Reginald Earnshaw, killed at 14 years and 152 days, was belatedly recognised recently as the youngest serving casualty of World War Two

The recent ceremony held to honour the memory of Reginald Earnshaw, who at 14 and 152 days was the youngest serving casualty of World War Two, reminds us that in fact over 500 boys of sixteen or under died serving in the Merchant Navy in that war. We pay tribute to them here, and tell the story of Boy First Class John Travers (‘Jack’) Cornwell, who, at sixteen and a half, gave his life at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 in heroic circumstances, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. We remember also the plight of child soldiers in today’s global conflicts.


  • Picture of Reginald Earnshaw

One of the terrible things about war is that it is mainly fought by young men and women with a large percentage of their lives still ahead of them. Their youth makes it all the more tragic when they lose their lives, and it is right that we honour them. We know that war is terrible. Sometimes we are puzzled and upset by the fact that nations cannot agree without resorting to fighting. But that doesn’t stop us admiring and honouring the men and women who actually go off to serve their countries in battle.

These days, service men and women cannot be in action until they are eighteen. That’s still very young; especially for parents who still see their eighteen year olds as their children. Once, though, there were much younger people serving in battle and giving their lives. Today we’re going to talk about some of the people who served in battle as boys, in the Royal Navy and in the Merchant Navy, during two world wars.

First, let’s talk about Reginald Earnshaw [see picture]. You might know about Reggie already, because his story has been in the news. Reginald Earnshaw served as a cabin boy in a ship called the SS (which stands for steamship) North Devon. When World War Two started, he wanted to serve with his friends, and so he said he was fifteen when really he was only 14.

Sadly, in 1941, his ship was bombed and he was killed. Now though, thanks to good detective work by a man called Bill McGee, his birth certificate has been found, showing his real age. His grave, which had no stone or marking on it, has now been given a proper headstone. His friend Alf Tubb, who tried to save him when the ship was bombed, and his sister Pauline have been able to come and see Reggie’s grave and share their memories of him.

Although the news insists that Reggie lied about his age, and maybe he did, there were young boys allowed to serve in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy for many years; and some of them were sadly killed. In fact, Bill McGee has written a book in which he tells us that fifteen 14-year-old Merchant Navy boys were killed in World War Two, and 500 were killed who were sixteen and under. They were known officially as exactly what they were: ‘boys’. So Reggie would have been ’Boy Earnshaw’.

In earlier times there were other famous boys. In the First World War, at the great naval Battle of Jutland, among the young people serving on the ships there was a 16-year-old boy called John T. Cornwell – or ’Boy Cornwell’ as he was known then, and still is.

John – usually called ‘Jack’, as many people called John used to be – worked as part of the crew taking care of the big guns on a ship called HMS Chester. During the battle a shell from a German ship hit the Chester near to John’s gun. It killed all of the gun crew except for two, one of whom was John, who was very badly wounded. John’s position was very exposed to enemy fire, but he stayed at his post, not hiding or running away, waiting to see if he was needed. After the battle, when the ship docked, he was taken to hospital, but he died from his wounds. His captain was impressed by what John had done, and he wrote to his parents. This is part of his letter;

‘I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your son during the action of 31 May. His devotion to duty was an example for all of us. The wounds which resulted in his death within a short time were received in the first few minutes of the action. He remained steady at his most exposed post at the gun, waiting for orders… he felt he might be needed, and, indeed, he might have been; so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God’s help to support him. I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world.’

After his death, John was awarded the Victoria Cross; the highest honour for bravery in battle. His story became famous, and nearly every school in the country had a picture of John standing at his gun.

We remember these boys because they did their duty even when it became very difficult, or even, in the end, impossible. They show us that all kinds of people, young or old, can become a good example of how to behave. Our examples here are boys because, in those days, only boys were put in that position, but we know that girls are just as capable of bravery and duty.

Reggie Earnshaw was still a child, really, and John Cornwell wasn’t much older. Now, we don’t put such young people in that position. Or do we? In fact there are many parts of the world where children are made to fight. It’s estimated that, world wide, there are 300,000 children fighting as soldiers, in places such as Sierra Leone, the Congo and Sudan. They aren’t fighting because they want to, but because they are forced to, or have no other way of being looked after and having food to eat. When we remember brave young people like Reggie and John Cornwell who volunteered to fight, we should also remember the many whose names we don’t know who are fighting because they have to, and wish only to have proper homes and families.

A prayer
Lord, we thank you for all children who show courage, whether they are fighting an enemy, or fighting an illness, or supporting their families in time of trouble. Be with them, give them hope and the knowledge of your love. And give strength to the many organizations and individuals who work to put a stop to the use of children as soldiers.

A thought
There are many kinds of brave act. Some kinds are easy to see, others are carried out quietly over long periods of time.

Things to think about
Do you know a person who’s been rewarded for bravery? And do you know anyone who is brave in a much quieter way, and doesn’t have any medals to show?


This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Gerald Haigh