Causley is ‘Ballad of Jack Cornwell’, about a posthumous V.C. winner who fought at the Battle of Jutland.
Amongst the Jutland British dead of 31st May 1916 was  John (Jack)  Travers Cornwell of HMS Chester who in Admiral Beatty’s words:

Mortally wounded early in the action, he nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post quietly awaiting orders with the gun crew dead and wounded all round him.His age was under 16 1/2  years. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recommendation to his memory and as an acknowledgement of the high example set by him.
(source ‘The Battle of Jutland’ Geoffrey Bennett, 1964).

Jack Cornwell in fact died on 2nd June 1916 in Grimsby as a result of his wounds. Initially his family could only afford a paupers grave,. A Boy Cornwell Memorial Fund was established and Jack’s body was exhumed and re-buried on 29th July 1916.  Jack’s mother Lily ( sometimes recorded as ‘Alice’ ) died in poverty in 1919. The Memorial Fund  had refused to assist her.

Not completely clear why Causley chose Jack Cornwell as a subject for a poem, but his own life was dominated by World War 1. Causley’s father volunteered in 1914, serving  in  the 2nd Wessex Division of the Royal Army Driver Service Corps, losing his right index finger along with contracting TB as a consequence of phosphorous gas. He was invalided out of the Forces in 1919 and never recovered, dying on 31st  December 1924. As as young man Causley read the work of Siegfried Sassoon , whom he later got to know in person.

‘Ballad of Jack Cornwell’ , a twelve verse poem about the Battle of Jutland, which I’ve never seen anthologised elsewhere. Seems to have appeared in the original 1951 Collected Works, and stayed with each revision until the final edition of 2003: Looking at verse 6;

“Who are all those swimmers
Knocking on our bulkhead,
Gazing face-down at their fortunes
On the stone sea bed?
With the ramming waters
They no longer toil.
Their breath is turned to quiet salt,
And their lungs to oil.”

Strange mixture of slow drowning or perhaps the affliction of TB on the lungs .Perhaps a memory of Causley’s father’s suffering here. The real impact of combat also appears in verse 8.

“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.”

It’s hard not be reminded of one of the most famous war at sea poems ever ; ‘Casabianca’  by Felicia Hemans, (1793-1835) about ​ the Battle of the Nile of 1799. Most remembered for its alternative title ‘The Boy Stood On The Burning Deck’. Here the boy of the poem is actively involved in the fighting.

A hundred years on Jack Cornwell has become an iconic figure. The National   Royal Naval Museum launched an appeal to restore an original sketch that painter Frank Salisbury had made to use on his famous picture of Jack Cornwell. Though the appeal did not quite reach it’s target, this sketch will be on display as part of the ’36 Hours, Jutland 1916 ‘The Battle That Won the War exhibition’  at the National Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, which opens on 19th May 2016.

Picture below of Jutland seems to have ended up amongst my various downloads . If anyone can find its details and source please let me know.


I wish to thank David Higham agents  and  Charles Macmillan publishers for permission to quote from ‘Ballad of Jack Cornwell’ , which is taken from Charles Causeey’s ‘Collected Works’ 2003 edition. Please note that Charles Causley’s work is in copyright.

Also wish  to thank  the Charles Causley Trust for supporting information,

Newham Council have a very informative webpage about Jack Cornwell

​A previous Great War at Sea Poetry Blog post about the Battle of Jutland

A previous webpage about  Jutland  related poetry can be found using the ‘Battle of Jutland’ link at the top of the page.

The Royal Naval  Museum page on the ’36 hours Jutland 1916 exhibition  is at

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