Incidents of The Maori War
Winter—Pahs at Puketakauere—Major Ne]son in command at Waitara camp—Determines to attack, with Captain Seymour, R.N., the pahs—Skirmish—Reinforcements—'Blood is thicker than water'—The order of attack—Onukakeitara—The main body of the troops encounters large bodies of the enemy—Are outflanked and retire—Captain Bowdler—Captain Messenger—The difficulties his division encountered—Death of Lieut. Brooks and other casualties —Colonel Gold marches to the Waiongona river to cooperate and returns to New Plymouth—Death of the Maori King.
It was now the middle of the Antarctic winter, when cold and wet prevail, and expeditions at any distance from camp were disagreeable from the state of the country, the swamps full of water, roads and tracks deep with mud.
* 'Puke' a hill, 'ta,' to strike, 'kauere or puriri,' a tree, the hill where the puriri was struck.
Our forces at this time were inadequate for the work which was assigned them, that is numerically; we were carrying on a little war. Major Nelson, of the 40th Regiment, commanding at the Waitara, nothing daunted, though he had few men under him in his advanced post, looked out anxiously for an opportunity to give a lesson to what was termed " the wily foe." The Major had served in the field in the East with great credit, and on the Staff in England, but he found in the Maories a very different enemy from the less active and enterprising Hindoos.
A party of natives was seen from the camp, on the 25th June, coming down to the trees on the Government land, about five hundred yards in rear of the camp, and collecting timber for Puketakauere. Lieutenant Mould, R.E., was directed to reconnoitre them, and had for his escort fifty men of the 40th, and eight natives. The party was fired at from an ambush; the troops fired and retired, hoping to entice the enemy to show themselves page 155nearer the camp. The Maories followed, got within two hundred and fifty yards of the soldiers, when a shell from the camp fell among them, and dispersed them in all directions.
All this determined Major Nelson and Captain Seymour, commanding the Naval Brigade, to attempt to carry Puketakauere; though from the state of the country, so wet, and with so few men at their disposal, they had not the advantage of reconnoitring all round, and of observing what obstruction there was towards the river, viz., an extensive swamp. But they bravely used their best efforts not only to deal with the enemy in front, but to cut off his retreat in the rear. It was understood that the Maories at Puketakauere, were chiefly Waikato volunteers come to assist Wiremu Kingi at the Waitara.
Previous to this, Major Nelson had despatched Captain Richards, 40th, an active and resolute officer, to New Plymouth, to communicate with Colonel Gold, commanding Her Majesty's forces, regarding the state of affairs at Puketakauere, and to ask for more page 156men. Colonel Gold accordingly spared him twenty more artillerymen, and sixty of the 50th Regiment, though he was obliged to keep as many as possible to guard the open town against the constantly threatening Taranakis and Ngatiruanuis in the neighbouring forests.
Colonel Gold knew that Major Nelson was desirous of making an attempt on Puketakauere, but he left in bis own hands the time for attack, intimating that if he knew it he would co-operate as much as in his power; but the best laid plans are sometimes upset and deranged from unexpected causes. Major Nelson, in his tent, was describing on the ground to another officer his plan of attack, when on looking up, he saw a friendly Maori who had glided in, and was silently watching what was going on. On seeing he was observed he retired, and doubtless to convey intelligence of what was intended. " Blood is thicker than water," said that fine fellow, the American Commodore Tatnell, when he helped our blue jackets in their difficulty at the Peiho.
Again, an artillery sergeant, to whom was page 157entrusted a couple of rockets to convey a signal to the Bell Block, and from thence to New Plymouth, failed to do so; and on being asked what he had done with the rockets, he said in the hurry of preparation for the attack, he had forgotten to use them, and shoved them afterwards into the fern.
When Major Nelson made his attack on Puketakauere on the 27th June, there were two pahs there; one, the true Puketakauere, to the north-east of the other, consisted of a mound with a difficult double ditch round it; the other was the large pah. It consisted of a mound also, on which was the flag-staff, with a white ensign and black cross. A stockade was round the mound, and rifle pits were supposed to be inside and out. The defenders were in bullrush wharres or huts. This last pah was named Onukukaitara; the two pahs are usually known as the Puketakauere pahs.
Both pahs stood on a ridge, on each side of which were gullies meeting below the northernmost stockade, and ending in a swamp towards the Waitara river; the gullies formed as it were the letter Y, the stem of it to the river, and the stockades in the fork.page 158
A body of three hundred and forty-seven men, with two 241b. howitzers, were destined for the enterprise, composed of Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, Naval Brigade, Royal Marine Artillery, and of the 40th Regiment. The main body, or No. 3 Division, two hundred and sixty-three in number, was led by Major Nelson and Captain Seymour, and moving from the camp at five a.m., crossed the Devon road, taking the most direct way to the pahs, and opened fire with the guns on the large pah at seven a.m., at the distance of four nundred yards; but a breach was not made in the large pah of a sufficient size to justify Major Nelson in ordering the men to assault it.
