The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)
Chapter 34: The Trenches at Meremere
Chapter 34: The Trenches at Meremere
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.
The Miranda Expedition
On the 16th November a force of about nine hundred men, under Lieut.-Colonel Carey, embarked at Auckland for the Thames Gulf. The object of the expedition was to occupy the principal Maori settlements on the western shore of the gulf, whence men and supplies had been sent to the Waikato, and to establish a line of forts across country from the sea to the Queen's Redoubt. The Kingite position at Paparata still threatened the rear of Cameron's army, and raiding-parties were able to cross the frontier at will and rove the Wairoa Ranges. Carey's expeditionary force consisted of two companies of the Auckland Coastguards (Naval Volunteers; Captain William C. Daldy), sixty of the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry (Captain Walmsley), detachments of the 12th and 70th Regiments, and the 1st Regiment of Waikato Militia. The warships “Miranda” and “Esk” headed the fleet of transports, which included the Government gunboat “Sandfly,” the steamers “Corio” and “Alexandra,” the brigantine “Jessie,” and seven or eight cutters. The Cavalrymen and their horses were taken down in the “Corio” and “Alexandra.”
The Esk Redoubt
This redoubt, for 150 men, named after H.M.S. “Esk,” was constructed at the end of November, 1863, by the force under Colonel Carey. It was situated on a commanding ridge between the Miranda post (Pukorokoro) and the Surrey Redoubt, south of Paparata, and formed one of the chain of redoubts from the Thames Gulf to the Waikato River.
On the bluff above the creek-mouth the troops built a redoubt for 120 men. It was named the Miranda, after the warship. Working detachments were sent out later along a route westward selected for a line of posts to the Waikato, and two redoubts, named the Esk and the Surrey, were constructed along the Miranda—Manga-tawhiri line, linking up with the Queen's Redoubt.
Operations of the Naval Volunteers
The Auckland Coastguards—later known as the Auckland Naval Artillery—who took a prominent part in the Miranda expedition, performed very useful service during the year in scouring the shores of Manukau Harbour and the Hauraki, and (in conjunction with the Onehunga Naval Volunteers) in seizing the flotilla of Maori war-canoes in the South Manukau creeks.
Lieut.-Colonel Henry Parker, of Devonport, who served for nine months as a seaman in the Auckland Coastguards, narrating the services of the corps (1918), stated that the first call to war came on the 18th July, 1863. The corps had a flagstaff near Government House, overlooking the town and harbour, and a gun was mounted there. The signal went up to muster, and at 2 p.m. the company fell in at Princes Street fully armed and accoutred, under Lieutenants Guilding and Stevenson. On reaching the rendezvous the Navals found that sixty armed friendly Maoris were to accompany them to the Manukau. They objected to march with the natives unless the latter were disarmed, as they did not trust them. The Defence Minister, after a conference with his officers, had the rifles and ammunition taken from the Maoris. The Volunteers marched out to Onehunga, and on reaching the Manukau were embarked in cutters. With the flood tide the flotilla stood up the south bay, and at 2 o'clock next morning the force landed at a point on the left-hand side of the tidal river, sailing up. Here there was a settlement of Kingite Maoris (Ngati-te-Ata) who were in possession of many large canoes; these canoes, it was believed, were to be used to transport war-parties of Kingites across the Manukau to Blockhouse Bay for an attack upon Auckland. Immediately the Maoris in the fenced village of raupo huts observed the presence of an enemy in the channel they opened fire on the troops. In the meantime a considerable number of the men had landed and gained the shelter of the cliff. The company advanced, and when the natives discovered the landing-party they retreated. The Volunteers suffered only one casualty—Seaman Thomas Barron (afterwards a well-known Auckland oarsman), who was hit in page 324 the ankle by a slug from a Maori gun. The force on returning to the village threw the Maori drays, ploughs, and other movable property into the harbour. After enjoying the kumara and other stores, the men endeavoured to set fire to the timber palisading around the pa, but it would not burn. The Navals explored the Papakura Creek, where H.M.S. “Harrier” was lying, and searched all the native villages. One of the main objects of the expedition, the capture of the enemy's means of transport across the Manukau, was successfully accomplished. Twenty-one large canoes were secured; these wakas were capable of carrying from thirty to fifty men each. The force also found an historic craft, the war-canoe “Toki-a-Tapiri” (“Tapiri's Axe”)—which now reposes in the Auckland Museum. The “Axe” could carry quite a hundred warriors. At Onehunga the canoes were handed over to the troops. Most of them were broken up and used for firewood or otherwise destroyed. The contingent then marched back to Auckland, after an absence of a week.
