A Sketch of the New Zealand War
Soldier's Account of the War IV
Next day I put away my undress frock-coat, and wore a blue jumper and a forage cap to show my rank. I now give you a soldier's account of the war up to the date of my arrival:—
"This was a bit of a ruction about land. Outsiders had nothing to do with it. We could have managed it all ourselves, but we were not going to be hurried. After we had time to get warm there would have been some fine fighting. Then we would have settled our quarrels, had a big feed together, and gone on again, in a comfortable, easy manner. You see, the 65th has been in New Zealand about eighteen years. We all talk the language, more or less. Indeed, some of us have close relations amongst the Maori. Whether or not, they are a decent, civil-spoken race, and we know many of their chief and people as Well as we de our messmates.
"'It is for me to talk, for others to keep silent.'
"He then left the meeting in a dudgeon, and walked off with his followers.
"Governor Gore Brown considered the Queen in his person insulted, and ordered the survey of the land and the completion of the purchase from Te Teira, who was friendly to the Pakeha, and a great ruffian. Wiremu Kingi built a pa on the disputed block, and we were sent out to storm the pa. All this was in perfect good blood. Wiremu Kingi knew we were going to attack, and some of his men marched with us when we were on the way to surprise it.
"The pa was not a fighting stockade; it was what the Maori call a 'land title pa.' Wiremu had defended his title by the erection of the stockade. Just before we arrived to storm the pa, Wiremu Kingi, according to Maori custom, evacuated his 'land title pa,' and went off to his fighting fortress. We, under orders, invested the land title pa, which we all knew was empty, and at the word of command stormed it gallantly.page break page 29
"We then put up a land title fortification and returned to New Plymouth. Everything was going on nicely till some members of another tribe, the Ngatiruanui, who were also adversaries of Wiremu Kingi's, murdered some white people to the south of New Plymouth. Had we then gone to Wiremu Kingi, who was a Ngatiawa, and asked him to put off the quarrel about the land, and come and help us punish the Ngatiruanui, all would have been well.
"An expedition was organized, to withdraw our white people from the Southern districts where the murders had taken place.
"The Maori had built a land title pa at Waireka, just on the side of the high-road. It was thought desirable to have the relief party pass round by the sea-coast, whilst the 65th watched the Waireka pa.
"When men are sent out to fight Maori, they should be told what they have to do, and ordered not to return till they have finished it. Colonel Murray, who commanded the 65th, received positive orders to return by nightfall. The Militia and Volunteers who had gone round by the sea-beach fell in with some Maori and fired on them. An irregular skirmish took place, a great deal of noise was made, and very page 30little harm done. I was in Charley Urquhart's company, and saw the whole proceedings from the top of the hill. When it began to grow dark, Colonel Murray ordered the troops under his command to retire. It was a fine night. The soldiers thought something might turn up in the way of diversion, and as they were scattered about in skirmishing order, it was difficult to collect them together.
"At last they consented to hear the recall, and marched in 'an irregular manner along the high-road towards New Plymouth.
"On the way they met the sailors who had landed to cut into the sport. We chaffered and hob-nobbed with them in the dark, and told them there was an empty pa just near the high-road, full of curios and pigs and sport of every kind; and they rushed on. When the sailors got out of the bush they saw the stockade in the open, and the officers and men all rushed right at it. A few old Maori, seeing us retire, had returned to the pa—which was a land title and not a fighting pa—to cook some potatoes. These fired a volley on the sailors, and then ran away. One or two Maori were killed, and several sailors wounded.
"This was the real cause of the war. These Maori were Ngatiawa. Few of our people page 31knew one tribe from another. We had attacked Wiremu Kingi's tribe because the Ngatiruanui had murdered our people.
"Wiremu Kingi's people could have murdered all our settlers before morning without difficulty, but did not do so, because, according to Maori custom, the Ngatiawa had no right to erect a stockade on our land. Waireka was our land. We had not only bought it, but cropped it, and held it for many years. The Ngatiawa knew this well, and only put up a stockade as a protest against our occupation of the Waitara. Our farmers who grazed their cattle up to the very line of the Maori knew it also, and both Maori and white men used to smoke their pipes in the evening, sitting on the logs around, and some of the white men from a neighbourly feeling helped to hump the heavy timber needed for the corner-posts of that pa.
"Well, the newspapers made a great racket about all this, said the 65th had run away, and that had it not been for the bluejackets the whole country-side would have been murdered and New Plymouth sacked.
"We said nothing, but felt pouri (Maori for 'sad'). In a short time the women and children came in from the out settlements. page 32Not a hair of one of their heads had been touched; not a particle of their furniture, or a single head of their stock had been looted.
"Soon a wing of the 40th Foot arrived from Melbourne, under the command of Major Nelson, and with the Naval Brigade were camped on the Waitara. Communication with this force was kept open by a little steamer, The Tasmanian Maid, which crossed the bar of the river, and kept up supplies. All this time the route by land was practically open, and settlers came and went by the Bell Block, as if we were all at peace; but our military commanders either did not know this, or care to admit it. The fact is they were all quarrelling amongst themselves, and nobody knew what the next orders from the Governor in Auckland might bring forth.
"Major Nelson was a fiery old field-officer who longed for distinction. He was egged on by Commodore Seymour, who had landed his men, and itched to surpass the achievement of his junior officer who had stormed the Waireka pa.
