A “Boy’s Own” hero
Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill VC was born at Drumcondra, Dublin, Ireland on 25th January 1852. He was to become immortalised in British history as a lieutenant in the British Army, earning everlasting renown in the Zulu Wars for his heroic actions in attempting to save the colours of the 24th Foot after the Battle of Isandhlwana in 1879.
Coghill spent his early years in Ireland and was educated at Haileybury (Trevelyan 1865-1869) before joining the British Army.
On 26th February 1873, he was gazetted as sub-lieutenant and posted to the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (later known as the South Wales Borderers). Posted first to Gibraltar, in 1876 he sailed with his regiment, bound for the Cape to support British interests there.
The Battle of Isandhlwana
In 1867, Britain had successfully introduced the Canadian Federation and now sought to introduce a similar governmental structure to administer the various kingdoms, tribal areas and Boer republics in South Africa. The implementation was not so straightforward.
In 1878, following disagreements between the Zulus and the Boers in the Transvaal, an ultimatum was offered to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, which, due to its impossible demands, was rejected.
A British force under Lord Chelmsford was ordered into Zululand in January the following year. Neither the ultimatum nor the military action had been approved by the British government. The Zulu wars had begun.
On 22nd January 1879, a force of 20,000 Zulus overwhelmed and annihilated 1800 British soldiers in the worst military disaster ever to be inflicted on a British army by a technically inferior indigenous force.
When the battle turned against the British, Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill was charged to save the Queen’s Colour of the Regiment; it is now that Melvill’s and Coghill’s lives became enshrined in British military history.
In the general retreat from the battle, the remaining British were pursued and ultimately slaughtered by Zulu warriors until those few who remained reached the Buffalo River on the border with Natal. It was here, while attempting the crossing, that Melvill was knocked from his horse and flung into the swollen torrent.
Lieutenant Coghill went to the rescue of his fellow officer and, despite having his horse shot from beneath him and being assailed on all sides, managed to reach the Natal side of the river with Melvill. It was here that both were overwhelmed by chasing Zulu warriors and were slain with assegais (a Zulu thrusting spear).
In the words of a Lieutenant Harford who was sent to find out what happened and found the bodies: “both were lying on their backs about a yard from each other. Melvill at right angles to the path and Coghill parallel with it, a little above Melvill and with his head uphill, both assegaied but otherwise untouched.”
The Colours, which Melvill had lost in the river, were eventually retrieved by Harford, having washed 500 yards downstream. Restored, the Colours are now on display in Brecon Cathedral, an astonishingly moving reminder of these brave men and all those other souls who perished that day.
The award of the VC
At the time of their deaths, the VC was not awarded posthumously. Coghill and Melvill, however, were among the first soldiers to receive the award when posthumous commendation became possible in 1907.
Melvill and Coghill are buried together at Fugitive’s Drift in the shadow of Isandhlwana. Their memorial reads “In memory of Lieutenant and Adjutant Teignmouth Melvill and Lieutenant Nevill J. A. Coghill, 1st Battalion 24th Regiment, who died on this spot 22nd January 1879, to save the Queen’s Colour of their Regiment.”
Today, Coghill is also remembered at Haileybury both in terms of his name on the College VC memorial and Haileybury’s leadership programme for pupils in Removes. He also featured in the film Zulu Dawn in 1979; his part being played by Christopher Cazenove.
Coghill’s VC is now on permanent display at the South Wales Borderers Museum in Brecon.
Learn more about Nevill Coghill
Follow any of the links below to learn more about Nevill Coghill and the Battle of Isandhlwana: