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29th March 2002Melvill and Coghill
By Alan Critchley
Lts Melvill and Coghill were awarded posthumous VCs in 1906 for their part in saving the colour from Isandlwana. Some illustrations depict the two of the riding from the camp together.
One thing which puzzles me is that Melvill was ordered by Pulleine to save the colour at the point when all seemed lost in the battle.
When Melville reached the Buffalo river, Coghill was already on the Natal side of the river.
Had he overtaken Melvill or had he left earlier under his own volition before Pulleine had considered the battle lost?
Granted that Coghill returned to give assistance when he looked back to see Melvill struggling in the water at Coffin rock with another man and presumably this is why he was awarded the VC.
Any thoughts?


29th March 2002John Young

I've considered this at some length in an article I wrote back in 1994/5 entitled 'Who Killed Melvill and Coghill?' which appeared in 'The Journal of the Anglo-Zulu War Research Society', if you'd like I could post the article in this chain?

John Young,
Anglo-Zulu War Research Society
29th March 2002Bob Bennett
I would love to see the article !
29th March 2002CLIVE DICKENS
Yes please
29th March 2002Alan Critchley
seems like there is an audience for the article including me.

29th March 2002Gary Laliberty
May I add my vote, to see this article... :)

Thanks, Gary
30th March 2002Glenn Wade
Me too!
30th March 2002John Young
Sorry to have kept you all waiting, the disc was missing for this issue and I had to type out the article again, so here it is:

'When Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine realised that all was lost on the bloody field of Isandlwana, he allegedly call for his regimental adjutant, Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill. Pulleine is alleged to have said to Melvill, “You, as senior lieutenant, will take the colours, and make the best of way from here!” At which Pulleine handed over the cased Queen’s Colour of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment to Melvill. The battle may have been lost but at least regimental honour might still be salvaged.

An anonymous witness recorded that the two men shook hands, and Pulleine turned to his men and said, Men of the First Battalion 24th Regiment, we are here, and here we stand, to fight it out to the end!”

Melvill rode off in the direction of the Buffalo River towards Natal. As he crossed the saddle of Isandlwana he must have been horrified to see that the Zulu reserve had cut the track leading to Rorke’s Drift. The fugitives from the battlefield, both black and white, were now compelled to flee, panic-stricken, along an unfamiliar route towards the river.

Across the rugged terrain the fugitives decamped – over dongas, chasms, uphill and into marshes, but what choice did they have? Only certain death lay behind them! Their only chance of survival was onwards towards the Buffalo River, and hopefully, safety.

On reaching the Zulu side of the river at a place called Sothondose’s Drift, Melvill found the river was in full spate. Closely harried by their Zulu pursuers the fugitives threw themselves into the torrent. Melvill was encumbered by his precious charge and was swept from his mount, but still he held the Colour. As he was hurled along in the current, he saw another man clinging to a rock and he shouted to him to “Lay hold!” That other man was Lieutenant Walter Higginson, of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment, Natal Native Contingent, who had also been thrown, from his horse. Higginson grasped the Colour, but as he did so he was torn from the crag, and Higginson and Melvill were in the still water in the lee of the rock.

On the Natal bank, Lieutenant Nevill Coghill, of the 1st/24th, turned in his saddle to see his brother officer struggling in the water. Without sparing a thought for self-preservation, Coghill nobly turned his horse back towards Melvill and Higginson; he was going to their rescue. This was an act of tremendous courage as Coghill had so badly sprained his knee only days before that he was incapable of walking, if he were to become dismounted he would not stand a chance of surviving.

Higginson later related that Coghill came under fire from the Zulu bank, and allegedly one of the first shots hit Coghill’s horse, and pitched him from the saddle. Now all three men were in the water and under fire from the Zulu. Despite their joint efforts the Colour was wrenched from Melvill’s grasp by the relentless torrent, and whirled out of sight.

Exhausted by their efforts, the three men managed to struggle to the Natal bank. Now the Zulu are not a nation renowned for their prowess at swimming and very few of them even attempted to swim across after their prey. This makes the destiny of Melvill and Coghill even more interesting. The men scrambled up the steep slope, with Higginson in the lead, his intention was to find some horses. Melvill aided the disabled Coghill.

Coghill apparently shouted, words to the effect of “Here they come!” or, “Here they are after us!” Encouraged by a shout from Higginson, both Melvill and Coghill opened fire on two Zulus, and killed them. Melvill then apparently said, “I am done up, I can go no further.” Coghill concurred, saying, “Nor I”. With their backs against a jutting rock they turned to meet their fate.

Higginson had in the meantime found some leaderless men of the Natal Native Horse, a little higher up the slope. He gathered them together and they raced back to the rescue. Higginson was close at hand, when he heard the demise of the two officers, but his view was obscured by the rock. There were a few shots, and the sound of a scuffle. Then a number of Zulus were seen clambering up the slope towards Higginson and his men, realising any resistance was futile, he turned and made good his own escape.

The question, which still evokes much local debate, is who killed Melvill and Coghill? The agreed local tradition gleaned from oral Zulu sources tells a different tale to the accepted version of events. Sothondose, a local headman, and his people were watching the course of the events which were unfolding at their river crossing. It is alleged that the Zulu induna, Zibhebhu kaMapita, of the Mandlakazi, the commander of the Udlolo ibutho, called across the river to Sothondose. Zibhebhu urged him to kill the white stragglers, and warned him if he did not, then he would cross the river upstream and deal not only with the whites, but also with Sothondose and his people. Sothondose, coerced by these threats, is alleged to have ordered his adherents to kill Melvill and Coghill. However, with the passage of time, who alive today can truthfully say that this version of events is correct.

The Supplement to the London Gazette of 2nd May, 1879, records the following:-
‘Lieutenant Melville [sic] of the 1st Battalion 24th Foot, on account of the gallant efforts made by him to save the Queen’s Colour of his Regiment after the disaster at Isandlwanha [sic], and also Lieutenant Coghill, 1st Battalion, 24th Foot, on account of his heroic conduct in endeavouring to save his brother officer’s life, would have been recommended to Her Majesty for the Victoria Cross had they survived.’

In 1879 there was no provision for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. It was not until 1907 that the families of these two officers received the decoration.

On 4th February 1879 the bodies of the two officers were found by a patrol led by Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Wilsone Black, 2nd/24th. Black ascertained the colour was not about either of the corpses, this done they were interred where they had fallen. The following day the Reverend George Smith, Chaplain of Volunteers, of Rorke’s Drift fame, conducted a burial service.

Colonel Richard Thomas Glyn, the commander of the shattered No.3 Column, ordered a search of the Buffalo River. The depth of the river had dropped drastically since 22nd January. To protect the search party Black had a sanger, a breastwork, thrown up, and from this position Black observed the search operation. Lieutenant Henry Charles Harford, of the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment, a ‘special-service officer’ attached to the Natal Native Contingent soon found the Colour case. With two other officers of the N.N.C., Captain S. S. Harber and Lieutenant A. F. Wainwright he scoured the location. Harford spotted the Colour pole projecting upwards from the water, he called to Harber who pulled on the pole, the Colour was still attached to it, although it had been damaged by its immersion in the water. Wilsone Black scampered down to the river and amidst great cheering received the Colour from it finders. Black proudly bore the Colour back to Rorke’s Drift where the garrison received it with a rapturous welcome; the Colour was back in the arms of the Regiment again.

There were those at the time who condemned the actions of Melvill and Coghill. A venomous attack was made in the press, stating that it was an officer’s duty to remain with his men, no matter what the circumstances, even if he were attempting to save regimental pride and honour.

If the alleged facts quoted at the beginning of this article are correct, then at least Melvill was obeying orders. But Coghill? Why had he quit the field, had he too been ordered to do so? I decline to answer these questions myself, but by introducing more of you to these allegations then you can make your own judgement. In doing so consider if you will the cases of two other incidents where officers made off from the field of battle; namely Lieutenant Henry Harward, 80th Foot at Ntombe Drift, and that cause-celebre Lieutenant Jahleel Brenton Carey. Both of men suffered the ignominy of being court-martialled! Not rewarded with Britain’s highest gallantry medal. Were Melvill and Coghill equally guilty of desertion? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.'

Previously published in Volume 5, Issue 3, of The Journal of the Anglo-Zulu War Research Society.

John Young,
Anglo-Zulu War Research Society.

30th March 2002John Young
Sorry but '&#8216 & 7's' have got nothing to do with me they appeared when I pasted the text.

31st March 2002Gary Laliberty
Very good, thank you for taking the time to retype the article.
Thanks again, Gary
31st March 2002CLIVE DICKENS
Thanks very much John this is most interesting
31st March 2002David Truesdale
Comparrisons can be made between the two VC's awarded for the Falklands debacle, when one was deserved, while the other can be called into question.
1st April 2002David Truesdale
Why did Coghill leave? In Victoria's day it was considered right and proper that an officer stayed with his men, no matter what, Yet, did Coghill have any men? The role dictated to him previously was that of galloper, a mounted messenger. with the camp descending into chaos and small parties of infantry scattered all over the place, just who was Coghill to command?
His decision to leave reamins a mystery known only to him, but I wonder what his critics wound have done in a similarsituation.
1st April 2002John Young

Perhaps the fiercest attack came from that fine Irishman, Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley, who wrote; 'I am sorry that both these officers were not killed with their men at Isandula [sic] instead of where they were. I do not like the idea of officers escaping on horseback when their men on foot are [being?] killed. Heroes have been made of men like Melvill and Coghill, who taking advantage of their horses, bolted from the scene of the action to save their lives,...'

But, Sir Garnet was a rather bitter man as far as awards of the Victoria Cross were concerned - because he never got one!

