The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)
MAORI ARTILLERY, EMPLACED on the long narrow ridge of Meremere, saluted the first steam-craft that came paddling up the Waikato. The roar of these Kingite-manned guns—old ship's pieces conveyed with great labour from the west coast and loaded with a strange variety of projectiles—gave a deeper note of determination to the struggle for independence. Every tribe acknowledging the authority of the Maori King sent its warriors to garrison Meremere. At one period of its occupation there were more than a thousand men there, from the tribes of Waikato, from Ngati-Maniapoto, Ngati-Haua, Ngati-Koroki, Ngati-Raukawa, Ngati-Tuwharetoa, and even from Taranaki and the Upper Wanganui. Inland again, in the direction of the Wairoa and the Hauraki, was the Paparata series of entrenchments, designed to bar the British advance on the eastern side, and to keep communication open with the Thames Gulf and the Wairoa Ranges. On the other side of the Lower Waikato, in the elbow of the river, was Pukekawa, the advanced field base of Ngati-Maniapoto; from its domed crown they could overlook the river and the movements of the troops from Whangamarino down to Tuakau and Camerontown. Meremere held the centre; it was the key of the Waikato, and had the Kingites been armed on equal terms with the British they might, for all their inferior numbers, have swept the river clear, and maintained indefinitely the independence of the interior.
The Great South Road, which skirts the proper right bank of the Waikato south of Mercer, cuts through the site of the Meremere fortifications of 1863. The principal remains of the Maori works extend obliquely along a ridge—now a dairy farm—rising in places in irregular terraces parallel with the river, on the southern side of the Whangamarino flax swamp. A system of marshes, converted into lagoons in time of flood, bounds the long Meremere ridge, or succession of ridges, on the east, and when the Waikato ran high the Maori position was practically an island. At its greatest elevation it was about 130 feet above page 317 the river. The northern terminal of the ridges is about two miles south of the Mercer Railway-station. As the Great South Road, after crossing the swamp, ascends this end of the long hill it intersects the ruins of the first line of rifle-pits; on the clay spur, grown with gorse and pine-trees, the remains of the Maori trenches and shelter-holes are still plainly to be traced. From this point southwards for nearly half a mile the road runs close to the lines of trenches. On the edge of the steepest part of the slope above the Waikato irregular outlines of rifle-pits and dug-in whares are traceable in the uneven turf of the paddock. On the opposite side of the road (east), about 150 yards from the highway and on the crest of the ridge, are the well-preserved remains of the British redoubt constructed upon the site of the Maori tihi or citadel. This field-work, cut in a stiff clay, retains its original proportions well; the trench shows 15 feet scarp at the highest point, with a counterscarp of about 6 feet.
The first line of defence began at a palisading close to a belt of bush on the Maoris' extreme right, on the edge of the Whangamarino Swamp and close to the river. In front of the landing two ship's guns were in place; one of these was a small swivel 6-pounder. There were two embrasures in a kind of chamber cut in the clay bank; these openings covered the approach up or down the river, and the gun was shifted from one embrasure to the other with rope tackle. In rear of the battery were eleven tiers of traversed pits, covering the landing. A covered way led from the first gun to the second, which was mounted on a rough carriage with wooden wheels. The next system of entrenchments consisted of lines of rifle-pits, extending for several chains along the face of the ridge. Here a 24-pounder gun was emplaced. Beyond these pits, and on the summit of the hill, was the trenched pa, 28 yards by 20 yards, lightly palisaded.
Drawn from a sketch by an officer of H.M.S. “Curaçoa”]
The Gunboat “Pioneer” at Meremere
On the 29th October, 1863, the “Pioneer,” with Lieut.-General Cameron and staff on board, reconnoitred the Kingite entrenchments on the Meremere ridge. The gunboat anchored in the Waikato 300 yards from the shore, and remained there for more than two hours under fire. A correspondent in the “Pioneer,” describing the reconnaissance, wrote:—
“A cloud of white smoke burst from the bank at the landing. The Maoris had fired their lower guns. … Another puff of smoke sprang up, this time from a kind of embrasure in the upper line of rifle-pits. This shot fell short, endangering the Maoris more than the people in the steamer. Again the same gun fired, and with similar effect, the langridge splashing up the water, but nearer to the rifle-pits than to the steamer. The gun at the landing belched out again, and a jet of water spouted up alongside the gunboat; she was hit at last. A broken rocket-tube fell on board, but without any injury resulting. The natives had evidently dug up this projectile and used it as a charge of langridge. The side of the steamer was in a moment enveloped in white smoke, and the fragments of a shell tore up the ground about the rifle-pits at the landing. Another followed, and another, while not a movement was made in the native position. Now a sharp crack was heard in another direction, followed by a sustained hissing sound—the 40-pounder Armstrong gun had sent its shell from Whangamarino, and this burst over the long line of rifle-pits on the hilltop. The steamer again fired, and alternately the 40-pounder fired, the missiles bursting over every part of the position. The time-fuse appeared rather short for the 40-pounder range, and the shells burst in the air, but the percussion fuse exploded the other shells as they struck the ground, and each sent a shower of earth into the air. The natives made no reply for a time, but at length, from a point near the water, where a palisade had been erected to arrest the march of any troops that might attack the place from the Whangamarino side, a sharp volley of musketry rattled out, succeeded by another, and then came a dropping fire from the whole extent of rifle-pits. The balls pinged on the steamer and pattered on the iron plating, occasionally going through an opening or glancing sharply off the cupolas. No one was struck, save perhaps some man in his coat-skirt or the brim of his hat. For half an hour now the steamer lay without firing a shot. General Cameron and his staff had now made themselves acquainted with the nature of the position; at each loophole a sketch was being made, while the natives expended their ammunition in vain.”
The “Pioneer” again reconnoitred the Meremere entrenchments on the 30th October and was fired on heavily.
On the 29th and 30th October the gunboat “Pioneer” made reconnaissances of the Meremere position. General Cameron and his staff were on board. The gunboat was fired on heavily by the Maoris, who used their cannon as well as small-arms, but the fire was not effective. Most of the shots fell short, but on the 30th a 7 lb. steelyard weight fired from the upper gun, a 24-pounder, penetrated the upper works of the gunboat and lodged in a cask of beef. Fragments of iron used as projectiles rattled against the plating and the cupolas, but did no damage. On the first day's reconnaissance the “Pioneer” replied to the Maoris' cannonade with her gun, and the 40-pounder Armstrongs in the Whangamarino redoubt also sent several shells into the Meremere entrenchments.
After the reconnaissance in the “Pioneer” on the 30th October General Cameron returned to the Queen's Redoubt, and orders were given for the embarkation of a column of six hundred men, consisting of detachments of the 40th and 65th Regiments, and two gun detachments of the Royal Artillery. These marched to the naval camp on the Manga-tawhiri, and were taken off to the “Pioneer” as she lay at her moorings in the Waikato near the Bluff. The expedition before daybreak on the 31st October had passed the enemy's position at Meremere, fired upon by the upper and lower battery and rifle-pits as she steamed up the flooded river. Without returning the fire, the “Pioneer,” accompanied by the “Avon,” and having in tow several of the small gunboats, steamed for about eight miles above Meremere, and the force was landed. An entrenchment was thrown up on the high ground on the right bank and on the track from the landing to Rangiriri and Meremere. Three guns were got into position early in the day. One of the small gunboats was left in the river to cut off the Maoris' communication from the interior by water, and the “Pioneer” and “Avon” returned, towing the remaining gunboats.
The Maoris realized the importance of this move, and attempted to dislodge the British force by an attack on the page 321 field-work early next morning, but they were repulsed. A force of about six hundred men was to have embarked on the 1st November to form a junction with the advance force and march back to Meremere, attacking it about dawn on the left flank and rear. The Maoris forestalled this movement by a retreat. The flooded state of the country favoured their escape from the rear; and about 2 o'clock a despatch from Captain Phelps, of the 14th Regiment, in command at Whangamarino, gave the first news that the natives were crossing the lagoon in canoes from Meremere towards Paparata and the Thames. General Cameron, accompanied by his staff, immediately left the Queen's Redoubt, and in passing the Koheroa redoubts gave orders for 250 men of the 12th and 14th Regiments to embark in the “Pioneer.” The General went ahead in the “Avon” to reconnoitre, and on being joined by the “Pioneer” the expeditionary force landed. Meremere was found deserted; two of the heavy guns, one musket, and three canoes were all that were captured. The troops occupied the position, and built a redoubt on the highest point.