With the Lost Legion in New Zealand
Chapter XIII — Te Ngutu-O-Te-Manu
Colonel McDonnell returned to the district on the same day as the fight at Turu Turu Mokai took place, reaching the blood-stained ruin at noon.
There was, however, nothing to be done but wait for the reinforcements, which, as they arrived, were licked into shape as rapidly as possible, although it was not till the 21st of August they were deemed fit to be introduced to the Hau Haus.
On this date a strong patrol was sent to have a look what Titokowaru was doing, but that nobleman, not caring to have his privacy intruded upon, hunted the new chums out of the bush, killing four and wounding eight of them. So the disgusted O.C. decided to await the arrival of the Wanganui warriors, whose enlistment was being delayed by our old friend, Mete Kingi.
At last seventy splendid Wanganui Maoris reached Waihi, under the command of their gallant chief, Te Kepa, when the Colonel determined to make an effort, as if the new levies were to be used at all they must be used at once. There was no more time to train them; they had been enlisted for only three months, and their time of service would shortly expire.
It was therefore now or never. The country simply howled for him to wipe out Titokowaru; our Wanganui natives were hungry for a fight, so page 224that although himself and all his officers knew well that the new chums were not to be trusted in the bush, still he made up his mind to march out and attack Titokowaru in his vaunted stronghold.
Now, before I begin the yarn of this most disastrous expedition let me inform you that at this period I do not think our gallant and much respected O.C. was at his best, nor was this to be wondered at. For nearly two years he had been struggling, not only against the Hau Haus but also against an obtuse Government, who had listened to his bitterest detractors and enemies, while they wilfully closed their eyes to the obvious requirements of the district, and who, regardless of his expostulations, had reduced his fighting strength to an absurdly inadequate force, and even now, when his prognostications had been proved correct, suffered the very men whose lying reports had misled them to remain in office and hamper the endeavours he was making to straighten out the desperate muddle for which they were responsible.
Again he had at present under his command for a very limited space of time a field force on the bulk of which neither himself nor his officers could rely, and with which he was expected to work immediate miracles, and, as if all these circumstances were not enough to worry him to distraction, just at the moment his services were most in demand his only trusty spy, Katene, deserted and joined the Hau Haus, so that he was left without any reliable information to guide his movements. Therefore I am sure that several of the decisions he came to and acted upon would have been otherwise had not his keen judgment been obscured page 225by manifold anxieties and worries more than even his strong and brave spirit could tolerate, and that on this occasion he was not in full possession of his brilliant fighting faculties.
Anyhow, as something had to be done, he issued orders that a field force composed of two hundred white men and the seventy friendly natives should parade on the night of the 6th of September 1868.
During the day every preparation was made, but alas when night fell the Tohungas (medicine men) discovered something had gone wrong with the moon and a star, an unfortunate occurrence, as it denoted the overthrow of the expedition, and the Maoris, who up to that time had been in a state of huge delight at the chance of a scrap, now hung back.
In a moment the whole aspect of affairs was changed, as even Te Kepa and his best warriors begged the O.C. to postpone the taua (war party) for twenty-four hours. On any other occasion I am sure he would have done so, as the Colonel was always most anxious not to run counter with the superstitions of our valuable allies, but the irritated, overdriven man was inexorable, and issued orders that the expedition should start that very night, let the moon and star shine as unpropitiously as they darned well pleased.
At this decision the hearts of the Maori warriors became very dark indeed, and they held a meeting so as to discuss what on earth should be done. They were all keen for a fight, but it was flying in the face of Providence and courting disaster for themselves should they neglect such pregnant page 226warning; so things looked very black, as should the Maoris refuse to march it was quite clear to all of us the impossibility of our proceeding.
At last, after many speeches, a grim old warrior of great experience got on his hind-legs. Quoth he: "Men of Wanganui, we have done all in our power to persuade the white chief not to go, but he insists on doing so, notwithstanding the predictions of certain disaster we have received. We are bound by honour to accompany him; besides, we languish for a fight. The taua will be defeated and the white men cut to pieces, which will serve them right for neglecting this warning. But we, my children, having protested against such godless profanity, will escape without injury, and as we go in honour we shall, provided we fight bravely, all return safe with our honour enhanced." This speech ended the meeting and the friendlies determined to come with us.
