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appropriating the dead



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The Victoria Cross pub on the corner of Cornwell Street in London's east end is an unlikely component in the fabric of present-day Remembrance Day culture. Its name, and the name of the street in which it's located, have their origin in what some people still fondly call the 'last great sea battle'. Misread intercepted radio signals (isn't it always the way?) led the British Grand Fleet to lose whatever advantage it had over the German High Seas Fleet, which was trying to 'break out' into the Atlantic one spring day in 1916. 25 British and German ships were sunk in the ensuing engagement. Eventually the German fleet returned to port, where it remained until the Allies impounded it as part of the armistice agreement. In June 1919 it was scuttled at the order of its German admiral a few days before the peace treaty was signed. Had the Kaiser controlled his megalomaniac desire to own the biggest fleet in the world, the last great sea battle might not have taken place. Indeed, relations with Britain (which did have the world's biggest fleet) might have been better; the course of the 20th century might have been very different; and there would have been no Cornwell Street with a Victory Cross pub on the corner.

Jack Cornwell was 16 when he was fatally wounded in the battle of Jutland, apparently remaining upright at his post (pointlessly, but this must not be mentioned) while all around him lay dead. A year later he was awarded the Victoria Cross. This sparked much interest both in East Ham and across the country. The boys at Jack's old school collected money for a plaque in his honour. It was unveiled by the wife of Admiral Jellicoe, in charge of the Fleet when young Jack died.

At the ceremony the headmaster reminded the boys that Jack was 'a poor boy, a boy of the masses, who rose to heights of bravery and self-sacrifice'. 'It was an illustration.' added the mayor, to great applause, 'of what was being done every day, but it came all the more forcibly to them because they knew the lad and grit that was in him.' Their brass tablet, he said, would help to immortalise the connection of John Cornwell with Walton Road School, which had produced 'a hero whose name had resounded through the lands of the English-speaking race'. Jack was soon held up as an example to children throughout the empire.

Long before his death, a progress had begun in which grieving for the dead was succeeded by the appropriation of them by various interest groups for their own agendas. Later, other war dead of the borough became part of East Ham's civic glory. Later still, all war dead were 'used' to promote the greater glory of the country as a whole, and have long been invoked annually to assist British Legion fund-raising. Churches in particular were at the forefront in commandeering the dead to promote their own world-view. The Revd Bernays, for example, saw the war as a cleansing force: preaching in 1916, he said, 'The rich young man goes about looking as if he was too tired to talk; the working man seems to think about nothing but cricket and football. But the Union Jack, for which we fight, must stand before the nation, not for drunkenness, not for fornication, not for gambling, but for righteousness and for God.' This view - that war brings out latent patriotism and ought to lead to a moral reformation of the nation - was widely promoted. Young Jack the hero, conveniently dead and with a medal to his name, was an ideal vehicle for it

East Ham's education committee supplied copies of a painting of Jack to each school in the borough. These were sold at 3d each, and the proceeds paid for a memorial on Jack's grave in Manor Park Cemetery. Borough officials and teachers thus ensured that the children were constantly aware of the example he set. Jack's image became frozen in time, a paragon of determination and pluck, eternally at his post. He embodied the zeitgeist of inter-war Remembrance; he did not grow old as those that were left grew old.

Post-war disillusionment also became part of Jack's afterlife, when the national press discovered the hero's mother living, and then dying, in such poverty that the undertakers refused 'go on with the funeral without some guarantee that the expense would be paid'. All that time the coffers of a fund in Jack's memory (for the relief of disabled soldiers and sailors) were groaning with cash. There's a British Legion parade at Jack's grave each year; his mother's grave is unknown.

Turning a deaf ear and probably a blind eye to the speeches at the 'anti-war' rally in Trafalgar Square on September 27 was the modest bust of Admiral Jellicoe, who it has to be said wasn't much of a hero. Beside him are similar stone portraits of the other two Admirals of that once Grand British Fleet. Unnoticed beneath the protesters' feet, at the centre of the vast war memorial that is Trafalgar Square, a stone plaque mentions the three busts in order that 'their illustrious services to the state might never be forgotten.'
Few of the thousands who filled the Square that sunny afternoon will have known anything about Jellicoe or the Fleet, let alone about our young hero. But they do know something of the consequences of that futile war, the price for which is still being paid in the Middle East, and which brought them out into the streets nearly 9 decades later. All round the Square the red flags of the Communist Party of Great Britain also fluttered, and CPGB stalls groaned with closely-argued texts. The American flag flapped high overhead.
Perhaps war memorials are not the best places to stand while calling for peace.

Jan Melichar






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