With the Lost Legion in New Zealand
Chapter VI — The Taupo Campaign
The Taupo Campaign
The two columns having completed the first part of the programme by uniting at Ruatahuna it behoved our O.C. and the senior officers to turn to and stage the second act, but here Nature chipped in and bade them pause.
Our force was composed of picked men, admirably suitable for the work that lay before them, and, with the exception of the Arawa tribe, the only cowardly race in New Zealand, the whole outfit were full of fight and ready to go anywhere. Still it is a well-known fact that, no matter how good and willing men are, nevertheless they must eat sometimes, and we were, within twenty-four hours of our junction, absolutely without food The inclemency of the weather also greatly added to our sufferings, as we were never dry during the day, while the bitter frosts at night froze us hard. Moreover the enemy, though unable to face us in a stand-up fight, still lingered in our vicinity, and had even the cheek to commence fortifying a high hill overlooking the camp, a movement on their part that required a sharp skirmish to dissuade them from continuing.
Colonel Whitmore had brought some horses with him to Ahikereru; these now had to be killed, and the flesh served out in short rations, while parties were detached to try and locate the Maoris' page 346hidden stores of potatoes. These ruas (potato pits), however, were so well concealed that we could find but few, and those we did find we had to skirmish for previous to looting, and even when we had gained them the supply did not equal the day's demand.
Nothing daunted, the little Colonel still determined to carry out his original plans and make a push for Colonel Herrick's column, which by now should be on the Waikaremoana Lake, but here again he was thwarted, as the Arawas not only positively refused to accompany us, but also insisted on going home, and it was with considerable trouble they could be persuaded to carry to the coast our wounded and sick, who by now reached a considerable number. The indomitable little Colonel had therefore no other option but to fall back, so he gave orders that the combined columns should start for Ahikereru, while the Arawas convoying the wounded should march straight for the coast by another route.
Previous to returning, however, he determined to attack and destroy a big kainga that my scoutingparty had discovered while spud-hunting. This expedition, trivial though it might be, and of no importance, was yet a very popular one, all hands eagerly volunteering to take a part in it, not on account of any glory that might be reaped from its capture, but the men were all so hungry that they were only too anxious to undergo the extreme hardships of a long, bitterly cold night's march through rugged bush on the chance of being able to get a few mouthfuls of pork and potatoes; as for the chance of being knocked over or wounded, page 347that was not taken into consideration at all.
I am only mentioning the above facts as during this insignificant affair an incident happened to myself that was the cause of making me the target for a lot of chaff, which though good-natured caused many a hearty laugh at my expense. It fell out in this way:
At dark a party of two hundred men, under the command of Colonel St John, and guided by myself and scouts, after the usual wretched march reached the doomed place some two hours before daybreak, and unable to surround it we lay down to freeze, starve and wait for the dawn. Lord, I was hungry, and being so close to the huts it came like balm to my soul, all of a sudden, to hear an old woman cry out: "It is time to prepare food let us arise and make ready the hangis" (ovens constructed of stones sunk into the ground; these being heated, the food is placed on them, water is then poured over it, when it is carefully covered up and the confined steam cooks the viands).
Presently there was a sound of women muttering and grumbling, then a fire was kindled, followed quickly by others, the combined flare from these lighting up the cooking places, while we, shrouded in the outer darkness, lay and licked our lean chaps as we heard the boss woman directing so many kits of potatoes and so much pork to be cooked in each hangi; verily I for one wanted no sherry and bitters to sharpen my appetite. Presently, the stones being hot enough, the fires are removed, and darkness again covers the scene as the food is placed in the ovens and covered up.page 348
Again a weary wait, and just as we know breakfast ought to be ready the sky begins to lighten, and we can see the outline of the kainga. Surely in my impatience I may be forgiven for uttering the following prayer:—"O gods of war, ye who pass your days in fighting and your nights in feasting, listen to your humble votary. Hurry up Phoebus, the beggar's slack to-day. Grant us only light enough, and we vow to fight like bricks and eat like heroes. Let us but get at our enemies and to our victuals."