John Young,
Anglo-Zulu War Research Society.
1st April 2002David Truesdale
If all British officers were to follow Wolseley's train of thought, would any have returned from the Ligh Brigade, Majuba, Hill, or any other such engagement. I suppose it would have done wonders for promotion prospects.
Thanks for the quote, I will find a good use for it.
2nd April 2002Graham Alexander
Perhaps the situation can be clarified by a letter from Lord Chelmsford dated 14th May 1879, when he wrote " As regards poor Melvill and Coghill, the case is even more difficult. The latter was a staff officer attached to Colonel Glyn, AND HAD EVERY RIGHT TO LEAVE THE CAMP WHEN HE REALISED THAT NOTHING COULD BE DONE TO SAVE IT "
Every line officer stayed with their men and died, only staf officers survived and they had no responsibility or duty to stay after it was certain that the battle was lost. Every staff officer assisted in some way at the camp, until the time came to leave. There can be no stigma attached in attempting to save yourself when all else was lost.
2nd April 2002John Young

If there were no stigma, then why were Harward of the 80th & Carey of the 98th court-martialled for galloping off in a time of peril?

Harward thought he was doing the right thing, going off to obtain help. Subsequent research has discovered that he was not, as he would have us believe, the only mounted man in the camp at Ntombe Drift!

Carey realised the futility of returning to aid the Prince Imperial. Was he, too, not attempting to save himself, and the remainder of the patrol, when all appeared lost?

Lieutenant H.J. Dyer & Sub- Lieutenant T.L.G. Griffith, 2nd Batt. 24th Regt. were both performing 'special service' duties - a staff role on the 22nd January 1879, yet they both perished apparently in a determined stand alongside Captain G.V. Wardell 1st/24th & some sixty men. They apparently chose death, despite being mounted and having the opportunity to quit the field.

Lieutenant F.H. MacDowel, Royal Engineers, was also a staff officer, he perished in an effort to supply ammunition to the firing-line. He had not absolved himself of his duties, as certain staff officers had.

As with Melvill & Coghill, it is not for me to judge the men who fought in the Anglo-Zulu War, with my 21st Century awareness. Rather I present the facts and the opinions of their peers and contemporaries.

John Young,
Anglo-Zulu War Research Society.
3rd April 2002Graham Alexander
I agree with you that it is just not possible to judge today what was, or was not acceptable in times different to our own. A shell shocked soldier in the 1st World war who deserted, would probably have been shot. Today he would be treated with kindness and sympathy. There comes a time in any battle when an individual makes a decision to change the situation, run away or just do his duty. It must be judged by the values of the time. That is why some soldiers gained gallantry awards, while others performed deeds which were of equal value but were just not noticed by any one who mattered. The important thing is that we discuss these matters, where we all will have our own opinions, and leave the judgement of their behaviour to their peers
3rd April 2002Richard Doherty
Contrary to popular belief the VC s awarded to Coghill and Melvill were not the first posthumous awards. Lieut Salkeld, Bengal Engineers, was decorated posthumously for an action in the Indian Mutiny and Lieut Walter R. P. Hamilton, Corps of Guides, was also decorated posthumously. In Hamilton's case the award had been gazetted before news of his death reached London and a zealous civil servant then decided that the award was invalidated by his death. It took Hamilton's father several months to persuade the War Office to part with his son's Cross.
27th May 2002Stephen in Canada
Thanks John,
This is great. You know Gentlemen, its really easy for use to dissect the actions etc. We have the luxury of plenty of time etc.
I don't think there is any stigma in this case, it happened too fast and under tremendous stress.
You know in Canada, we say that 'everyone is a fine Monday morning Quarterback'. After...we all know what should have been done. But DURING would we have had the calm presence of mind to do it. CHEERS
3rd May 2005Mike McCabe
It's of course possible that Coghill had not made some sort of deliberate choice but was as much carried away by the tide of events as any man who managed to survive as long as he did - eventually ending up at the Fugitives Drift, a place that he could have had no foreknowledge of. As a mounted man he had better scope to manoeuvre than those on foot. To an extent being mounted is what got him to where he ended up. At some stage, for whatever reason, he had plainly become separated from any formed body of troops or organised resistance. Once in that situation, and unable to influence matters to any extent, it is unsurprising if human nature - and horse - did not take charge in what was probably a series of remarkable survivals from death or wounding. The actions of a man surviving from one minute to the next are not simply equatable to cowardice, or to any deliberate survival strategy. Had Coghill paused to consider and adopt some such strategy, then he might deliberately have headed instead towards Chelmsford. We should also not underestimate the group psychology and 'herd' behaviour of horses when they themselves become spooked. Coghill might simply have lost control of his horse at a critical moment when he had other intentions, and ended up with everybody else bundling along what we now know as the Fugitives Trail. What process might have got him to the Drift lapses in significance when set against his conduct in assisting Melvill. At a time when promoting almost totem-like episodes of bravery was a very great part in 'delivering the moral component' of the Victorian Army (and burgeoning imperial prestige) we should not be surprised at the citations that followed. As we know from other posthumous awards made in India, Queen Victoria (whose ow award it was) could easily have exercised a Royal prerogative to approve VC awards in her lifetime. That she did not do so is, at least, instructive.