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Will the real McGirk stand up! McGirk of the Dundee Town Guard 1 week 11 hours ago #76217

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Max Alfred McGirk (Huhn)

Private, Dundee Town Guard – Anglo Boer War

- Queens South Africa Medal with Talana clasp to M.A. McGIRK, DUNDEE TN. GD.

One is more accustomed, in the realm of the female of the species, to observe a change of surname on the marriage of the individual concerned. The same, in the masculine realm, is almost unheard of, which is why Max McGirk is such an enigmatic figure. He was born a Huhn and ended life as a McGirk – I have yet to uncover the reason for this change.

Max was born in Cape Town on 2 February 1882, the son of Max Guido Huhn and his wife Amalia Alma, born Voigt. His parents’ marriage certificate makes for interesting reading – married in the Deutsche Evangelische Church on 31 January 1881, his father was a 24 year old Baker by trade whilst his 18 year old mother was, according to a comment in Dutch, “under aged and had been in the Colony for seventeen months and had no family.”

What brought Max from the relative security of Cape Town to the Natal town of Dundee is unknown but, at the end of the 19th century he and some of his siblings were already resident there. They were not to know that, with the commencement of the Anglo Boer War on 11 October 1899, they were directly in the Boers path as they moved into Natal with the intention of taking Durban and the all-important access to the sea that came with such a move. In anticipation of their arrival, a Town Guard, made up of the menfolk of Dundee was constituted. It was to this body of men that an 18 year old McGirk gravitated.

The main Boer army to invade Natal was that of General Erasmus that came down the main north-south road through Newcastle. Simultaneously, General Kock took a smaller force on a parallel route to the west of Erasmus, while Commandant Lucas Meyer entered Natal via its eastern border from Utrecht.

On 20th October 1899 at around 5am the Boer commandos under General Meyer appeared on Talana Hill to the east of Dundee, following a night approach march. The British spotted figures moving on Talana Hill. As it was expected that the first Boer incursion would arrive from the direction of Newcastle, it was assumed that these figures were members of the Dundee Town Guard.

At 5.40am the Boer artillery opened fire from Talana Hill on Dundee and the British camp. There was a delay before fire could be returned, the British artillery horses being at water. The batteries harnessed up and hurried through Dundee, coming into action in the open ground beyond the town, quickly silencing the outnumbered Boer guns.

As his artillery bombarded the Boers, the British Commander, Penn Symons, prepared to attack their positions on Talana Hill with his infantry, forming with the Dublin Fusiliers massed in the front rank, the Rifles in support behind them and the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the third rank. Penn Symons insisted his regiments attack in conventional close order, an unrealistic tactic against an enemy armed with modern magazine rifles.

While his deployment of the infantry is considered to have been conventional, Penn Symons use of his mounted troops was imaginative and daring. He directed his cavalry force, the 18th Hussars and Mounted Infantry, to advance around the western end of Talana Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Möller, the commanding officer of the Hussars and in overall charge of the mounted units, was instructed to await directions there, unless he saw a good opportunity to cut off the Boers’ retreat from Talana Hill.

The infantry assault went in on Talana Hill, the first lines reaching a wood at the base of the hill where in the face of heavy fire the attack stalled. Penn Symons arrived at the wood, dismounted and led the advance himself, until he was mortally injured, receiving a bullet in the stomach.

After a lull, the British infantry attack regained its momentum and continued up Talana Hill in the face of heavy fire, gathering below the peak for the final assault. As the troops stormed the top of the hill the Boers retreated. One of the British batteries, firing from the open ground outside Dundee, failed to identify the troops on the top of Talana as British and continued to fire on the crest, inflicting unnecessary casualties and hindering the assault. Several senior British officers were killed or seriously wounded by British artillery fire.

The Boers could be seen mounting their ponies and streaming away across the valley on the far side of the hill. Penn Symons had sent the 18th Hussars and Mounted Infantry around Talana Hill to take advantage of just such a situation, but there was no sign of them. The loss of Penn Symons prevented the main British force from taking advantage of its success in storming Talana Hill. The British batteries came forward but due to a misunderstanding of their orders or a failure to identify the Boers, did not open fire on the retreating commando.

