Saving the Colours at iSandlwana
It is one of the most stirring moments in the dramatic story of the battle. As the Zulus burst through the British line, and all is about to be lost, Col. Pulleine, in command of the camp, called Lts. Melvill and Coghill of the 1/24th to him, and gave the Queen’s Colour of the battalion - the symbol of regimental and national pride - into their care, ordering them to ’take it to a place of safety’. Together, Melvill and Coghill dash across country, braving the horrors of the Zulu pursuit, only to lose the Colour in the raging Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River, on the very threshold of safety. Having crossed the river, both men are tragically overtaken and killed.
This view is very much a construct of the times, created to soothe the 24th’s wounded pride, and to provide the British public with an unequivocal image of selfless heroism with which to offset the horror of the defeat.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen quite like that, either. None of the British survivors of the battle claimed to have seen Pulleine hand the Colour to Melvill, and in fact the story first appeared a month or so after the battle, attributed to an anonymous source. Almost certainly, the story originated among surviving officers of the 24th, keen to ensure that Melvill’s actions appeared in a suitably heroic light. In fact, as Adjutant of the 1/24th, the care of the Colours fell in any case within Melvill’s responsibilities.It is far more likely that he fetched the Colour in an attempt to rally the battalion - but then found that it was too late, and instead tried to carry them away. He did not leave the camp with Coghill - several witnesses saw them riding away separately - and in fact the two don’t seem to have joined up until they reached the river. Melvill, of course, lost the Colour in the flooded river and was nearly swept away himself, but Coghill - who had already reached the other side safely - returned to the water and saved him.
At the time, senior officers expressed reservations about the wisdom of recognising as outstandingly heroic the actions of men who - however legitimate the reason - were in fact leaving the field whilst the battle was still going on. As Chelmsford himself put it, by saving the Colour Melvill ’was given the best chance of saving his life which must have been lost had he remained in camp … The question, therefore, remains had he succeeded in saving the colours and his own life, would he have been considered to have deserved the Victoria Cross?’ Chelmsford's successor in Zululand, Sir Garnet Wolseley, felt strongly that it was an officer's duty to die with his men whatever the circumstances, and that Melvill and Coghill were not therefore an example to be particularly distinguished by reference to the Victoria Cross. In fact, however, the ’dash with the Colours’, as the Press hailed it, had already caught the public imagination. There was no provision for the posthumous VC in 1879, but it was noted that Melvill and Coghill would have received it, had they lived. At the turn of the century, when posthumous awards were introduced, the award was confirmed, and VCs sent to their families.