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DateOriginal Topic
17th July 2005Melvill and Coghill VC's
By Trevor
Does anyone find it strange that these 2 officers recieved the VC?
After all, they were fleeing from the enemy. Not facing or generally trying to fight the enemy! Just get away.
I wouldn't have thought saving the colours warrents a VC?
Does anyone know what their citation read for them to get the VC?
Maybe i'm just missing something here! But i thought there were a couple of hundred fleeing the same route. Why do these 2 officers get singled out?
17th July 2005Michael Boyle

This has been chewed over before but one must remember that saving, or attempting to save the colours has often been rewarded with a nation's highest honour. They were not the first (but may have been the last as by 1907 colours were no longer carried into battle).

It seems difficult today to fully appreciate just how much a regiment's colours meant to those serving them.

Check the links at left for more information.


17th July 2005Tom
Hi there
I wonder if they would have escaped,had they not been carrying the Colours?
17th July 2005trevor
What was the general feeling when it was discussed before?
Did most believe the vc's were warrented?
Still seems strange to me to be rewarded for running away!!!
I'd have run like hell! By the way.
17th July 2005Michael Boyle
Tom, Coghill had escaped, he turned back to aid Melvill. Had their positions been reversed I feel Melvill would have had the responsibility to continue on with the Colour and leave Coghill to his fate, as bitter a pill as that would have been to swallow. Both could well have survived if not for the Colour.

Trevor, the by no means universal consensus seems to be that they both earned the VC. Melvill for his attempt to save the Colour and Coghill for his attempt to save Melvill and the Colour. The VC is not awarded for running away. In the event both are reported to have turned, faced their foe and gone down fighting. (Possibly in a state of futile frustration with the Colour lost. Coghill with his bum knee could never have outrun the Zulus on foot and we will never know if Melvill really felt done in or simply refused to leave his brother officer to face his fate alone.)


17th July 2005Peter Ewart

As has been said above, your question has been chewed over endlessly in several modern books and also frequently discussed on this forum. Indeed, it was chewed over by Wolsely & others in 1879. You'l find all the threads in the forum archive.

As far as I know, one is not prevented from winning a VC simply because one wins it in an incident during a flight. You asked whether you had missed something somewhere. Well, they certainly weren't recipients of the VC simply because they ran away - as you say, there were many others who made the same flight.

Briefly, one officer put the honour of his regiment and of his Queen - and nothing could possibly have come higher than those, could it? - before his own life. Had he at any time decided to forget his regiment, his Queen or his duty, and ditch the Colour in favour of increasing his chances of life, he must surely have got along much faster from the pursuing enemy. But he didn't. And the result of his effort was, eventually, the saving of the Colour, his initial puprose - even though he died believing he had failed.

The other officer had reached safety - or as safe as anyone on that flight had managed by that time - but then saw a fellow officer in difficulties. He chose to go straight back into the mortal danger he had left by trying to help (whether to save the officer or the Colour, or both) and he put that duty above the natural urge to protect his own life, doing so even though he was crippled.

He could have ignored Melville & the Colour and limped on towards a loose horse, safety and a long life. But he didn't. "Greater love hath no man ..." etc etc.

Under Victorian values - but in modern slang parlance - both of these awards were a "shoo-in."

17th July 2005Peter Ewart

Must have been posting the same time as you - glad to see we concur 100%!

Apologies to all for the errant "e" in Melvill (before anyone jumps!)

17th July 2005Michael Boyle
Peter, I trust we share a widely accepted opinion. (Glad you caught the errant "e" , Melvill's name is certainly at the top of the most 'immediately corrected' list here!)
18th July 2005Mike McCabe
There are no continuous accounts of quite how and why Melvill and Coghill found their way to the Fugitives Drift. The observed acts of courage leading to the later award of the VC are centred upon events at the drift itself. Though some, such as Wolseley, criticised their supposed reasons for being at the drift in the first place, there could have been many - 'acceptable' - reasons for it. However, we simply don't know.
18th July 2005Trevor
Thanks Gents.
I feel i could go on further with this debate. But to do so would leave a bitter taste in my mouth. With some things, it's probably best to just let it go!
Thanks for the replies.
18th July 2005Peter Ewart

Don't hold back on our account! As long as its legal and decent I'm sure it'll be read with an open mind.

The "official" account of the incident has been questioned in many ways - the possible "early leaving" from the field; whether or not Melvill was ordered to leave; if not, whether he was likely to have performed similarly anyway; Coghill's problematic knee; whether officers should leave while knowing the infantry must remain and die; and of course Wolseley's stated wish that they had remained and died on the field.

As Mike has said, we shall never know. The whole story appears to depend primarily on Higginson's uncorroborated account, Glyn's lengthy report and the brief and famous (notorious?) but anonymous letter in the Kaffrarian Watchman.

Once Glyn's report was received and the Queen took a personal interest, followed by the memorandum in the London Gazette, it is unsurprising that the feat remained in the public mind and the wreath of immortelles kept the memory alive in the regiment, so that when the VC was finally allowed to be awarded posthumously, the announcement - after a little lobbying by one of the families - that Melvill & Coghill were to be honoured was surely inevitable. The values of 1907 were hardly that different to 1879.


P.S. I was in Lostwithiel last August without realising that I was so close to Melvill's memorial window, so I aim to put that right in a couple of weeks!
19th July 2005Keith Smith
I have done a little work on a timetable for events at Isandlwana and suggest that since Melvill's watch stopped at 2.10 (Narrative p. 48, note), and allowing some forty minutes to ride down to the Mzinyathi river, his calculated depature from the field at 1.30 is by no means early, and seems to correspond with the general departure.
19th July 2005Mike McCabe
Beware of 'stopped watches'. Whilst you would expect military men to equip themselves with robust, accurate and reliable (pocket) watches, a watch can also stop because a busy or preoccupied man forgets to wind it properly. Also, a watch can run on after death, and then stop during some later 12 or 24 hour period before being discovered by somebody who notes the time.
Stopped watches, therefore, do not necessarily indicate anything orth knowing.
19th July 2005Mike McCabe
Though we need to take a more generalised view of the several VCs eventually the subject of posthumous awards (including those from the Boer War that, actually, provided the real 'driver' for the change of policy), it is still quite remarkable that the Melvill and Coghill VCs were awarded at all. This, largely, due to the fairly thin 'witness' testimony. Perhaps that is why Queen Victoria, in the first instance, appears not have favoured an award to either officer. The circumstances are, basically, not too different to the Wassall award - but in one case only. The 'saving the colour' aspect appears to have been given undue weight - especially as it was not (at the time) actually 'saved'. And, both officers were killed later in unconnected circumstances and could not reasonably have been said to have lost their lives in saving the colour - though perhaps drew attention to themselves, and made themselves vulnerable by lingering about the drift to do so.
No matter, the deed is done.
19th July 2005mark
I personally think that it is unacceptable that an officer fled whilst the men under his command died , therefore irrespective of having carried the colours or not, they were not entitled to a VC (in my opinion)

It is not possible to compare the actions of two officers essentially fleeing , to the actions of say
Bromhead and Chard, or Buller and Woods

19th July 2005Mike McCabe
It's interesting that no mounted escapee is recorded as having tried - even initially - to break away to the east and reach Chelmsford. This suggests, but does not prove, that those able to mount were probably hemmed in to the extent that breaking away to the SW or SSW was their only realistic option. The apparent 'early leavers' appeared to have more choice of routes and, many being Colonial volunteers, the better knowledge of routes and crossing places.
It would have been quite possible to start off amongst the remaining fighting men, with (perhaps) some intention of trying to rally them, and then find that utterly impossible in the tactical collapse. Also, such centres of resistance still continuing would have been struggling on under their own company officers and NCOs and 'alternative leadership' would be unlikely to have been accepted in these extreme circumstances. Various survivors refer to playing a part in distributing ammunition, and temporarily rallying disparate groups. Nevertheless, the time would have been reached when they, personally, could not expect to influence matters further. Also, there would have been a 'group effect' as a drift to the SW/SSW by those able to move in that direction took shape. Whatever their immediate intentions, the result would instead have been influenced by the encircling Zulus. And, the horses and mules themselves - using 'horse sense' - would have taken a sense of direction by observing others. We are also unsure whether those heading along what became the Fugitives Trail actually knew where it lead. The countryside was then more open, and the presence of the riverline would have been obvious, though ossibly not the knowledge of the existence of the drift, or its location.
The point I'm making is that quite a few of those eventually arriving at the Fugitives Drift would probably not have had a deliberate intention to do so, and simply ended up there through force of circumstance and lack of knowledge of alternatives - probably including Melvill and Coghill.
19th July 2005Trevor
Fair enough Peter. Here goes.
As is mentioned above. The colours were lost when the 2 officers where finally killed. So techically they were not defending of saving the colours at the time of death. They were fighting to the death. But so were a few hundred of their fellow soldiers on Fugitives Trail!
Once the Colours were lost, they became like every other redcoat still alive in that area. "A Fugitive" Their actions in thefinal moments were no more. Or less heroic than countless other men trying to stay alive. To site a VC because 1 officer went back to aid a brother officer. When again. This same action must have been taken by many soldiers to help his mate on that day. Based on that. 50 VC's should probably have been given out! I have read quite a few citations for VC winners. Every one i've read, they were facing the enemy. Not in full flight away from them. I'm not saying any of those fleeing were cowards. The battle was lost. You couldn;t surrender! Escape if possible is a major human instinct. Survival. Can't fault anyone for that. But get a VC for it? Nahhh!!!!
19th July 2005Martin Everett
Is it easy to be an armchair critic. All the arguments about the award of the VC to Mevill and Coghill were made at the time. They were judged then by their peers. Hindsight is a wonderful thing as they say. But remember nearly 600 of their fellow soldiers in the 24th Regiment had just been killed. Stand on the banks of the Buffalo River today and try and image what happend in 1879 - there are still very few men who do exactly the same as Mevill and Coghill. Would you?
19th July 2005mark
granted that its easy sitting in a warm office and then presume to give judgement, and rest assured i'd also have tried escaping