No 1. Division, Captain Bowdler, with sixty men, 40th Regiment, was ordered to proceed from the camp by the right, pass along the river and occupy a small mound south-east of the camp, and on the sound of the advance to rush up the Devon road and join the main body. The object of this movement being to prevent the enemy escaping along the left flank of the main body and attacking the camp, and if the enemy did not attempt this, then page 159Captain Bowdler was to enter the pah with the main body.
No 2. Division, Captain Messenger, with one hundred and twenty-five men, chiefly the fine grenadiers of the 40th Regiment, was directed to advance beyond the second division and get possession of Puketakauere mound, to cut off the retreat of the enemy from the Onukakaitara pah and prevent reinforcements, which might be forwarded from other pahs, coming up in his rear.
On the approach of the force, the natives were immediately on the alert, some left the stockades, occupied the rifle pits outside and commenced firing on Captain Messenger's party, whilst he opened fire on some natives who seemed to be making their way to the river.
A scout was seen to leave the pah, and he disappeared in the high fern in rear. The party of the 40th, with the third division under Captain Richards, and the blue jackets under Lieutenant Battiscombe, R.N., were extended to the right of the main body and in front of it, and moved towards the south-west face of the pah, Large numbers of the enemy came to page 160the edge of the gully and fired briskly at the skirmishers as they advanced towards the edge of the gully, the enemy were concealed by an embankment and by the high fern. The firing was heavy, and our people being exposed sustained considerable loss. A large reinforcement now came down the eastern gully from the direction of Wiremu Kingi's place and which out-flanked the troops.
Major Nelson having held his ground for some time, and seeing that there was no successful diversion from the rear, and it being evident that his numbers were not sufficient to cope with those opposed to him reluctantly gave orders to sound the retire, intending to repeat his attack when in command of greater numbers.
Some attempt was made to follow the main body, but this was speedily checked by the artillery; the retreat was conducted in an orderly manner and the troops returned to camp at 1 p.m., Captain Seymour being carried back with a ball through his leg, and many brave men killed and wounded besides. Captain Bowdler also withdrew his men to camp.
Captain Messenger who bore the brunt of page 161the action and who suffered the most, in compliance with his orders, led his division by the river and tried to circle round the pahs, but encountered a large swamp which he was unable to cross till he had advanced considerably to the east in the direction of Matarikoriko.* Tearing their way through the high fern and scrub, and impeded with their great coats, which with their trousers were soon in rags, and plunging in the swampy ground to the knees, scattered and divided by the fern which was up to their chins, whilst they held up their heavy pouches, they approached the Puketakauere mound, and saw it full of the enemy who were observing their movements.
Another body of the enemy approached so near at one time, as to cause bayonets to be fixed, when the Maories retired.
* Matarikoriko, blinking eyes.
Captain Messenger continued his advance till he got to the ground where the third division had been engaged, and he passed over some of the dead bodies there, and was in time to march into camp with the main body, but immediately afterwards was sent out again to bring in Lieutenant Jackson and as many as could be found with him, which he did. The casualties were numerous, for it was supposed that with the Waikatos in the pahs, the Maori combatants, with Wiremu Kingi's reinforcement, amounted to eight hundred warriors.
Besides Lieutenant Brooks (an officer of much promise) who fell, there were twenty non-commissioned officers and privates killed. Besides Captain Seymour, R.N., there were thirty-three non-commissioned officers and [gap — reason: illegible] wounded, total sixty-four killed and wounded. The enemy also suffered greatly, and subsequently offered to bury the British dead if not fired upon, which was agreed to. page 163Some of tbe casualties doubtless arose from the mistaken sense of honour of the men who, engaged for the first time, thought it unmanly to come to the knee in firing, but " stood up like men" as they thought, and took their chance.
The officers who particularly distinguished themselves, besides the energetic commander, were, Captains Messenger, Richards and Bowdler, 40th, Capt. Seymour, R.N., Lieutenant Mould, R.E., Lieutenant Macnaughten, R.A., Lieutenant Battiscombe, R.N., Lieutenant Morris, R.M. The medical officers, Dr. Murray and Assistant-surgeons Stiles and Edwards were most attentive to the wounded, and Ensign Whelan, 40th Regirnent, did good service as the staff officer. When I saw Puketakauere, the pahs had disappeared and in their place a strong and solidly constructed.timber.blockhouse occupied the height, with a good ditch, flanking defences and signal staff and yard.
In New Plymouth, on the morning of the 27th June, it was reported to Colonel Gold that heavy firing was heard in the direction of the Waitara, he was at this time in bed with severe influenza. Contrary to the advice of his page 164physician, he immediately rose, mustered a detachment and marched to Mahoetahi and beyond it to the Waiongona river, at this time swelled and difficult to ford from the winter rains; when he reached so far, all was quiet and the Maori flag flew on Puketakauere. Having received no signal or message from Major Nelson, and thinking that the firing had been from an insignificant skirmishing, Colonel Gold returned to New Plymouth.
About this time died the Maori King Te Whero Whero, or Potatau, from old age and influenza, and his son became his successor; his name is Matutaera.