The light comes slowly. Will the Colonel never give the word? His expectant bugler lies beside him, bugle to lip. The women inside the kainga call to the men: "Arise, the food is ready to be eaten," and we hear the yawns and grunts of the warriors as they wake up from their natural slumber, some of them soon to be put to sleep again in a speedier and more permanent manner. There goes the trumpet, endorsed by a cheer from our over-willing men as with a rush we dash into the village. Here takes place the usual turmoil: screaming women and children rush for the bush; men, resisting and fighting desperately, are shot down, while others are driven out of the place in headlong flight. We do not pursue, but, with mouths watering, instinctively gather round the hangis. The women had stated that the food was cooked; we required no expert evidence, off came the earth-covered mats, when the steam of the luscious pork and spuds rose to still further tantalise the famished men.
There was, however, no greedy scrambling. Starving we might be, but we were comrades in page 349adversity and must fare and share alike. Squads of men fall in of their own accord, the food is rapidly distributed by the non-coms., and is more rapidly consumed by the hungry recipients. Then comes the turn of the officers, who, noblesse oblige, have had to wait, so as to make sure there was enough to feed the men before attending to their own wants. There was, however, no fear on this occasion of anyone going short, as one oven remained still unopened, and around this we eagerly clustered. Pierre presents himself with his huge knife, the food is served out, juniors, taking precedence, receive their allotments first, and I had just received mine, consisting of a lump of pork about the size of my fist, together with a dozen or so of potatoes, all steaming and piping hot, served up on a fragment of a Maori mat, and with ravenous eyes was watching the succulent mess cool sufficiently to devour, when bang, whizz, zip comes a flight of bullets whistling over our heads.
"Damn," said the Colonel. "Mr Burke, take thirty men and drive those blaggards back to perdition; it's like their infernal cheek to interfere with gentlemen while breakfasting," and the old fellow squared his shoulders and tucked in to his portion.
As I stumbled to my feet I did not say "damn," as it would not have been an appropriate expression on such an occasion, and I felt utterly unable to coin one suitable, so picking up my precious viands, which I carried in the mat on my left fore-arm pressed against my chest, where they raised blisters wherever they came in contact with my bare skin through my tattered shirt, in less than a minute I had the men extended, page 350and charged at the bush, from the edge of which spurts of smoke told us that the Hau Haus, disgusted at the loss of their breakfast, were seeking utu by preventing us enjoying their forfeited repast. It was as we were advancing I discovered that, with the exception of my tomahawk and sheath-knife, I was unarmed. This discovery somewhat flabbergasted me, but it at once flashed through my mind that I had been in the act of reloading four chambers of my M. L. revolver when I had received my share of the food, and that, in my greediness to eat, I had placed my still uncapped pistol on the ground beside me, and on receiving the unwelcome order, in my anxiety to carry off the food, I had forgotten the gun. No matter, thought I to myself, the men must do my shooting for me, so drawing my tomahawk I led them at the bush, where we quickly drove the enemy back for a few hundred yards, when they turned tail and made a clean bolt for it, while at the same time the recall was sounded from the main body.
After seeing that all my men were present and unwounded I gave the word to retire, and we started wending our way back to the kainga. I was now clearly entitled to break my longsustained fast. True, I could not sit down to eat, but it is better for a hungry man to eat while walking rather than not to eat at all, so that as my men fell back at a brisk pace I opened my mat, and, grabbing a handful of the by now well-smashed and greasy potatoes, conveyed it to my mouth, instinctively slowing up my pace as I began to eat the precious food.page 351
Lord, how good it was!—not tempting to look at, my gentle reader, nor was there any romantic refinement in the tableau of a gaunt, unshaven man, dressed in a tattered shirt and shawl, feeding himself with an unwashed, blood-stained hand while pushing his way through the tangles of a New Zealand bush.