BUT as an officer who is meant to lead by example, cowardice in the face of the enemy is unacceptable

Imagine being a private soldier,wathing the officers run away,whilst knowing that escape on foot was impossible

Officers like durnford,who despite having a horse chose to share the fate of their men , or younghusband ... these were the heroes !
19th July 2005Julian Whybra
Sorry, this is getting too fashion conscious!
Neither officer had 'men for whom they were directly responsible'. The surviving testimony (unverifiably, i admit, but nevertheless existing) indicates that Melvill was ordered to take the Colours to safety. Coghill had been prone and had to be assisted to mount with his gammy knee. Under these circs 'cowardice in the face of the enemy' is misapplied here and unacceptable.
19th July 2005MIke McCabe
It is just not reasonable to draw direct comparisons with Durnford - who had an unalterable duty to stay in the camp until the end, once he had returned to it and had de facto inherited the mantle of command by virtue of his presence there.
That he appears to have raised the courage to 'die well' places him amongst the many who did so on that day, and deserves the same sort of credit. Courage is not a constant, and has to be found on each occasion that it is needed - as all soldiers know.
Melvill and Coghill's actions are (at least analytically & theoretically) open to a number of interpretations but, viewed dispassionately more than 20 years later, were retrospectively judged deserving of a VC - when, in all likelihood, it would have been relatively easy to remain unpersuaded on the issue, as appeared to be so in 1879. The assumed case or most likely case (we do not have full sight of it even now) put forward to explain their conduct for the purposes of any 20th century award can at least be made rationally based upon the most likely motives and actions viewed as probable based on the balance of information available and, in the absence of solid and incontravertable evidence in any other direction, was clearly found sufficiently convincing in the early 1900s by the War Department, and The King. It is, technically, true that this particular kind of award could not be made posthumously in 1879. However, as was done in the early 1900s, the VC Warrant could probably have been changed had there been sufficiently united strong ministerial and military advice to the Queen at the time. That, plainly, did not happen - nor did the Queen appear to want to propose changes unilaterally to accomodate the situation.
It also provides good reason for the rigorous confidentiality still imposed and maintained over the deliberations prior to making any subsequent awards (or not).
It is, though, misplaced to infer that other people might not raise the courage to meet exceptional demands upon them. Possibly not, but none of us actually knows until our own courage - moral or physical - is firmly tested, and we do or don't find or deliver it. Also, these splendid examples of courage arose in statistically rare circumstances, into which only a few people were thrown - by choice or fate. Countless very brave soldiers are simply not discovered to be so, and, many extremely brave actions will have gone unobserved and unrecorded.
19th July 2005Michael Boyle

There can be no question of cowardice. Ditching the colour and not stopping until Capetown surely, leaving your mate to his fate perhaps, neither of which happened.

One must remember that a soldier's primary duty is not to die but to kill. You can't kill after you're dead. I would be very suprised if the troops who didn't survive made an immediate decision to die. The position of the bodies on the field seems to indicate an attempt at a fighting withdrawal towards the river. They tried to survive. It was only after they were prevented from escaping that they maintained what cohesion was possible, accepted their fate and sold their lives dearly (much to the amazement of the Zulus). Had Melvill and Coghill been company officers there is no reason to suppose that they would have acted any differently than those who were. They however had different responsibilities.

