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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter XXX. — First Attack on Te Ngutu o Te Manu With The New Levies. — Death of Captain George Ross, Sergeant McFadden, Corporal Blake, and Seven Privates

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Chapter XXX.
First Attack on Te Ngutu o Te Manu With The New Levies.
Death of Captain George Ross, Sergeant McFadden, Corporal Blake, and Seven Privates.

About midday Colonel McDonnell arrived from Patea with Katene, and the first object that met the latter's eyes was a near relation lying dead outside the redoubt where he had fallen in the assault. From that moment the colonel knew his scout was not to be trusted, and that sooner or later he would want utu (revenge); he therefore determined to keep a sharp look-out on his movements.

For some time Katene had shown uneasiness, and like his compatriots at Te Ngutu had been stealing; for one of these offences he was tried before the Resident Magistrate and sentenced to three months in the Patea gaol. McDonnell was absent at the time, but on his return he heard of the affair, and as he required some information sent for the gaoler to bring Katene to him; this was done, and far into the night they sat talking over future operations. At last McDonnell said, "You had better sleep here to-night, and to-morrow I will get your sentence remitted, as a reward for the information you have given me." Katene replied that he would rather return to the gaol that night as his blankets were there, so they both walked down to the place, and found it locked and the gaoler away; this did not discompose Katene, who simply walked round to the back, and climbed up to the gable window; just before he disappeared inside, he turned and said, "It is easy to get in, but much easier to get out." "Then why did you stay?" said the colonel. "Oh," he replied, "I knew it would be right when you returned; if I had not thought so you would have found me absent." The colonel's misgivings as to the future behaviour of his spy were well founded, for that very night Moko and Katene, page 176with all their people, about thirty in number, who had been living for some time close to the camp, went off in a body to Titokowaru, and took with them the people of Mawhitiwhiti.

A Wanganui chief, Te Hira, who was living with them, was found next morning gagged and bound in a most scientific manner; when released, he described the whole affair as far as he knew to McDonnell. He said that he was awakened from his sleep by the Hauhaus, as they tied him hand and foot; Katene wanted to kill him, but the others refused to allow it, and contented themselves by gagging him so that he could not give the alarm.

Long after, I heard the history of their escape, after Katene had been called into McDonnell's whare, and had remained talking over matters with the colonel until nearly 2 a.m. He went to his people and awakened them quietly, telling them to muster in his tent. "When they were all assembled, he said, "You know where I have been." "Yes," said the tribe; "in McDonnell's whare." "Yes, and I have this news for you, that McDonnell intends to kill you all as spies and traitors, and had it not been for me you would have been killed this night. I have managed to put it off until to-morrow; let us kill Te Hira and escape at once.

The first proposition, as we have seen, was not agreed to, but the latter was carried out so quickly and silently, that no one knew or suspected they had left, until the following morning.

Comparatively few of the new levies had seen active service, and, as might have been foreseen from the hurried manner in which they were raised, were of very inferior quality compared with the old hands. Had we been likely to engage the enemy in open ground, this would not have mattered; but the absolute certainty that we should have to fight far in the bush, where even the best and most experienced men are liable to panics, was a source of great anxiety to the officers, and caused them to look forward to page 177the first engagement with anything but eagerness. They could not but feel that the chances were much in favour of disaster. It is difficult for those who have not taken part in a bush fight, to understand the value, or indeed, the absolute necessity, of experienced men. New hands, no matter how good, or how courageous, will crowd, and if they are not allowed to do that, they fancy they are being deserted, simply because, from the nature of the bush, they can only see one or two of their comrades. Therefore, the heavier the fire, and greater the necessity for keeping apart, the more new hands tend to crowd together.

By this time McDonnell had received most of the promised reinforcements, and on the 21st of August orders were issued for all available men to hold themselves ready to start before daybreak to attack Te Ngutu o te manu. The morning broke with torrents of rain, but about 10 a.m. the rain ceased, and a thick mist shrouded the whole country; this was even better for our purpose than darkness, so McDonnell ordered the force to start The column consisted of detachments of Nos. 2, 3, and 5 Divisions of the Constabulary, Wellington Rangers, and "Wellington Rifles, in all about two hundred men, accompanied by Father Roland. They crossed the Waingongoro River at the upper crossing, entered the bush at the Pungarehu track, and pushed rapidly forward until they reached that deserted village; greater caution was then used, as at any moment a volley might be poured into them from an ambush. Shortly before reaching Te Maru, palisades could be seen through the trees, but fortunately for the attacking party, this strong work had no defenders. I say fortunately, for it was constructed in a most ingenious manner; the palisades were erected right across the track, and for some chains on either side, and supported by rifle-pits in the rear. Yet it was only intended as a blind, to distract the attention of the attacking party from the more dangerous (because unseen) rifle-pits that flanked the whole line of advance, and ended in a gully, by which the enemy page 178could escape without "being exposed to fire. Any enemy attempting to storm the palisades would be enfiladed from these hidden pits However, on this occasion, the work was deserted, though it had been lately occupied, as the fires were still alight but the enemy had gone away, never dreaming that the Pakeha would come out in such bad weather. The men who pushed forward to Te Ngutu were therefore feeling secure, when within a few hundred yards they were ordered to crawl cautiously forward until they were within fifty yards, then the word was given and they were in the pah; only one of our men was killed, and but two of the Hauhaus, of whom there seemed to be very few present.

A few guns and tomahawks were taken, and a good many flasks of fine rifle-powder, and then the whares were burned to ensure the destruction of any concealed powder. The Hauhaus, taken by surprise, had escaped to the bush, and it was useless to attempt to follow them; so McDonnell recalled his men and returned to Waihi. For the first half-mile they were unmolested, but just before they arrived at Te Maru, the Hauhaus, about one hundred strong, overtook them, and opened a heavy fire on the rear guard; several men were killed and wounded, and the main body had to return to their assistance, to enable them to cross a deep and dangerous ravine. Major Hunter, who had charge of the rear guard, particularly distinguished himself by his coolness in bringing off the killed and wounded. The enemy continued the pursuit until they reached the Pungarehu, a distance of three miles, they then drew off and allowed us to depart in peace; but our troubles were not quite over, for on reaching the Waingongoro, it was found that there was a heavy freshet in the river. At first it seemed impossible to cross, but finally some one produced a rope, and one of our strongest men succeeded in crossing, and fastened it to a tree on the opposite bank. The men carrying the wounded were the first to cross, and they succeeded pretty well as the page 179weight kept them, steady; but the freshet was still rising, and some of those in rear of the column were swept off their legs, and only saved at the personal risk of a few brave men.

This skirmish was not very favourable to us, for we had lost four killed, and had eight wounded, whereas as far as we could tell the enemy had only lost two men; but on the other hand, most of our men were new to bush fighting; and no one expected great things from them, so the old hands were agreeably surprised to see them retreat steadily and quietly in the face of an active, daring, foe, and predicted great things in the future. It was afterwards ascertained through the friendly natives at the Kauae, that the Hauhaus, feeling themselves safe for that day, had gone to shoot cattle, leaving only twenty men to defend the pah: they were however sufficiently near to hear the firing, and arrived in time to make the retreat very warm.

It was after this engagement that Major Von Tempsky wrote the following letter which appeared in the newspapers:—

"On that grey and rainy morning, when the snoring waters of the Waingongoro were muttering of flood and fury to come, when our 300 mustered silently in column on the parade ground, one man made his appearance who at once drew all eyes upon him with silent wonder. His garb was most peculiar, scanty but long skirts shrouded his nether garments; an old waterproof sheet hung loosely on his shoulders; weapons he had none, but there was a warlike cock in the position of his broad-brimmed old felt, and a self-confidence in the attitude in which he leaned on his walking-stick that said, 'Here stands a man without fear.' Who is it? Look underneath the flap of that clerical hat, and the frank good-humoured countenance of Father Ronald will meet you. There he was, lightly arrayed for a march of which no one could say what the ending would be. With a good-humoured smile he answered my question as to what on earth brought him page 180there. On holding evening service he had told his flock that he would accompany them on the morrow, and there he was. Truly there stood a good shepherd.

"Through the rapid river, waist deep, along the weary forest track, across ominous-looking clearings, where at any moment a volley from an ambush would have swept our ranks, Father Ronald marched cheerfully and manfully, ever ready with a kind word or playful sentence to any man who passed him. And when at last in the clearing of Te Ngutu o te manu the storm of bullets burst upon us, he did not wait in the rear for men being brought to him, but ran with the rest of us forward against the enemy's position. So soon as any man dropped he was by his side. He did not ask, Are you Catholic or Protestant? but kindly kneeling prayed for his last words. Thrice noble conduct in a century of utilitarian tendencies! "What Catholic on that expedition could have felt fear? When he saw Father Ronald at his side smiling at death, a living personfication —a fulfilment of many a text preached—what Catholic on that day could have felt otherwise than proud to be a Catholic on Father Roland's account?

"Waihi, August 24th."