Well, this difficulty being satisfactorily overcome, we paraded at ten-thirty P.M. on the 6th, two hundred white men and seventy Maoris, a force quite sufficient had the former been of the same calibre as the old rangers and military settlers, but alas, out of the two hundred, not more than forty men had ever been in the bush before, and these old hands had no confidence in their in-experienced comrades; in fact, the old joyous devil-may-care spirit so noticeable in the ranks when starting on past expeditions was on this parade entirely wanting, and the old war-dogs looked more as if they were attending their grandmother's funeral than starting for a jolly romp with the Hau Haus in the bush.
Anyhow we started, the night being bitterly cold, with a very heavy frost that gave our nearly naked allies jip, laming their bare feet to such an extent that some of them were crippled for weeks afterwards, so that even they did not escape scot-free, but were in some way punished for accompanying their ungodly and incredulous white comrades.
Two miles had been covered when we came to the flooded Waingangora River, whose icy waters rose breast-high as we forded it linked arm in arm page 228so as to prevent being swept away. Oh, scissors! it was cold, my shawl and jumper being frozen as stiff as boards five minutes after I had crossed! We, however, pushed on, and when daylight came we were deep into the bush on the western slopes of Mount Egmont.
Now we had no idea where the Hau Haus really were, as all the information the Colonel had received since Katene's desertion had been conflicting, some reports stating that Titokowaru had fallen back to an inland pah called Ruaruru, the position of which was quite unknown, and as the so-called peace had given him plenty of time to build a dozen new pahs, provided he had a mind to do so, he might be anywhere within fifty miles of us.
We had therefore to follow the old bush-whackers' plan—viz. enter the bush and cross it in a straight line, and if you cut a well-defined track follow it in the most likely direction to the bitter end.
This we did until one-thirty P.M. on the 7th, when we cut a well-worn path which ran nearly north and south. This was a streak of luck, and at a short council of war it was decided we should follow the track in a southerly direction towards the sea.
After a short halt and a bite of cold, sodden food, for of course no fires could be lighted and our rations had been soaked in the waters of the Waingangora, we moved on for nearly an hour, when another halt was called and Te Kepa ordered one of his men to climb a gigantic rata-tree so as to obtain an outlook and try if he could spot any smoke rising or see any indications of a clearing in the adjacent bush.page 229
The fellow ran up one of the huge pendent vines like a monkey, being soon lost to sight among the lichens, orchids and parasites that draped the branches. He had not been gone over a few minutes when down he slid, reporting he could see plenty of smoke not more than half-a-mile down the track, and could plainly hear the sound of a haka (indecent dances accompanied by unprintable libretto). This was a real slice of luck, as if the Hau Haus were hakaing they could not be aware of our vicinity, and we might catch them on the hop.
Another council of war was held, when Te Kepa gave the soundest advice, which I am certain would have been followed by the O.C. had he been in his normal state, although there is no doubt that the reasons he assigned for the action he took were very weighty.
The chief's advice was as follows:—"We are here without the Hau Haus suspecting us, but we ourselves are ignorant what sort of a pah we have to attack or where it is exactly situated. Now therefore let the white men, many of whom are tired, retire a short distance off into the bush, where, keeping perfectly quiet, they can lie down and rest. I will place my men in ambush along the track, so as to tomahawk any one of the enemy who may pass without noise, though I do not expect any of them to do so. Then when it is dark I and my picked scouts will go and reconnoitre the Hau Haus' position, so that at daylight tomorrow morning we shall know what to do and fight with our eyes open."
Now there was much wisdom in this counsel, and had the Colonel followed it we should have at one page 230blow knocked Titokowaru out of the running, but the O.C. decided otherwise, asserting the great danger we ran of the Hau Hau scouts cutting our trail, when the enemy would either clear out or prepare themselves to resist our attack. Accordingly he gave orders for us to immediately advance in the following formation:—
Te Kepa with his seventy men led the van, followed by Major Von Tempsky with one hundred white men, while the Colonel, commanding the remaining hundred white men, brought up the rear; the column to move in close order and as rapidly as possible.
Te Kepa's men had not marched more than a quarter of a mile when they came to a tent with a woman standing outside it, who directly she saw the advance-guard ran down the track screaming at the top of her voice, with a few of the friendlies in close pursuit, but they did not succeed in overtaking and despatching her before she raised a hullabaloo that would have alarmed the dead.
As the pursuing natives passed the tent a man and two children jumped out, who were at once shot, though another child was saved, one of Te Kepa's men carrying it on his back all through the subsequent engagement.
The screams of the woman, together with the firing, had of course alarmed the Hau Haus; the singing of the haka at once ceased, and as there was now no possible hope of surprising them we pushed on rapidly, though with all due caution, until we came to a large clearing.