When faced with imminent defeat an officer's duty is to try and salvage something from it. For company officers that would be to attempt the extrication of their troops, for a junior HQ officer that would be to save what he could from the HQ, in this case just the colour as it was too late to see to the official papers. For a transport officer, to save what he could of the transport (an impossible task then). For an artillery officer it is to save the guns as Smith attempted (had he actually died while attempting to spike them, as initially reported, his name may well have joined M & C in the Gazette).

Perhaps in the 21st century we have become jaded to the concept of heroic deeds due the amazing feats awarded the VC during the 20th century. War was as different then, as it is now, from the 19th century and one should try to appreciate the differences in concept. Using the VC link at left to read the contemporary 19th century awards citations will perhaps show what I mean.

There has been much speculation that many of the VCs awarded during the AZW were politically inspired but ,as pointed out above, that theory wouldn't seem to hold when awarded a generation later.


20th July 2005Keith Smith

Mike McC

While I agree with your view of the matter of 'stopped watches' with regard to that of Durnford, whose watch was also held to indicate the time of death, I believe that such would not have been the case with Melvill. He was, after all, the Adjutant of the 1/24th, and had held the position for six years. It is unlikely that he would have been remiss in winding his watch, by then surely a reflex action.

Nor would the watch have 'run on'. It was almost certainly stopped by immersion in the waters of the Mzinyathi river. I conclude from this that, unlike Durnford, his watch is a reasonable indicator as to the time of his arrival at the river.
20th July 2005mark
Julian and Michael ,

i understand your viewpoints regarding duties in the face of the enemy , and like i said its easy for me to make a judgement whilst not being there

as a south african we had the opportunity to perform national service, i was a lieutenant in an artillery regiment ,and the most important thing to an officer was to share the fate of his men, and although i never saw combat, it was made quite clear that for an officer to escape whilst his men died was a court martial offence

i have been a policemember now for close to ten years, have been in more than a fair share of shootings, shootings where there are 23 suspects with AK47's against 2 or 3 policemembers , and never once have i witnessed a saps member running for , so perhaps its hard for me to understamd why they did it.

and i still disagree with coghill essentially running away as he had no troops below him ,
thats a case of "oh,well its not my problem", although i guess i can understand why he joined melville - perhaps the regimental colour meant a great deal to them , and perhaps they saw the time had come?

anyway, these threads have done a great deal in reawaking my desire to visit the battlefield next month !

no offense to anyone ,i often dont write down correctly what im trying to say

21st July 2005Mike McCabe
Keith Smith
Unless the Melvill watch was recorded as having visibly let in water it could have stopped for any of the causes that might stop a watch. I have before me my great great grandfather's watch, made in 1870, the case of which is very closely engineered and fitted to enable it to resist water. Railwayman's watches were made to simlar standards.
Now, the water might have penetrated and stopped the watch. But, it is simply not certain that it would have done so immediately. And, quite possibly, water from (the dead) Melvill's clothing might have penetrated it as water vapour, then condensed, then slowed or stopped the watch. Even if Melvill had wound his watch diligently, it was found more than 24 hours after the event and all of the possible causes might have stopped it.
21st July 2005Mike McCabe
Heavy duty use is made of the 'stopped at ten past two' point in the 24th/SWB regimental histories - both by Paton, Glennie, Symonds and Others, and later (1937) by CJ Atkinson. If an immediate 'immersion stop' occurred then it still becomes difficult to estimate anything based upon it. Of course, it was not necessily a water hit, there could have been percussion shocks from rocks in the river and as both scrambled up the Natal bank, or subsequently. A very crude asumption for a horses speed can be estimated, but it produces a fairly wide bracket figure - especially as we do not really know when Melvill committed himself irreversibly to follow the other fugitives, or, from which start point he began or when.
Another reason to be cautious in estimating based upon a stopped watch.
21st July 2005Mel Gibson
Perhaps it is best to let the dead rest in peace with their honors instead of trying to second-guess their actions and motivations a century after the events. Both Melvill and Coghill ended up just as dead as if they had stayed at the ill-fated camp and the implication of cowardice for them having left the camp is both unjust and unfair since neither man will ever have the opportunity to defend his actions.

Using today’s standards it is doubtful that many 19th century VC citations would hold up and actually be awarded. Should we go back and re-evaluate each award and rescind all of those awards that fail to measure up to 21st century criteria?

It should also be noted as somewhat ironic that today it is almost impossible to receive the VC in any other manner that posthumously (same is the case with the American Medal of Honor) and that Melvill and Coghill were the first two men awarded it in that manner.
21st July 2005Trevor
Fair comment Mel.
By the way. You were great in Braveheart!
22nd July 2005Mike McCabe
Until his watch stopped, that is.
23rd July 2005Paul Lamberth
I should visit this forum more often...there is always good debate. So let me share what some other people think about the topic
Everytime I take guest down to the "river" comment is made. In addition to some of the points raised/made I would like to add some of "the man in the T-shirt's" feelings.
* as there was total chaos during the final stages of the battle maybe Meville, as an officer, took it upon himself to try and rally the troop. (using the colours)
* His intent to save the colours is demonstrated by the fact he managed to get as far as the river...must have been hell carrying it and fighting for his life. (guest walked the trail)
*Fugitive's trail was a running is amazing that anyone managed to survive.
*I now understand what bravery and honor is all about (standing at the gravesite) pitty Williams(Joseph)did not get the same.
*Thousands have died for the flag...but from all the battlefields I have visited this one is the most emotional, and I can see why the "Royals" come here.
*standing on the very spot gave me a new meaning what is ment in being brave...I am proud to be a Brit.
As you can see from some of the comments (and there are many more) it is not about who was to blame, who was the bravest, or who were considered to be cowards. It is about a moment in time that should be forgiven but never forgotten.
23rd July 2005Paul spelling is terrible
24th July 2005Neil Aspinshaw
Not had much to say on the site recently, but for what it's worth to say Melvill got where he did is testimony to the sheer determination he must have had. In May I stood in awe in Brecon Cathederal, staring up at those colours in its protective case, thinking back to my time wading the buffalo at Fugitives drift, and the exhausting (ordered or not) climb to the spot where melvill and Coghil now lie, As Black Adder quite elequently quoted the only words that come to mind........."bugger!", nuf said.
24th July 2005Michael Boyle
I've just been reading Lock and Quantrill's "...Illustrated London News..." and am curious about the early reports that Coghill was told off by Pulleine to ride out and warn RD and Helpmekaar. Any ideas as to where they got that ,apparently false, information?
24th July 2005Michael Boyle
Sorry for the poor wording there, by 'they' I mean the ILN.
26th July 2005Dawn
To pick up on the watch debate. My husband drowned some years ago and he wore a modern watch approved for a depth of 50m. It stopped at 1.10pm. He was seen falling into the water at 1.05pm. If a modern watch can stop like that, so can the timepieces of 1879 at the time at which they hit the water or shortly thereafter. I also doubt if an officer would forget to wind up his watch.
26th July 2005Mike McCabe
Ah, never mind the laws of physics. The Melvill watch could have stopped for any number of reasons, and at any time after - or even before - midday on 22 January.
A popular view of events, or a conventional wisdom, is not necessarily realistic or factual - disappointing though that is to many.
The writing of British Military history is bedevilled by versions of events being found acceptable. At the time, or subsequently. The various tellings of the Isandlwana story contain many examples of this effect. IN the case of stopped watches - including Durnford's - we should be more circumspect, there not being proven linkage between the cessation of life and the stopping of watches in either case. I would suggest that Melvill was as capable of not winding a watch as anybody, though I only use it as an example of a (waek) possibility. He might just as easily have over-wound and broken it, and was carrying it regardless until it could be repaired. Anybody seen this watch. Is it a modern - temperature compensated - precision item, or some family piece. We suppose the former, but extremes of temperature might also have affected how long the watch ran for. No point in keeping fit by leaping to conclusions - either way.
Otherwise we have that advanced form of analysis and logic known informally as: 'Stands to Reason Dunnit'.
27th July 2005Trevor
Still think if their vc's were given based on a court hearing. With all the pro's and cons heard. They wouldn't have got the Vc's. In this century or the last.
27th July 2005Mike McCabe
I think you're right. Had the initial Isandlwana Enquiry had broader or more rigorous terms of reference, or had another more searching one been held later, then a much more cautious view might have been taken.
However, the case was presented and won through the Honours and Awards process, and VCs were awarded once the case was tested retrospectively against the new rules for posthumous awards.
Whether hey should have been or not can be debated but there was support for the awards at the time.
Though they could not be awarded the VC in 1879, based upon the VC Warrant then in force, it appears that there was no appetite in London to force the issue further then. And, I think that Sir Garnet Wolseley would have formally intervened to prevent it if there had been - as he pretty much indicated in hiscrrespondence on the issue.
By the early 1900s, attitudes had cooled - and some possible objectors were already dead, or no longer had influence. Also, these events were viewed differently at a time when everybody was trying to restore and maintain British prestige after the 1899-1902 Boer War. The now much revised VC Warrant is still applied very rigorously, and there are few awards. Also, there are now many additional gallantry awards and we could not take a firm view of which - if any -m might be deserved inn the circumstances.