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DateOriginal Topic
22nd January 2004Melvill & Coghill
By Steven Etchells
I understand that this question has been asked before, but I am knew to this site. What are your opinions on Melvill & Coghill being awarded VC's when, in effect, they were fleeing the battlefield.
22nd January 2004l.j.knight
the vc;s awarded posthumously in 1907 by his majesty Edward the seventh were awarded after years of lobbying, especially by Coghills father and others. the award itself was never clear cut there are many instances of the confusion with which our highest award for gallantry has engendered, to say that Melvill and Coghill fled the field in the face of the enemy is in my opinion technically correct, but the subsequent events at the Buffalo river with eye witnesses do. again in my opinion meet the criteria for the eventuall citation...regards Steven.
24th January 2004AMB
Honours and awards are always very subjective. Should they have been given the VC for 'dying well'? Hard to say 125 years later (as it was, actually, in 1907), but the fact is that these two officers were thought good enough to be awarded Great Britain's highest gallentry medal in 1907. We can speculate all we like today, but we were not there and our attitudes are [sadly, some might say] very different to those of our Victorian (who did not give medals posthumously) and Edwardian forebears.

26th January 2004John Young

I've been otherwise pre-occupied at Chatham, to see your posting, so forgive my late arrival on this post.

This is something I posted on this forum sometime ago, having discussed it with Alan Critchley, I'm re-posting it, in the hope for some more debate.

'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 [or so it is alleged] 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. Which includes the sources for the remarks referred to above.

John Y.
26th January 2004Alan Critchley
what of corroboration? Were not the two separately met en route by Smith-Dorrien and Curling (not sure which met who) who had something to say which throws a little more light on reasons on their actions? Didn't someone also report that they saw Coghill way ahead of Melvill along the Fugitives' Trail? If so this doesn't contradict the Gazette's reasoning for the VC award but does explode the popular version of them both riding out heroically with the Colour flying. If Coghiil left the battlefield using only his own judgement as to when the time was right, should this action have precluded him being awarded the VC which was for courageously returning to rescue the colour and fellow officer? Is there any details of the person who reported witnessing the last meeting between Pulleine and Melvill?
Sorry this is all questions.

26th January 2004John Young

Here's what Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien wrote in 'Memories of Forty-Eight Years' Service', published in 1925:-
'…Again I rode through unheeded, and shortly after was passed by Lieutenant Coghill (24th), wearing a blue patrol and cord breeches and riding a red roan horse. We had just exchanged remarks about the terrible disaster, and he passed on towards Fugitives’ Drift. A little farther on I caught up Lieutenant Curling, RA, and spoke to him, pointing out to him that the Zulus were all round and urging him to push on, which he did. My own broken-kneed transport pony was done to a turn and incapable of rapid progress.
The ground was terribly bad going, all rocks and boulders, and it was about three or four miles from camp to Fugitives’ Drift. When approaching this drift, and at least half a mile behind Coghill, Lieutenant Melvill (24th), in a red coat and with a cased Colour across the front of his saddle, passed me going to the drift. I reported afterwards that the Colour was broken; but as the pole was found eventually whole, I think the casing must have been half off and hanging down. It will thus be seen that Coghill (who was orderly officer to Colonel Glynn [sic]) and Melvill (who was adjutant) did not escape together with the Colour...'

More answers when I can work the arm more.

John Y.