"Major Nelson sent word that he proposed to storm the Puketekauere pa, named the day, and warned Colonel Gold, who was the Senior officer, to support him by a land march, so as page 33to cut off the retreating Maori on, his left flank. Now, Captain Richards of the 40th Foot had come down as a staff-officer, and when our mess-room was pretty full, swaggered up to the looking-glass, arranged his undress frock-coat, curled his moustachios, and said; 'Damn me! There is no pa in the country I could not take with my company of Light Bobs.'
"There was no remark made. As soon as he had left, the word was passed round the regiment, 'Captain Richards and the 40th shall have their chance. We will not spoil the sport.'
"When Colonel Gold, who was in command of our regiment, and the senior officer, received Major Nelson's demand for support, he stormed violently, and swore he would forbid the attack. Though he was not aware of Captain Richards' boast—for he was a married officer, and did not frequent our mess—the regiment tipped him the wink; so he sanctioned the attack, and promised the support.
"Puketekauere was a position of great natural strength. Two small elevations ran into each other, joined by a smooth saddle. The rear and right were protected by a raupo swamp. Raupo swamps are impassable, though they look inviting. The front was easily approach-page 34able even by heavy guns. The left rested on the Waitara River. As is common in river formations, these little eminences had a curve in the middle. They presented the form of an elongated kidney, with its back to the raupo swamp. The front hillock was higher and less flat on the top than its fellow, and the bend in the saddle, enabled musketry from the lesser hillock to command the approach to the other.
"Major Nelson had no real knowledge of the country or the character of his antagonist. The Maori built a stockade on the larger hillock, ran up his flag and danced his defiance on the open hillock that led to it. This was more than human nature could stand. Major Nelson fumed and swore until he received the necessary permission from Colonel Gold. He then started off in the dead of the night: Captain Messenger with his Grenadier Company and Lieutenant Brooks with some Light Bobs. The men carried their top-coats, 120 rounds of ammunition, and two days' provision. These were to travel all night, and, at the break of day, to storm the stockade from the rear, as the Major with the guns assaulted it from the front.
"Captain Messenger once despatched, the die was cast. There was great preparation, and page 35before dawn off set the main body under Major Nelson and Commodore Seymour with the heavy guns. Nothing but dead silence prevailed. The surprise was complete. The twenty-four pounders, the mortars, and the twelve pounders opened fire. The stockade splintered like matchwood. The assault was ordered, and with a ringing cheer the soldiers and sailors vied with each other to get in first. There was merely a dropping fire from the Maori, and victory was certain. As soon as our men got up to the stockade, a withering fire was opened from the lesser flanking hillock. The stockade was only a draw. The Maori had rifle-pitted the whole of the saddle and the lesser hillock. As soon as the true position was unmasked, the recall was sounded. The wounded were picked up, the guns were unlimbered. The battle was lost, and for all practical purposes Captain Messenger's force was left to look after itself. The Grenadiers, under Captain Messenger, had at last found the rear of the pa. Worn out with fatigue from slaving all night through bush and swamp, they lay down a little to recover themselves. As soon as they heard the firing, up they rose with bounding hearts, and plunged into the swamp as the only road to victory. They threw off page 36their coats, peeled off their tunics, discarded everything but their arms, and pressed on. It was no use. It was here Lieutenant Brooks, up to his waist in water, defended himself like a Paladin with his sword, disabling many an adversary until at length he was tomahawked from behind. Captain Messenger, finding the feat impossible, got together as many of his men as he could, beat to his right, skirted the swamp and rushed the Maori rifle-pits from the rear, where the swamp was more passable, and surprised the Maori who were looking to their front, engaged with our men. Thus he carried out his instructions and rejoined the main body, which was in full retreat.
"In short, it was a disastrous defeat, and it seems doubtful whether the 40th, which had in the action the flower of its chivalry, will ever get over it. The 65th Foot, under command of Colonel Gold, marched at four o'clock in the morning to cut off the retreat of the Maori on the left. They found the Waingongora River, from recent forest rains in the hills, flooded bank high, and, as they had neither boats nor means for constructing pontoons, they halted, and sought to open communications with Major Nelson by a mounted trooper, whose horse swam the river. This delay did not page 37seem of much importance at the time. Neither was it in reality of any great importance, as it was well known to us that the Maori, if defeated, would retire up the river to Puke-Rangiora, rather than trust themselves in the open ordinarily accessible to our troops. As a matter of fact, Colonel Gold thought Major Nelson had postponed the attack, as he ought to have known by the flooded state of the Waitara that the Waingongora, which served the same watershed, must be impassable to our forces. The general impression in both camps was that Major Nelson had neither expected nor much desired Colonel Gold's co-operation. He meant to score off his own bat, secure a C.B. and a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy, terminate the war to the glory of his own regiment, and return in triumph to his own headquarters in Melbourne."
This is the end of the soldier's story. I gathered it from all branches of Her Majesty's forces, naval, military, volunteers, and militia, and from all ranks of officers and non-commissioned officers engaged in these operations under the grade of field-officer. I have narrated faithfully and without any intentional colouring exactly what I heard, and I knew the page 38intimate thoughts of the soldiers. I belonged to no corps in particular, never having been a regimental officer, and the wounded of all corps came equally under my care. If this narrative should offend any one, I am sorry. It is the truth as I saw it, and ought to be told.