Möller and his now much reduced mounted force ended up in a farm building some miles from Talana Hill in the middle of the Boer force advancing from Newcastle, where they surrendered. The two squadrons led by Major Knox managed to evade the Boers and returned to the British lines.

But what of McGirk and his citizen comrades in the Town Guard? What role did they play? There are many eye-witness accounts; one of the most reliable and descriptive being that of William Arthur Chegwidden, who wrote a diary of his experiences – this document is referred to in order to best describe the role the Town Guard played in the fracas, a role so often overlooked.

On 15 October, just over a week before the battle of Talana, the Home Guard (Town Guard) were called out of the local Churches at 7 o'clock, assembled at the Town Offices, and formed into four companies to parade and search the town for all undesirables. They formed up under the Town and Mounted Police, who marched them to different parts. They were out searching for about 3 hours and there were about 14 men taken to the Town Offices and questioned, and those that could not give a satisfactory answer were taken to the Railway Station, where a train was waiting to take them down country, for “they were a lot of loafers that did not belong to the town.” At about 1 o'clock in the morning the men went home to get their guns and ammunition ready, in preparedness for being called out.

On 16 October there was an almost festive atmosphere as the women and children, on the orders of General Penn Symons, who were to leave by the 9 o'clock train for Durban and Pietermaritzburg and other places, were at the station. The seriousness of the situation facing the towns inhabitants was now laid bare and remaining residents went to their homes and started to prepare and to pack their belongings in readiness for an evacuation of the town. The last train out could not take all of them, and there many that had to go in open trucks for there were not enough carriages to take them.

On 17 October very few of the remaining residents went about their work as everyone was waiting for the Boers, with reports coming that there was a large commando 16 miles away. About 9 o'clock there was a report spreading about that all the men had to clear out, so the Chairman of the local board made enquiries of the General, asking if the men had to leave. Penn Symons had a notice posted at the Town Offices and Post Office which stated that no able bodied men were to leave town.

All was quiet on 18 October until the mail train arrived with the news that the Boers were coming up in large numbers and had fired on the train as it was leaving Elandslaagte station. That night No 1 Company of the Town Guard was told to go on picket duty to patrol the different parts of the town, and report all that they saw and heard.

About 1 o'clock on the 20 October (the day of the battle of Talana) the men of the town were roused by some of the Town Guard that were on duty. The different bells in the town started ringing, the signal for all the men in town to assemble with their guns at the Town Office. When they got there, they could hear the report of rifle firing, with a horseman of one of the troops that had been out on duty saying that they had been fired upon just outside of the town. Another soldier came running in saying that the Boers were just outside in a large force.

By this time, it was getting a little lighter and the soldiers from the camp could be seen marching down the street. At about 6 o'clock a number of men could be seen moving about on the top of the ridge of Talana Hill, and in a few minutes a shell passed over the town. The Boers could be seen firing their artillery at the British camp. But that was all they fired from the camp, as they changed their position very quickly and got on the flat, just a little towards the coal field side of the town, and just in line with the redoubt of No 5 Company of the Town Guard.

Several companies of the Town Guard were now ordered to go to their redoubts, meeting on their way the artillery as they changed their position. The Town Guard lined up on the side of the street for them to pass and then went off to their redoubts to take up position. This was in a spot where they were in full view of the hills that the Boers were on and they could see the shells from the British artillery exploding all along the top of the ridge from one end to the other.

William’s diary entry sketched the scene: “The Boers had only their Pom-Pom left then, that they could use on our artillery, so our artillery turned their attention to this and silenced it very quick, so then they shelled the hills for all they were worth and our infantry advanced to the bottom of the hill under cover of their fire where we were waiting [for] them all the time and at last the artillery ceased fire, and then it was awful to hear the rifle fire. I never heard anything like it. I can only compare it to hail on an iron roof, for it was one continuous racket for nearly two hours. We could see our men steadily advancing up the hill.

At last we could see that our infantry had taken the top ridge of the hill with the point of the bayonet, the Boers cleared for their lives and in a short time we could see that the fight was over and knew that our troops were victorious. So then some of us took a walk around where our artillery took up their first stand to see if we could pick up some pieces of shell that the Boers fired, we found a good many and we saw the poor fellow that was killed but there was a stretcher brought and his body was taken away by some of the Town Guard.

So then we were ordered back to town. We marched to the Town Offices and were dismissed, and then we went to see the artillery return, and the wounded were brought into town and rested and had their wounds attended to at Messrs Oldacre’s Stores. It was a sad sight to see the poor fellows brought in one after another and laid out in rows, but there was not a murmur [from] one of them. Some of the men of the town went to their homes made cocoa and coffee and brought it to them, for the poor soldiers had had a hard day fighting. After the wounded had been brought in we could see the infantry coming over the hill and coming back to camp. All the people assembled on the sidewalks of the streets had gave them ringing cheers as they marched by.

Then there were some Boer prisoners brought in and put in the gaol. Then all the Town Guard went to their homes to get something to eat for they had been out since 3 o'clock in the morning.”

On 21 October, the day after the battle, an order was given that all the Town Guard had to assemble at the Town Offices. On arrival they were told to go onto Talana hill, the scene of the battle the day before, just to show that it was occupied. William’s diary continues, “There was an Imperial officer there to take us and command us. We could see a lot of men moving on the hill and we could not tell if they were Boers or towns people, anyhow we started off marching in companies, there were some men in the town that would not go for they never took up arms but the officer that was commanding said that every man had to go and then some of the Town Guard were sent off to these and see if they would not come. They had to be brought by force so then I think that they all went.

When we got to the bottom of the town and were taking the flat just before we came to the foot of the hill, we met a lot more of the towns men coming down from the hill and going towards the town, they had not had any arms with them but they had to return to the hill with us. They did not seem to like it but all the same they had to go. The officer told us to go up in searching order so we all spread out about a yard apart and then started to climb the hill we had as much as we could manage to get up there. I can tell you we had to stop and rest two or three times for it was very steep and nothing but large stones, big enough for two or three to lie down behind. Then there were two stone walls all around the hill, so that the Boers had plenty of shelter, and how our soldiers fought their way up there and drove the Boers before them, it is a marvel. After we had got to the top of the hill we were formed up into our companies, and sent to different parts of the hill, and told to spread out as much as possible so that if any of the Boers should be about they could see that the hill was occupied.

Then we started to look about the hill to pick up shell and cartridges just to keep as a memento of the battle, we came across 25 or 26 dead Boers lying behind rocks and most of them were shot in the forehead. There were some of the Boer Red Cross men there looking for their dead, but it seems that they had not anyone to help to take them away, so some of our Guard got some kaffirs that were on the hill and made them help to carry the bodies down to a farm house just the other side of the hill. The house was nearly full of dead bodies, our men said they took one of their Red Cross men prisoner, for he was well known to some of the Town Guard, he was a deserter from the Natal Carbineers, there were two of the Town Guard sent to take him to the gaol.

After a little while it came on to a very heavy thunderstorm and rain, we had to make the best shelter we could behind the rocks but they did not shelter us much. After it cleared off we heard a big gun firing and we looked towards the camp and we could see the Boers were shelling with the Long Tom from the Impati mountain, and at last we could see that our troops were leaving the camp and getting out of range. We saw our artillery fire a few shots from close by the South African Coal mine, so we were coming to think that things were getting rather serious for we were afraid that they would send a few shots at us on Talana hill.

Anyway we sat down and watched the shots exchanged, it must have been about 5 o'clock then. Our
commander asked the officer that was with us what we had better do. He said he did not know as he had not had any orders from General Yule that was in command in General Symon's place. So the officer said that he thinks that we had better make for the town and he would see where we had to go. So all marched off the hill. We came away in small bodies for fear that if we marched all together that the Boers would put a shell amongst us. When we got halfway down the hill, we fell in with a company of soldiers that had buried their dead comrades that were killed the day before. When we got down to the river it was swollen so much by the rain that we had received, that it was a hard job to cross, we had to wade through it took us up past our knees.