Here we halted for a few minutes, while the O.C. made his final arrangements. Not a vestige of page 231a pah was visible, nor, as a matter of fact, did any one of us catch a glimpse of the pah on that day. In front of us was a patch of dense, heavy bush containing huge trees, and we knew that somewhere among these was the lurking-place of Titokowaru.
The Colonel's orders were concise. Te Kepa was to deploy his men in extended order to the left, so as to surround the pah on that side; Von Tempsky was to execute the same movement to the right; and his own party were to advance in extended order to the front.
So far so good, and as soon as Te Kepa and Von Tempsky had cleared our front—I was with the Colonel's party—we deployed and extended, but directly we began to advance our troubles began, as the new chums would keep on closing in instead of moving forward in open order.
This inclination to crowd into a mob became worse as we entered the bush, so that, notwithstanding all the efforts of us officers, and the objurgations of the old hands, all formation was speedily lost.
Passing through a narrow strip of bush we came to a deep and broad creek, whose steep banks were covered with dense undergrowth. This we had to cross, and as we descended the bank the left of Von Tempsky's party surged into the right of ours.
In vain we raved at them, even going so far as to strike some of them and threaten others with our revolvers, but it was no good, the wretched conscripts had a bad attack of bush funk and would not obey orders.page 232
As we struggled down into the creek I fell over Tim, who said to me: "For the blessed Virgin's sake, take care of yourself this day, Mr Dick, sure these damned hooligans will land us up to our necks in the bog. May Satan scrape ye wid red-hot oyster shells, ye narvous spalpeens, will ye extend or will ye march to hell in sub-divisions," he howled, while doing his best to second my efforts, but it was all of no avail, and we started to cross that creek, so as to ascend the far side, in a disorganised rabble.
Up to this time dead silence had brooded over the bush, but when we reached the centre of the creek's bed a terrific war yell was raised and a tremendous volley, of at least three hundred rifles and guns, was poured into us, from a distance of not more than ten yards; which, tearing our disorganised mob into tatters, transformed the bed of that forest, fern-embowered creek into a bloody shambles.
This reception was far too stern a one for our nervous new chums, over forty of whom at once scrambled out of the creek and bolted, never pausing in their flight until they reached the crossing place of the Waingangora River.
In vain with the old hands and those of the new chums who had the pluck to stand, though not the sense to extend, we made a rush and attempted to charge.
We failed at once, for the cunning enemy had woven the ground vines and undergrowth on their bank so closely together that nothing except an elephant could have broken through, while from the lofty rata-trees, in whose branches the best page 233shots of the Hau Haus had been placed, came a plunging fire that knocked over man after man, so that we could do nothing but lie down and return the fire of our invisible enemies.
The casualties among our officers had been very heavy. Lieutenant Hunter had been killed; Dr Best and Lieutenant Rowan, badly wounded by the first volley, had been carried out of action, while Captain Palmer and Lieutenant Hastings, both badly wounded, had subsequently to be abandoned to the awful fate of falling alive into the hands of the ferocious Hau Haus.
In the meantime, Te Kepa had fared much better, for with his warriors well in hand he had worked round the left of the clearing, and with a rattling charge had swept away the party of Hau Haus sent to oppose him, subsequently taking up a strong position ready to storm the pah when ordered to do so.
Our plight, however, was now hopeless, as the enemy manned a low, well-bushed hill, the fire from which enfiladed the creek, rendering our position in the bed of it more untenable than ever. Still I am convinced that, had our men all been old hands, our gallant O.C. would have pulled us out of the mess, and we should have won the day, but nothing could be done with the raw new chums, most of whom seemed to be paralysed by the slaughter and the blood-curdling yells of the Hau Haus.
This being the case, Colonel McDonnell saw that the only way to preserve the remainder of his force was to order an immediate retreat; so, directing us to carry out the wounded, he des-page 234patched his brother, Captain McDonnell, to Von Tempsky with orders for him to at once withdraw his men out of action and join his own party, Te Kepa offering to cover the retreat of our shattered force.
We had brought ten stretchers with us: these had been rapidly filled, and as we had now not more than sixty men, officers and privates, left, we were just able to handle fourteen wounded men, four being carried on rifles, as it required at least four men to carry a stretcher and six men to carry a man on rifles through the rough bush, so that all the remaining dead and wounded men had to be abandoned.
This abandonment of our wounded comrades was a heart-rending calamity, but nothing else could have been done under the circumstances, although we knew well the dreadful fate that awaited the unfortunates.
It takes time to write an account of a scrimmage of this sort, but in reality not ten minutes had elapsed from the moment we had descended into that infernal creek until we started to get out of it, during which period, out of the two hundred white men, one-fourth of our force had bolted, and out of those that had remained over one-third of their number lay dead or dying in the bed of it.