Well, refinement or no refinement, I was thoroughly enjoying it; as I swallowed each grimy morsel I somehow, without noticing the fact, moved slower and slower, until my men had gained considerably on me, and I loitered perhaps fifty or sixty yards in rear of them. This of course was both foolish and wrong, and Nemesis the slut was on my spoor in a moment. I had swallowed some half-a-dozen handfuls of thesmashed potatoes, and was thinking of tearing off with my teeth a mouthful of pork, when fizz! just past my ear whizzed a bullet. Disgusted, I turned round and saw a Maori lad, perhaps thirteen years old, with a revolver in his hand, running after me, who had evidently made up his mind to gain distinction by bagging a white man. His intentions, though highly commendable from his point of view, were deucedly unpleasant from mine, as the moment I stopped he fired again, making such a good shot that he put a bullet through my rags which seared my ribs like a red-hot iron. Angry as I was there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to bolt, so, infra dig. as it might be, I bolted, and went tearing through the bush pursued by a native urchin who every now and again squibbed off a shot so as to keep me going. Of course I knew the report of the first shot would bring my men to page 352the halt, and that I should be missed the moment they did so. This happened, as I had not run far when I spotted two men peering round tree-trunks and ready to fire. I ran between them, still closely followed by my youthful pursuer, who, being so set upon bagging me, did not spot the ambuscade until he was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and his pistol wrenched out of his hand. He was a plucky little beggar, and his fortitude quite surprised us as he insisted upon being killed at once and not being made a prisoner, at the same time looking longingly at the provisions I still carried. He gently intimated he was sick with hunger. Angry as I was I still could not bring myself to kill the gallant youngster; and then again, the little beggar was hungry, which put us somehow in the same boat, so I gave him a half share of my rations, and, after gently admonishing him with my toe, bade him run after his people, which he did, while we continued to fall back on the main body, and I managed to finish my much disturbed and diminished breakfast.
The fallowing day we marched to Ahikereru, and then it became evident, even to our little game-cock of an O.C., that we had shot our bolt, and that without a proper supply of food it would be an act of madness for us to try and surmount the tremendous Huiarau range of mountains, then quite unknown and deeply covered with snow. Even to stay where we were was an impossibility, as the distance to our base was so great that the supply of rations, never regular, must cease on account of the inclemency of the weather, so that much against his will he determined to continue page 353the retreat, and take post from Fort Te Teko to Fort Galatea, along the Rangitaike River, as in these forts there were not only many provisions stored, but to which ran a good road along which both drays and pack-horses could easily bring supplies up from the coast. My word, but we did enjoy ourselves when we reached our new cantonments!—plenty of good bread and meat to eat, plenty of tea, such as it was, to drink, and oh, only think of it, dry blankets and tents in which to sleep! We revelled in it, though the privations we had been through caused a terrible lot of sickness and we lost very many good men who could ill be spared. Somehow it has always seemed so rough to me that a good fellow who has run his risks, faced the music and done his duty through a hard campaign, should, after he has returned with a whole skin to comparative comfort, and maybe is eagerly looking forward to another go at the enemy, be rubbed out by some beastly sickness. The parsons say it is Providence; I maintain it is rotten bad luck.
We were, however, not allowed a long rest, as the Colonel received information that Te Kooti intended to break through our lines, so as to get into the Taupo country, and perhaps from there into the Waikato, so that we were all kept very busy indeed. At Fort Galatea we mounted men had met our horses, therefore for a time I had done with the weary footslogging and was again in the pigskin, with all the huge Kaingaroa and Taupo plains to gallop over. This was indeed a change for the better, though the weather was awful, and the south-east blizzards which swept over the high page 354inland plateau bit us to the very bone. It was not long before we mounted men located Te Kooti at a native village called Heruiwi, but he was in too great strength and far too well posted for us to attack with only a handful of cavalry, so that we had to fall back on Fort' Galatea, purposing to guide up infantry to do the bush-whacking.
Te Kooti, however, was too old a bird to stay long on his perch after he knew he had been located. He therefore, breaking cover, crossed the Taupo plains making for Lake Taupo, but, so that we should remember him, he managed en route to ambuscade two despatch-riders. One of these succeeded in scraping clear and reached Galatea with the news that Te Kooti was on the move, but the other poor fellow was knocked off his horse and taken prisoner. Now I do not know whether in his Mission School days Te Kooti had ever read Byron's poems, though it is quite possible they had been a portion of the useless literature that mission folk hand over to youthful savages, but anyhow he treated the poor captured trooper in the same way as Mazeppa was treated, for, stripping him naked, he caused him to be tightly lashed on to his bare-backed horse and then had the two of them cast adrift on to the Kaingaroa plains, where the poor chap perished miserably.
Presently two Maoris strolled up. "Tena koutou" (salutations to all of you), quoth they; "we are Arawas," and they stood among the troopers, warming themselves and expressing their delight at the chance of doing so.
In a few minutes three more turned up, with words of salutations on their lips and murder in their hearts; and this goes on until at last the infatuated volunteers grow suspicious and try to get hold of their arms; but it is too late. They are already outnumbered. A signal is given and the tomahawk does its work. Some two or three, however, escape, and reach Galatea, but nine of them lie butchered in cold blood. The Colonel also had a most wonderful escape, as the Hau Haus, ignorant of his vicinity, moved off the ground immediately the slaughter was ended and continued their march towards the lake. Of course directly we got the page 356news at Galatea we were quickly on Te Kooti's spoor, but by the time we reached Opepe the Hau Haus had retired to the other end of the huge lake, where Te Kooti was immediately joined by the majority of the Taupo tribes. He was therefore again a leader of some six hundred desperate fanatics, and there was also every possibility of his being joined by the Upper Wanganui and the powerful tribe of Waikato.
Had the above coalition taken place it would have been a most disastrous affair for the colony, as Te Kooti would then have had nearly three thousand men at his disposal, but fortunately, just at the critical moment, his men chanced to murder an old and seemingly insignificant Maori, who nevertheless turned out to be a close blood relation of the most powerful chiefs of the Upper Wanganui tribes. These at once demanded utu, and became his bitterest enemies. Then with three hundred men he pays a visit of ceremony to the Waikatos, whom he insults, and whose country he is forced to leave, and so once more falls back to the Taupo country, where he locates himself south of the great lake and close to the volcanoes Tongariro and Ruapehu. Of course at that time we knew but little of his movements, but it would have been bad policy on our part to have attacked him in the Taupo country immediately after the slaughter of the volunteers at Opepe. In the first place the country was quite unknown to us, while the scarcity of rations, the severity of the weather, the desertion of our allies, the Arawas, and the certainty that the smallest reverse we might receive would immediately bring to his banner all the page 357wavering tribes, forced our O.C. to mark time till the weather improved and the big gaps in our ranks could be filled up by fresh men.
Colonel Whitmore took advantage of this pause to make a trip to Wellington to interview the Government, an interview that caused great changes in the plan of campaign, it being decided to mass every available man on the Taupo plateau, to build a chain of forts from Napier to Tauranga, so as to cut off all communications between the Uriwera and the Waikato, and at the same time to ensure safe storage for a sufficient supply of rations for what was evidently going to be a most arduous campaign.
Colonel Herrick's column was ordered from Waikaremoana to Napier, and started cutting a road for pack-horses up to Runanga, a high hill situated on the border of the Taupo plains, and here they built a strong stockade from which communications could easily be kept up with Opepe (now headquarters), a distance of twenty-two miles, and Ahikereru, a distance of eleven miles, while in between Runanga and Napier were constructed three other forts.
Nor were we of the old field force idle. Winter or no winter, we kept hard at it, scouting and patrolling and learning the country thoroughly, so that when spring came on we should be ready to take the field again.
Our dear old O.C, Colonel St John, worn out with past hardships, had been invalided, but our regret at his departure was somewhat tempered by our hearing the news that Colonel McDonnell would take command in the ensuing campaign, page 358which he shortly did, after making a splendidly plucky march across country from Wanganui to Taupo, a march that had the greatest moral effect on the natives, as they had up till then deemed the road impracticable for white men to negotiate even in summer.