Then the officer rode past and told us all to go to the (Town) Offices, and we should be told what to do. So we made for it and when we got there we were told that we only had ten minutes to clear out of the town and that we must make for the military, they said they think it was at the back of the race course. So we made for our homes as quick as possible and changed some of our wet clothes. There was no time to have anything to eat so we went out and fell in with a lot more making their way for the military. It was raining and dark as a pit. We could not see where we were going and no one seemed to know where to find the soldiers. At last we got amongst a lot of military horses. They stopped us and wanted to know who we were, and where were we going. We told them that we were the Town Guard and that we had orders to get out with the soldiers, but that we could not find them, so they led us to a farm house and when we got there we found a lot already there, so we all laid down our guns and went to lie down on the floor, as many as could, for we were pretty well done up some of us.”

On the Sunday morning, 22nd October, the Town Guard were still bivouacking in isolated farmhouses and the camp on the outskirts of town. Word had spread that Sir George White was coming up from Ladysmith with reinforcements – it must be remembered that the Boers had not departed the area – and that there was nothing to fear from the Boers. Some members tried to return to the now deserted town to try and get something to eat. But, just as they got on the flat about half way the Boers started to shell them. They intended to retrace their route, but were afraid to go back the same way for fear of the shells whistling over their heads. Another attempt was made the following day, with some of the Town Guard able to get in in the afternoon, and bring out food for the men.

That evening word reached the Town Guardsmen that they must make for Ladysmith. Quite a few started out but it was raining and dark and no one seemed to know the road. As a result, they turned back again. Shortly after this the Dundee armies came and said that they were making for Ladysmith or they would be surrounded by the Boers before morning.

On 23 October the Leader of the Dundee Town Guard went into the town to see the lie of the land. A number of the Town Guard accompanied him, only to see, on their arrival, that “everyone was in a great bustle. They said that the Boers were coming in to the town from all directions. So we saw our commander and he was getting his horses put in his brake, he said that he had sent word out to the men to tell them all to make for Ladysmith.”

McGirk and his comrades seem to have been left much to their own devices after Yule and his column abandoned Dundee. They made their way as best they could to Ladysmith, most on foot and on paths and routes pointed out to them by friendly natives whom they encountered along the way. This was probably a blessing in disguise because they would not have been the target of the Boers move to cut off Yule and his men from entering Ladysmith – an act that cost many British lives.

With the town empty, the Boers swarmed in, looting as they went. Large mounds of furniture were damaged and later abandoned.

For his efforts, and 18 year old McGirk was awarded the Queens Medal with Talana clasp. His brother, Benjamin, had also served alongside him and his sister, Eliza Alma Murdoch (born Huhn) was a refugee out of the town before the action commenced. The 1903 Dundee Almanac records that Max was a Builder and that his sister ran the Queens Hotel in Dundee in 1905. She also ran the Railway Boarding House in 1908 – this was opposite the Railway Station. Eliza passed away whilst resident at 32 Station Road, Dundee on 23 May 1910 at the age of 28.

But what of Max? he was known to have served in the Dundee Borough Reserves in the 1906 Bambatha uprising, but faded from the scene thereafter. He surfaced many years later as a Bricklayer, living at 19 Buckingham Court, Durban. It was from here on 6 October 1956, at the age of 74, that he wed for the first and last time. The marriage taking place with 58 year old widow, Catherine Bruin, born Telfer. Mrs Bruin was a Waitress by occupation and one can’t help wondering where the two met. Interestingly, the marriage certificate gives his names as “Max Alfred Huhn (known as McGirk)”

The couple were not destined to have a long marriage – Max Alfred Huhn, otherwise known as McGirk, passed away on the way to hospital on 5 March 1962 at the age of 79 years 1 month. He was survived by his wife alone, having never had any children of his own.

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Will the real McGirk stand up! McGirk of the Dundee Town Guard 1 week 10 hours ago #76218

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Thank You Rory...... Great research..... Mike
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