The Auckland Coastguards' next warlike mission was a minor expedition to carry despatches. Ten of the volunteer bluejackets, under Chief Petty Officer (afterwards Captain) W. C. Daldy, were ordered to carry despatches to the head chief of the native hapu on the Wairoa River; this was Hori te Whetuki, of the Koheriki Tribe. The detachment embarked in the gun-schooner “Caroline,” Captain Hannibal Marks. Arriving off the mouth of the Wairoa in the early morning, the schooner anchored, and the boat's crew was ordered away to carry the despatches up the river. Chief Petty Officer Daldy and four men formed the crew, Daldy steering; one of the oarsmen was Seaman Parker. The bluejackets had pulled about two miles up the river when they were fired on by a party of natives in the bush on the bank. In the bottom of the boat, under the thwarts, were loaded Enfield rifles, but as the crew was so small it was deemed advisable not to return the fire. Not a Maori could be seen—only the smoke that hung about the edge of the bush. This hostile reception compelled the despatch-carriers to return to the schooner. They pulled down the river and out to the “Caroline,” and a few hours later were back in Auckland.
Three days later the Coastguards received orders to go to the Wairoa again. The Government had chartered the steamer “Auckland,” and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies (the second company had just been formed), totalling about two hundred men, were ordered aboard, and all preparations were made for fighting. The steamer anchored off Ponui (Chamberlin's Island), several miles off the mouth of the Wairoa, and all the boats were put into the water. The force rowed ashore, but not a Maori was found; all the coast settlements were deserted. The expedition, finding page 325 no foe whereupon to play Enfield and cutlass, returned to town.
A week later the Coastguards were ordered out to the military camp at Drury. For several weeks the Volunteers were employed on convoy duty in the district between Drury, Mauku, and the Queen's Redoubt. On one occasion, the day after the fight at the Titi Farm, Mauku, a convoy of the Coastguards was ordered to take stores of food up to the soldiers at the Mauku stockades. The convoy had covered about half the distance, over a very bad road cut through the dense forest, when the bullock-drays became bogged. Some Maoris had taken post in a wooded gully flanking the road. By this time it was dark, and the Maori fires could be seen twinkling through the screen of foliage. The enemy opened fire on the convoy. The fire was effectively returned, the natives were driven off, and the convoy delivered the stores at Mauku and returned to Drury without further molestation.
This convoy duty and working cargo on the Drury tidal landing from the small craft that plied from Onehunga were arduous, but were cheerfully undertaken by the Coastguards. They openly rebelled, however, against an order to build a redoubt. Captain Daldy paraded the corps one day, and informed them that orders had been given by the Imperial officers to turn to and build an earthwork for the troops. This order met with very strenuous objections from the men, who protested that they had come to fight and not to build redoubts for the Regulars. They considered that as there were then some thousands of soldiers at Drury the troops could set to at their own fortifications. The protest held good. The officer in command rescinded his order, and the Coastguards presently received orders to return to Auckland.
In the town the Coastguards were continuously engaged in garrison duty; the pay was two guineas per week.
Later in the year (November) an expedition of Onehunga Navals and Rifle Volunteers, under Captain Purnell, scoured the southern and western shores of the Manukau in the s.s. “Lady Barkly,” and brought in canoes overlooked by the first expedition. The “Toki-a-Tapiri,” which had not been removed by the force in July—only the stern portion of the hull had been taken—was brought up to Onehunga. At Waiuku it was learned that a party of Maoris had cut down the signal-mast at the South Manukau Head, and had taken away two boats. The shore was searched, but the raiders had disappeared. A few days later there was another expedition in the steamer, this time to Awhitu, where it was reported that Kingite Maoris had appeared in force. The Navals landed, and in skirmishing order rushed the kainga, but the Maoris took to the bush, where it was not practicable to follow them.
* Tohikuri, of Ngati-Tamaoho, gives the following names of the largest war-canoes manned by the Waikato tribes during the river war of 1863: Maramarua, Tawhitinui, Te Marei, Te Aparangi, Te Ata-i-rehia, Te Winika, Tahere-tikitiki, Ngapuhoro, and Te Toki-a-Tapiri. The last-named was among the canoes belonging to the Ngati-te-Ata seized by the Naval Volunteers in the Manukau creeks; it is now in the Auckland Museum.