Norfolk woman’s tribute to great-great-great-great uncle who received the Victoria Cross
PUBLISHED: 09:04 20 January 2014 | UPDATED: 09:26 22 January 2014
The story of Lieutenant Nevill Coghill was well known by Jane Mann when she was growing up.
The great-great-great-great niece of one of the first posthumous recipients of the Victoria Cross is now keeping the memory of her ancestor alive by helping to commission a painting of the soldier who died during the Anglo-Zulu war.
Lt Coghill and his fellow officer Lt Teignmouth Melvill were killed attempting to save their regiment’s colours from capture by Zulu warriors at the Battle of Isandlwana in South Africa in 1879.
The anniversary of the bloody battle, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of British soldiers, will be marked this week when Mrs Mann, who lives in Norfolk, attends a ceremony to unveil a new painting depicting the bravery of the two soldiers from the 24th Regiment.
Lt Coghill, 27, was killed after going back to help his colleague who was being swept down the Buffalo River.
Who was Lt Coghill?
Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1852 and was awarded the Victoria Cross 28 years after his death.
The VC is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
Lt Coghill, who had injured his knee and was unable to fight, joined Lt Teignmouth Melvill after the disaster of the Battle of Isandlwana, South Africa, to try to save the Queen’s Colour of the 24th Regiment.
His great-great-great-great niece believes his knee injury had in fact happened years before, because of the mention of ‘knee trouble’ in his letters home, and the existence of a walking stick carved with his name which appears to have been given to him when he was 18 years-old. This suggests that he may have been trying to hide a pre-existing disability from his fellow soldiers.
The soldiers were pursued by Zulu warriors, and while crossing the swollen River Buffalo, Lt Coghill went to the rescue of Melvill, who had lost his horse and was being swept down the river.
Lt Coghill had reached the other side of the river, but turned back to help Lt Melvill. The two men were eventually overtaken by the enemy and, following a short but gallant struggle, both were killed.
Coghill and Melvill were amongst the first soldiers to receive the VC posthumously in 1907.
Coghill’s Victoria Cross is displayed at the South
Wales Borderers Museum in Wales.
The 39-year-old from Tasburgh, who has begun researching what happened to her great-great-great-great uncle on January 22, 1879, spoke of her excitement ahead of taking delivery of the specially commissioned painting at a ceremony at the East India Club in London on Wednesday.
The mother-of-three, who runs a freelance publishing consultancy, will receive the painting by renowned military artist Jason Askew, and pass it on to the Victoria Cross Museum where it will assist in promoting the work of the Victoria Cross Trust in renovating the graves of VC recipients.
Historians say the story of Lt Coghill and Lt Melvill’s dash from the battlefield is controversial with some army commanders at the time claiming that they were acting in cowardice rather than bravery.
To uncover the truth behind what happened, Mrs Mann contacted University of Glasgow archaeologist, Tony Pollard, who had previously undertaken an extensive archaeological investigation of the Isandlwana battlefield.
Together the pair are currently researching the battle for a forthcoming book called The Colours of Courage looking at heroism and perceptions of bravery in a military arena throughout history.
Mrs Mann, who has run Penrose Publishing Services for 11 years, said there had never been an accurate print made of Lt Melvill and Lt Coghill.
“I have known [about Lt Coghill] since I was a child and it was something that has always been talked about in my family and I have always had an interest in history and military history.
“I wanted to find out more about Coghill through personal interest and I realised it brought up a lot of questions about bravery.”
“In contacting Dr Pollard I realised that the issue was much broader than I had previously considered, and it sparked a real interest in a wider study of courage in the face of battle,” she said.
The VC was introduced in 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War and the first posthumous VCs were awarded in 1907.
The Battle of Isandlwana famously saw the annihilation of a British forces at the hands of around 25,000 Zulus in the opening stages of the Anglo-Zulu War, which was dramatised in the 1979 movie Zulu Dawn.
Lt Coghill and Lt Melvill were buried together close to where they fell on the banks of the Buffalo River.
Mrs Mann, who studied history at Oxford University before embarking on a career in publishing in the fields of military history and education, said she believed her great-great-great-great uncle had acted bravely.
“Melvill was trying to protect the colours, which were of vital strategic and symbolic importance.
“He was trying to get them off the battlefield. Coghill was fleeing because he was immobile due to an injured knee, and it would have been insanity to stay and fight.”
“Both men got the highest award for bravery and I believe Coghill was certainly a brave man in his final actions – he put his life at risk to save the life of a fellow man.”
“For me, this is about highlighting the stories of recipients of the VC. If you ask my three-year-old, he knows who Nevill Coghill was, and we are keeping his name alive.
“That is why the work of the Victoria Cross Trust is so important, so that these stories are not forgotten,” she said.