We had just succeeded in extricating the fourteen wretched sufferers when Captain McDonnell returned with the information that he had taken the order to Von Tempsky, who demurred at obeying it as he was of opinion that another charge might succeed, but while moving a step or two, so as to try to get a look at the pah, he had been shot page 235dead. He had then given the order to the next senior officer, Captain Buck, who promised to at once obey it, when he returned to the O.C., who ordered him to take some friendly natives and secure the dangerous defile at a place, on the line of retreat, called Te Maru, so as to prevent the Hau Haus taking possession of it, which if they had done would have sealed the fate of the broken force.
This order he carried out splendidly, as just when he reached the place he fell in with, and utterly destroyed, the party the enemy had dispatched to seize the defile, so that, thanks to the Colonel's foresight and his brother's gallant action, our retreat was secured.
As soon as we had got the wounded up the bank the retreat began, Te Kepa forming the rearguard and also protecting our right flank from the swarm of Hau Haus who now, with triumphant yells, rushed out of the pah and attacked us furiously, shouting out their intention to kill and eat the whole outfit. But they had tough nuts to crack in Te Kepa and his warriors, who, answering them yell for yell and shot for shot, challenged them to fight hand to hand, taunting them at the same time with cowardice, insomuch that they feared to charge and finish off a beaten taua, and reminding them of defunct ancestors who had been killed and eaten in old-time wars; so with great expenditure of ammunition and much bad language the miserable retreat continued.
Now it is no pleasant duty for a tired man to struggle through a New Zealand bush under the most favourable circumstances, but when he has to form one of a stretcher party to carry a heavy page 236wounded man through the said bush, his troubles are increased many times, especially should he be blazed at every yard of the journey, as was our case while retreating from Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu to Te Maru, men being frequently hit all along the route, although we were fortunate enough not to lose any more killed, and so were able, when, thanks to Captain McDonnell, we had crossed the gorge in safety, to drop our stretchers, turn about, and give our pursuers such a grilling as to make them turn tail and leave us alone.
It was now ascertained that Captain Buck with his party had not joined up, nor did any of us know what had become of them, the truth being that every officer and man had been so fully employed that no one had had time to devote a single thought to the absentees.
Colonel McDonnell, who was much cut up, proposed to return and look for them, but Te Kepa pointed out that in every probability they had retreated some other way, and as there was no doubt that the great majority of the enemy had followed us, it therefore stood to reason Buck's people were better off than ourselves.
This argument the Colonel was forced to admit, and when he was informed that six of Te Kepa's most experienced warriors had, previous to the retreat being ordered, joined Buck, he reluctantly gave orders for our retreat to be continued.
The sun had set as we reached Te Maru, so, as we had abandoned our packs and haversacks, we had to toil, hungry and worn out, through the bush, carrying our suffering wounded, at which heart-breaking job Te Kepa and his glorious warriors page 237took turn and turn about, so that we reached camp at two a.m. on the morning of the 8th.
Here we found everything in a state of chaos, as the d——d runaways, who had arrived there hours before, had spread the blood - curdling report that the whole outfit had been cut to pieces and killed, themselves being the only survivors. Oh, but they received toko from fist, boot and belt of the infuriated old hands.
There was, however, no news of Buck and his party, which greatly disturbed our much troubled O.C., and again gave the gallant Te Kepa another opportunity of displaying his worth, for he immediately volunteered to start with his men at daylight and search for them.
This he did, but had only proceeded two miles when he met them returning dead beat, under the command of Captain Roberts. This officer reported that no sooner had Captain McDonnell given Captain Buck the orders, and returned to his brother, than Captain Buck, without telling anyone else of the orders he had received, made the attempt to recover Von Tempsky's body but was shot dead in trying to do so.
Captain Roberts then assumed the command, but, as he was in ignorance of any order to retreat, continued to hold his ground until he was informed by his own men that the Colonel had retreated.
Fortunately he had just been joined by Te Kepa's six men, one of whom, a noted war chief, recommended him to retreat in the direction of the sea, which he did, and although his new chums behaved very badly, yet with the few old hands and the friendly natives he managed to beat off page 238the attacks of the Hau Haus till dark, when after firing a farewell volley they drew off. He now halted his party till the moon rose, during which halt two of his men died from cold and exhaustion, and then; under the guidance of the old chief, extricated his men from the bush and reached camp as I have already described.
So ended the unfortunate expedition against Titokowaru in his stronghold at Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu.