article courtesy of SA Military History Society
An account of the award of the Victoria Cross to Lieuts. Melvill and Coghill for heroism at Fugitives' Drift after the disaster of ISANDHLWANA
by Doreen Barfield
Revised and edited by Major R.J. Southey, ED.
When it became apparent that Cetewayo's main impi was about to overrun the camp at Isandhlwana, Lieut.-Colonel Pulleine, commanding 1/24th Foot, removed the Queen's Colour of his Battalion from the Guard tent where it had been deposited upon arrival in camp, and handed it to his Adjutant, Lieut. Teignmouth Melvill, entrusting it to his care and bidding him to take it to a place of safety. When Lieut. Melvill mounted and galloped off with the Colour, not far behind him rode Lieut. Nevill Coghill. These two young subaltern officers were destined to become the first British soldiers to be awarded the VC posthumously for gallant conduct which culminated in their deaths in action at Fugitives' Drift on the Buffalo River on January 22nd, 1879.
According to Lieut. Coghill's diary, miraculously recovered on the battlefield after the carnage was over, and quoted by his nephew Sir Patrick Coghill in his memoir "Whom the Gods Love", he had injured his knee when on reconnaissance with Lord Chelmsford the previous afternoon. After a hasty lunch, the General had set out with a few mounted men to see for himself if enemy elements were concentrating in the vicinity of the newly-established camp. It was on the way back that the high-spirited Coghill chased some fowls in a deserted kraal, and in trying to capture them put his knee out. (This did not happen after the sacking of Sihayo's kraal during the previous week, as has been incorrectly stated elsewhere.) It was this injury which kept him in camp on the day of the fatal Zulu attack, for though he could manage to ride, he was unable to walk, and so did not accompany Lord Chelmsford on his second reconnaissance, this time in force, which included Colonel Glyn, the Column Commander, to whom Coghill had been extra-Regimentally appointed as Orderly Officer.
It will be remembered that any attempt to escape the slaughter could only be through a narrow gap to the south, as the Zulus had gone round the back of the Isandhlwana hill-feature and cut the track leading back to Rorke's Drift. The Buffalo River, forming the boundary between Zululand and Natal, was over three miles away across rocky, boulder-strewn and densely bushed terrain. By crossing over to the Natal side such fugitives as were able to get that far hoped to reach the safety of the garrisoned post at Helpmekaar.
Unfortunately those in scarlet tunics were marked men; very few so attired escaped, for Cetewayo had said that "First came the trader, then the missionary, then the red soldier," and it was the latter who was to be wiped out. In Capt. Penn Symons' ( 2/24th) account, he mentions that those in blue or other than scarlet uniform were even pushed aside to enable the Zulus to get at the red-coats. The five officers, including Melvill and Coghill, who crossed the river safely, were mostly -- if not all -- wearing blue patrols.
Coghill's horsemastership enabled him also to reach the river bank, although his horse had sustained an assegai wound in its hindquarters. Because of his knee injury he was unable to mount without assistance, so dared not dismount but kept his seat and caught up with Melvill who was having difficulty with the cumbersome Colour.
As the riders drew near the river, the dense bush and boulders rendered progress extremely hazardous. The way lay down a steep gorge, and the rushing waters of the river in spate added to their difficulties. Melvill, exhausted after his grim ride, urged his horse into the river, and although an accomplished horseman, his mount so plunged and reared on the slippery stones that, hampered as he was by the cased Colour and its colour-pike, he was thrown into the river.
A Lieut. Walter Higginson, of 1/3rd Natal Native Contingent, has left an account of what followed. He had also been precipitated into the flood-waters, and states that as Melvill drifted down towards him he called out to him to catch hold of the colour-pike, which he -- Higginson -- did, but the force of the current dragged him off his feet and off the rock to which he tenuously clung, but fortunately into calmer water. To continue in his own words, "Coghill, who had got his horse over alright came riding back down the bank to help Melvill, and as he put his mount in close to us, some Zulus who were about twenty-five yards distant on the other bank commenced firing at us in the water. Almost the first shot killed Coghill's horse, and on his getting clear we started for the Natal bank and managed to get out alright, but when we had covered about a hundred yards up the steep bank we noticed two Zulus following us. When they got within thirty' yards of us, Melvill and Coghill fired at them with their revolvers and killed them both. I myself was without arms of any kind, having lost my rifle in the river and did not possess a revolver. When we had gone a few yards further, Melvill said he could go no further and Coghill said the same. When they stopped I pushed on, and on reaching the top of the hill I found four Basutos in whose company I finally escaped by holding on to a horse's tail."
Capt. Penn Symons account continued the story; "Worn out and faint with their exertions, Lieuts. Melyill arid Coghill were unable to climb the last 30 yards to comparative safety and were caught up and killed by their inexorable pursuers. Could they but have negotiated this last short distance, they might well have been able to get away with the Basutos as the latter had secured three stray ponies."(1)
Although it was presumed at the time that Melvill and Coghill were killed by Zulus who had crossed the river and chased after them, Mr. George Bunting of the farm "Fugitives' Drift", on whose ground the crossing point as also the memorial cross marking the site of these two young officers' deaths are situate, and himself a leading authority on the climactic events of that period, has collected information handed down by natives in that area, which suggests that the Zulus did not attempt to cross the river but shouted to some Natal natives who were standing on a rise watching the men struggle through the drift, urging them to kill the soldiers and not let them escape or else they, the Zulus, would come over when the river subsided and kill them instead. The natives who are alleged to have done the killing are said to be descendants of one Sitondosa Kumalo, a refugee from Dingaan. This theory merits some support from a further statement of Capt. Penn Symons, who records that when found a week later the bodies of Melvill ammd Coghill had not been subjected to the customary Zulu habit of disembowelling, as was done to those who fell at Isandhlwamma and elsewhere.
