From the afternoon of 31st May 1916 into the following day British and German battlefleets clashed off Jutland in the North Sea. Over a hundred of the more than 6,000 from the Royal Navy who lost their lives came from Cornwall.
It’s been estimated that three per cent of the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had been born in Cornwall. That’s around three times the expected proportion given that Cornwall contained around one per cent of the British population. At the Battle of Jutland the 112 casualties known to have been born in Cornwall amounted to about 1.8 per cent of the total losses, suggesting that Cornwall still contributed more than its fair share of men to the Royal Navy.
Over 80 per cent of the Cornish losses occurred on just two ships, HMS Indefatigable, which was sunk at 4pm on the 31st and HMS Defence, which went down at 6pm. Both ships were hit by shells from German capital ships that detonated magazines and caused massive explosions. Only two survived from the Indefatigable, none from the Defence. On these two ships alone, over four per cent of the complement was Cornish born. Almost half of the Cornishmen who lost their lives on the Defence were stokers, doing the heavy job of keeping the coal fires burning to fuel the engines.
The youngest Cornish casualty was Edwin Courts, a 17 year-old ‘Boy First Class’ on HMS Defence, who came from Rosewin Row in Truro. The eldest was George Shipstone, a stoker aged 50 who was the single Cornishman lost on HMS Broke.
Where did the Cornish come from?
Overall, Truro, Falmouth and the far south-east of Cornwall suffered the largest number of men killed in this battle. However, while the majority came from coastal parishes there were significant numbers from some inland towns and rural parishes, especially in east Cornwall.