An obituary in the "King's County Chronicle" of 13th April 1911 tells the story of what had happened one morning, about ten years previously, when Newbridge Street in the market town of Birr in King's County (now Offaly) in Ireland was being terrorised by a mad dog. Everyone quickly went indoors, even the old soldier who had been living in the town since his retirement. Instead, however, of staying safely behind closed doors, this old soldier came back onto the street armed with a three-pronged garden fork. He "confronted the dangerous beast face to face and drove [he implement through the body, as if it were only an everyday occurrence". He then returned home "without making the least fuss". The old soldier was John Murray, who, at the Battle of Te Ranga in New Zealand over forty years before, had shown, with such terrible effect, just how good a bayonet fighter he was, when he saved the life of John Byrne VC and gained for himself the Victoria Cross.
He was born about 1831 at Birr in Ireland. Nothing is known of his early life before he enlisted at Birr as 2918 Private John Murray, aged about twenty-one years, in the 68th (Durham) Light Infantry on 5th February 1852. Within two years, he had been promoted Corporal. He served throughout the Crimean War, which he survived without injury or illness, and was promoted Sergeant in 1860, when the Regiment was on garrison duty in Burma,
At the end of 1863, after five uneventful years in Burma, the 68th Light Infantry was ordered to set sail for New Zealand, where the Maoris had gone to war to try to halt the spread of the British settlements on North Island. The Regiment landed at Auckland in January 1864. Over two hundred of the soldiers, including John Murray and John Byrne, were veterans of the Crimean War.
The Maoris were brave and skilful soldiers and on 29th April, a mixed British force of soldiers and sailors attacked Gate Pah (a Maori fort of trenches and wooden stockades), whilst the 68th Regiment waited behind the fort to prevent any escape. Despite a fierce artillery bombardment, the attack failed and the storming party was driven off with heavy losses. During the night, the Maoris abandoned the pah and slipped away through the 68th's lines.
A few weeks later, on 21st June 1864, a British force of eight hundred soldiers, mostly from the 68th, came across a force of six hundred Maoris building a new pah at Te Ranga, a few miles inland from Gate Pah. The British attacked, storming the unfinished defences. In the ferocious hand to hand fighting, Sergeant Murray, using his bayonet, killed or wounded at least eight Maori soldiers in a rifle pit, rescued John Byrne from certain death and continued to fight his way deep into the pah.
The London Gazette announced the award of the Victoria Cross to Sergeant John Murray on 4th November 1864 'for his distinguished conduct", [Citation] it was presented to him at Wanganui on 5th December 1865 by Brigadier-General Waddy, whilst the Regiment was still in New Zealand. He was the third soldier of the 68th Regiment to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
With his Army career coming to an end, Sergeant Murray transferred in 1872 to the 2nd North Durham Militia in Gilesgate, Durham City, for his final year. On his discharge in February 1873, aged forty-two years and after twenty-one years' service, he was described as being nearly 6' tall, with blue eyes, dark brown hair and a fresh complexion.
John Murray returned home to Ireland following his discharge. As little, unfortunately, is known about his later life as about his childhood. He died, a widower, at his sister's house at Derrinlough near Birr, on 8th April 1911, aged about eighty years.
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