The bodies, as reported by Capt. Penn Symons, were found lying close together, and were buried on February 4th, when Major Wilsone Black, 2/24th, rode over from Rorke's Drift with a burial party to locate and inter victims slaughtered in the Fugitives' Drift area. They were laid in a grave dug in the shelter of the rocks where they fell, the burial service being conducted by the Rev. George Smith. Major Black and his party also explored the river area in search of the lost Colour . As the level of the water had dropped by at least three feet since the day of the battle, they were fortunate indeed in discovering it intact, although the Colour had become separated from the colour-pike and was found some distance away. The tattered remnants were taken back to Helpmekaar and handed to Colonel Glyn, then in the 24th Regiment, who had received that identical Colour possibly as Colour Ensign when stationed at the Curragh some thirteen years previously.
A month later the bodies of Lieuts. Melvill and Coghill were exhumed, placed in coffins, and in the presence of Colonels Glyn and Degacher (commanding 2/24th) and several other officens, were reburied a few yards away from the spot where they fell. Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of the Cape, to whom Coghill had acted as aide-dc-camp, presented a memorial cross which was erected to mark the grave, and still stands on a rock above their resting-place.
On May 2nd, 1879, a notice appeared in the "London Gazette" which stated that on account of the gallant efforts made by Lieut. Teignmouth Melvill to save the Queen's Colour of his Regiment after the disaster of Isandhlwana, and also on account of Lieut. Nevill Coghill's heroic conduct in endeavouring to save his brother officer's life, they would have been recommended to Her Majesty for the Victoria Cross had they survived.
When the Battalion returned to England in 1880, the Queen expressed a wish to see the famous Colour, so in July it was taken to her at Osborne. There she placed a wreath of immortelles on the staff, and the following message was sent to the Commanding Officer from the Adjutant-General; "As a lasting token of her act of placing a wreath on the Queen's Colour to commemorate the devotion displayed by Lieuts. Melvill and Coghill in their heroic endeavour to save the Colour on January' 22nd, 1879, and of the noble defence of Rorke's Drift, Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to command that a silver wreath shall in future be borne on the peak of the staff of the Queen's Colour of the Twenty-Fourth Regiment."
Sir Joscelyn Coghill, Nevill's father, was sent a tiny scrap of the Colour, smaller than a postage stamp, which he had enclosed in a gold and crystal locket. Despite the tattered condition of the Colour it remained in service and was carried across the Rhine in 1918. After sixty-seven years in use as a Regimental Colour it was finally laid up in 1933, in the Regimental Chapel of Brecon Cathedral, Wales.
In Queen Victoria's time there was no provision for the Victoria Cross to be awarded posthumously, but during the reign of her son, Edward VII, this was rectified and the first two acts of gallantry to be rewarded with posthumous yes were those of Melvill and Coghill. The crosses were sent to their next-of-kin in February, 1907. In the case of Lieut. Melvill this was his wife, Sarah Elizabeth, who had been placed on the Civil List with a pension of 100 UK Pounds per year.
In the Vicarage of St. Winnow hangs a Victorian coloured print of the painting by C. E. Fripp, depicting the last stand by Coghill defending the fallen Melvill. Lieut. Coghill is shown wearing his dark blue patrol jacket which helped him to reach the Buffalo crossing in safety, and is depicted with his newly grown beard, of which he wrote in his last surviving letter, that it was now a presentable Van Dyke but that he would be thankful to take it off. But Melvill is shown lying with his sword close to his outflung arm, although an eye-witness, Paul Brickhill, Colonel Glyn's interpreter, declared that Melvill had lost it on his last terrible ride. (2)
"Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill (24###sup/sup### Regiment) dying to save the Queen's Colours."
(From a Print of the painting by C.E. Fripp, by kind permission of Canon Miles Brown, The Vicarage, St Winnow.)
The paths of Coghill and Melvill had crossed before, although at a distance. On writing paper headed "Government House, Cape Town, Sept. 15th, 1878", having described his rough passage in H.M.S. Tyne back to the Cape in charge of a draft of the Third Foot, Coghill wrote to his family, telling them that he had been asked to accompany the Governor, Sir Bartle Frere, on a tour as his aide-de-camp, and that his Colonel had also asked him to become Regimental Adjutant, but that he was robbed of the danger of becoming conceited over the offers of these choice appointments by his anxiety to do the right thing. In the end he accepted the Adjutantcy, which was a permanent appointment, having been told that the officer holding that position was going back to England for a course at the Staff College. The Adjutant he was to replace was Lieut. Melvill, but in the meantime Lord Chelmsford cancelled his move as he could not be spared, as every officer was needed for the forthcoming campaign. Instead Coghill joined the Governor in Pietermaritzburg, and Melvill not only forfeited a chance to further his career, but stayed to lose his life.
Lieut. Coghill's Victoria Cross was sent to his brother, Sir Egerton. In Cork Cathedral there is a memorial window which carries the Coghill arms and family motto, "Non Dormit Qui Custodit", a fitting watchword to remember when thinking of these valorous young men who put their trusteeship of the Queen's Colour before their own lives.
NOTES BY R. J. SOUTHEY:
1. Penn Symons, himself to be mortally wounded twenty years later at Talana, was with one of the 24th Companies at Helpmekaar, and was therefore not physically present at, nor an eye-witness of much of what he describes. It probably percolated through to him at second or third hand, or was pure conjecture.
2. Melvill is seen wearing scarlet. I believe this to be factually correct. As Melvill was regimentally employed as Adjutant, I maintain that he would have been in scarlet like everybody else in the battalion from the Commanding Officer down to drummer boys.
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