b. 25/01/1852 Drumcondra, County Dublin,Ireland. d. 22/01/1879 Buffalo River, South Africa.
Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill (1852-1879) was born on the 25th January 1852, the eldest son of Sir John Joscelyn Coghill (1826–1905), 4th Bt., J.P., D.L., of Drumcondra, Co. Dublin (see Coghill Baronets), and his wife, the Hon. Katherine Frances Plunket, daughter of John Plunket, 3rd Baron Plunket. He was a nephew of David Plunket, 1st Baron Rathmore and William Plunket, 4th Baron Plunket. The painter Sir Egerton Coghill, 5th Baronet was his younger brother.
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.
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 situation at Isandlwana seemed hopeless, Lieutenant-Colonel Pulleine ordered Melvill to save the Colour. He was accompanied by Coghill, he having sustained an injury to his knee earlier in the day when trying to catch a chicken for Lord Chelmsford’s supper. It was this injury which meant that he was unable to go with Chelmsford’s force moving to the South East in search of the main Zulu force.
Melvill and Coghill made their way through the battle and through to the Buffalo River. Coghill was first to arrive and managed to cross to the Natal side. He turned to see Melvill plunge into the water, with the Colour in its case, only to have his horse shot from under him. He was swept to a large boulder, Coffin Rock, showing out of the torrent. He was soon joined by an NNC officer named Higginson. Melvill asked for help to save the colours but it was torn from his grasp by the strong current and disappeared.
Coghill turned to help the two in the river, but then his horse was shot in the head, plunging him into the water. He struggled to the rock and all three men then managed to swim to the Natal side of the bank. Higginson went to look for horses, while Melvill and Coghill struggled up the steep sides of the valley. They were killed by supposedly friendly natives who had been threatened by the Zulus on the opposite bank with death, had they not chased Melvill and Coghill and killed them.
They were buried on 4 February 1879 where they died. They were reburied in an isolated grave on 14 April, the site being marked by a memorial. There are also two cairns just below this, presumably where other fugitives died and were buried. The site has been known since then as “Fugitive’s Drift”.
The Colour was found some weeks later by a patrol who saw the pole sticking out of the water. Most of the gold braiding had perished. The restored Colour now hangs in Brecon Cathedral.
Both Melvill and Coghill’s gallant actions were mentioned in a memorandum in the London Gazette on 2nd May 1879 and it stated “they would have been recommended to Her Majesty for the Victoria Cross had they survived.” It would be twenty-eight years later, in 1907, following an amendment to the Royal Warrant of the Victoria Cross permitting the award of posthumous awards, that saw both men recognised. It was officially announced in the London Gazette on 15th January 1907.
Coghill’s medals are held by the South Wales Borderers Museum, Brecon, Wales.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: SOUTH WALES BORDERERS MUSEUM, BRECON, WALES
BURIAL PLACE: FUGITIVES DRIFT, KWAZULU-NATAL, SOUTH AFRICA.
Aidan Kavanagh – Coghill Memorial at Drumcondra Parish Church.
Paul Deeprose – 2 images of Coghill VC Memorials at Haileybury College.
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Coghill VC Building in Brecon.