With the Lost Legion in New Zealand
Chapter XIV — Moturoa
Our defeat caused consternation through the country, bitter recrimination flying like hail before a southerly buster, while it added greatly to Titokowaru's prestige, who was at once joined by every wavering native in the district. He had moreover captured from us over fifty rifles and carbines, as well as revolvers and ammunition, which enabled him to arm his recruits.
We, on the other hand, had lost heavily, for not only had fifty men been killed or severely wounded, but out of the other men who had been engaged more than half their number had been more or less wounded, and very many of them were not fit for further active service, while the remainder of the new chums became so utterly disorganised that it was not even safe to let them do a sentry-go.
The state of the camp at Waihi was deplorable. The hospital overcrowded with sick and wounded had not sufficient means of treating the patients, while it was absolutely suicide for anyone to move beyond rifle range of the fort. Moreover with such a reduced force of efficient men it was more than manifestly impossible to maintain the outlying forts, to escort food and forage supplies and also to provide a force to meet the enemy in the field.
The Wanganui natives also demanded to go page 240home, as their great chief Hori Kingi Te Anaua had just died and it was necessary for them to attend the tangi (wake), a ceremony of the most sacred importance to the Maoris. We also received undubitable intelligence that Titokowaru meant to move southward through the bush, cut off our communications, and threaten Wanganui.
Under these circumstances Colonel McDonnell and the Defence Minister, who had come up to the front, decided that the only thing to be done was to abandon Waihi, with all the frontier forts, and fall back to Patea, which could be supplied by water transport. Of course relief had been sent to us, and Colonel Whitmore with a splendid division of the Armed Constabulary quickly arrived from the east coast.
With these and our own reliable men we at once moved out to reconnoitre the Hau Hau position, but although we numbered three hundred men and found the enemy, yet for some reasons I never understood we fell back after skirmishing to within less than three hundred yards of them, and that without firing a shot.
Three days after this reconnaissance the retrograde movement to Patea was commenced, and was very well carried out, for notwithstanding the scarcity of transport the frontier garrisons were withdrawn, and the wounded, with nearly all the stores, safely escorted to the same camp ground from which we had so gaily advanced, nearly three years before, so that all the toil, bloodshed and hardships endured during that period had been borne for nothing. In fact we were far worse circumstanced, for Titokowaru had moved through page 241the bush in a parallel line to our retreat, had forced the Paka Kohi tribes to join him, and had taken up his headquarters at Hukatere, on the head waters of the Patea River, and shortly forced us to abandon our principal outpost at Kakaramea; then moving still farther south he established himself at Moturoa, well to our right rear.
These movements put the fear of the Lord into the Wanganui settlers, who fled to the town for protection, where, although they could muster fifteen hundred militia, they squealed so lustily for assistance that the Government, now trembling in their shoes, sent two companies of the 18th R.I., who were still in the country, to take care of them.
It was at this time that Colonel McDonnell resigned the command of the district in disgust, and Colonel Whitmore was appointed in his place—a change of commanding officers that gave us no pleasure, for, although we knew him to be a brilliant soldier, yet he lacked tact, his manners being decidedly against his ever becoming a popular officer. Furthermore, although he had gained a good reputation in the Crimea, he was ignorant of both the manners and customs of the Maoris, and quite failed to raise any enthusiasm in the hearts of his colonial irregulars. Still, as he was always ready to fight, and was quite heedless of fatigue and privations, they tolerated him, though they never respected nor loved him as they did Fighting Mac.
Titokowaru now became very active, for although he was too knowing to attack strong posts, yet he swept off every head of cattle, burned every house, ambushed every track, murdered a few page 242settlers and killed several despatch-riders and scouts.
The authorities, however, had not been idle. Major Roberts who had been sent to the goldfields to try and re-enlist old hands now rejoined, having persuaded over one hundred good men to accompany him, these being further supplemented by another draft of a hundred, the majority of whom were Irishmen who had taken their discharges from the 57th Regiment, then on its way home, and all of whom were picked men. Again, Te Kepa had joined with four hundred Wanganui Kupapas, so that Whitmore was able to hunt out and disband all the riff-raff of undesirable wasters we had previously been hampered with.
This was nuts to our old hands, for now everyone felt we could again put up a fight that would not disgrace us, so the hearts of the Lost Legionaries grew light and cheerful.
Our organisation had also greatly improved, as all the permanent fighting men had been embodied into one corps, which for the future was to be known as the New Zealand Armed Constabulary, and which soon became a picked body of men, second to none in his Majesty's dominions, and as they were all trained bush fighters were invaluable for the work they were called on to perform.
It was now high time to put a limit to Titokowaru's capers, so the Colonel therefore ordered a field force to pay him a visit on the 6th November, the said force to consist of Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6 Divisions of the Armed Constabulary, two small parties of the Patea volunteers, together with the Kupapas, a nice, handy taua (war party), being page 243about two hundred and fifty white men and four hundred natives.
At six a.m. on the morning of the 7th we found ourselves outside the bush within which at a distance of about four hundred yards we expected to find the stronghold of the Hau Haus, and we had been informed that it only consisted of a simple stockade. This was false, as we afterwards discovered it to be one of the strongest and most cunningly constructed works ever built by Maoris.
The O.C. orders were that Te Kepa with twenty-five men of No. 1 Division and one hundred Kupapas should work his way through the bush to the right rear of the pah; an hour being allowed him to carry out this movement.
The order was successfully obeyed, Te Kepa penetrating to the point assigned him, and lying down within forty yards of the pah itself.
It was now a regrettable incident happened through Colonel Whitmore's ignorance of Maori customs, for he involuntarily or otherwise insulted an important Maori chief, upon which the remaining Kupapas refused to enter the bush or fight, thereby preventing the surrounding of the pahs, and the shutting up of Titokowaru inside it, which, had it been done, would have forced him to surrender notwithstanding the defeat of our storming party, as we afterwards ascertained the Hau Haus had neglected to provision their stronghold and must have been starved out in three days. But then Colonel Whitmore, notwithstanding the fact that he was a brilliant soldier, greatly lacked tact, and seemed to take a delight in, or at all events to be utterly callous about, injuring the feelings of his page 244subordinates, a failing that more than once cost us dearly, anyhow it was to do so on this occasion.
As soon as the allotted time had expired Major Hunter was ordered, with fifty of No. 3 Division and some other details, to advance as a storming party, myself and Tim being in the crowd, and attack the front of the pah, which we believed to be a simple stockade, and quite four hundred yards if not farther in the bush.
A well-defined dray road led straight into the forest, along which we marched in close order, and before we had proceeded two hundred yards we came to a clearing. This clearing was only a narrow one, perhaps sixty yards across, but what made it look ominous was that all the tree stumps had been extracted, leaving no cover for a rabbit, while the undergrowth on the far side seemed unnaturally dense. However Major Hunter, who led in person, gave the order to double and we dashed across it.
The morning was a damp and slightly foggy one in early summer, a light mist rising from the ground in spiral wreaths and curling away among the trees looked very beautiful in the rising sun.
We could see nothing of a stockade, in fact I do not think Major Hunter realised we had reached the pah, and it was afterwards ascertained that on this side of the pah there was no palisading at all, but that the Hau Haus had made a breastwork by rolling the logs of huge trees into a line, over which they fired, while in front they had made with the branches interwoven with undergrowth and ground vines an impenetrable abatis. They had also masked the work most cleverly, and as a page 245dead silence brooded over their position there was nothing to show that the scrub was occupied.
At a steady double we crossed the clearing, reaching within fifteen yards of the far side, when a single shot rang out, followed quickly by two more.
"Charge," shouted Hunter, but before we could quicken our pace up went a terrific war yell, a sheet of flame and smoke met us full in the face, a sheet of lead tore through our ranks and the roar of over two hundred rifles and guns went echoing among the trees.
Down in a heap fell a third of our number, but the groans and cries of the wounded were smothered by the frantic cheer of us men left on our feet as we made a wild rush at the undergrowth, so as to get to hand-grip with our enemies. It was in vain, the network of well-woven vines and creepers was impervious, while their elasticity simply bounced us back, when in desperation we hurled our bodies against them.
"Out tomahawk," I howled. "Here, Tim, you and half-a-dozen men cover us," and my subdivision sprang at the entanglement, trying to chop our way through the tough lianas so as to open a path for the rest.
The distance between ourselves and the yelling Hau Hans was not great, not more than twelve feet, but we could not win through, for resting their gun barrels on the boles of the fallen trees they discharged them right in our faces, mine being severely scorched by the flash from one of them.
In a moment the four men who had followed me with their tomahawks were shot dead, and Major page 246Hunter ordered me back, directing me to retire my men a few yards, lie down and open fire.
This we did, and although much hampered by dead and wounded comrades, for more than half of our men were by this time hors de combat, we lay down ten yards from the bush in extended order and opened a well-directed fire, aiming at the line of the enemy's flashes.
It was now the saddest event of the day happened. We had been firing for some minutes, and had already caused the enemy's fire to slacken and grow wilder, when Major Hunter walked up and down our line, an action quite unnecessary, as our men were behaving, if not talking, like angels.
"Lie down, sir, for God's sake, lie down," shouted some of the men, who all loved him dearly. "There is no need to expose yourself, sir; we'll stand by you, sir, to the last grip."
But he refused to do so, saying: "No, no, boys; I must show the world to-day I am no coward."
Under such circumstances the end could not be long delayed, and he fell mortally wounded, having sacrificed his life, giving the lie to the scum of unjust accusers who had thrown mud at him after the fight at Turu Turu Mokai; he was carried out but died immediately.
Well, there we of the storming party lay out in the open, and although more than half our men were dead or wounded, still we were determined to hold our grip on the position, even if we could not succeed in getting into the work.
Heavy firing was going on round the pah, perhaps some other party might have better luck, anyhow page 247we were not going to budge until we received further orders.
We had hung on like this for more than half-an-hour when the enemy's fire slackened off, and of course ours followed suit, and we were wondering what was to be the next move, when all at once a stark-naked Hau Hau, probably mad with fanaticism and wishing to give an exhibition of his invulnerability, jumped on to the top of their breastwork, exposing his whole person to us from his knees upwards, and of course standing up as he was he could also see us lying down within ten yards off from where he stood, and began to go through his incantations, holding his hand, palm turned towards us, at the full stretch of his arm and barking the words Hau Hau at us like a dog.
Poor fool, he had either not learned the right incantation, or something else must have been amiss, or at all events he was wrong in his conjectures re invulnerability, as our men, who had all been waiting for a chance, let drive a volley at him that simply lifted him off his feet, so that if he finished his formula at all he must have completed the peroration in a hotter climate.
It was just after this interlude the fire breezed up again, and Tim, who was lying close to me, said, "Begorra, Mr Dick, here comes the boys to help us. Do you not think, sor, we may bate the beggars yet? Sure isn't it a trate to have rale men beside ye? Look to the rear, sor, sure they're splendid."
I turned on my side and looked, and there I saw the Colonel—I hated the diminutive beast, but, by gad! he could handle men—leading No. 6 page 248Division (most of whom had been 57th men and Irish at that) out of the bush. They were advancing in extended order as if on parade, and at once drew the enemy's fire from us, at the same time our call and the retire were sounded.
These calls, loth as we were to quit, we obeyed, carrying with us, however, all our wounded and, with the exception of the four men who had been shot in the undergrowth, all our dead. These four bodies it was certain death to approach, nor had we sufficient men left to have carried them had any of us succeeded in getting hold of them; as it was most of us had to carry each his man as far as the bush. Strange enough to say the wounded man I individually carried out was an old school-fellow of mine who had been in the same house as myself.
Retiring in perfect order, though as fast as we could, we passed through the files of No. 6 Division, and in a short space of time reached the dray track, where we deposited our loads and lined the bush to cover the retreat of No. 6.
No sooner were we safe than our gallant rescuers fell back as if on parade, and the Hau Haus, poor misguided miscreants, fancying they had got us on toast, leaving the pah, rushed after us, thinking they were going to enjoy a high old time cutting up a beaten taua; but here they made a blooming error, for no sooner had No. 6 reached the bush than they also halted and joined us.
Howling with exultation and mad with fanaticism the Hau Haus rushed across the clearing to tomahawk the men whom their prophet had promised them that the angel Gabriel would page 249deliver into their hands, and possibly, had we been a mob of half-baked new chums, he might have done so, but as we were not we waited quietly for the Colonel's order, who, good little man, though he was a beast, allowed them to come within twenty yards of our ambuscade.
Then out rang his word of command: "Give them hades, boys," the last word being lost in a volley that knocked the immortal stuffing out of them and sent them howling back to their pah.
Now it is my firm belief that had Colonel McDonnell been in command he would have followed up this success with another charge, as our men were full of fight and well in hand, but Colonel Whit more thought otherwise, and give the wee devil his due he never lacked for pluck or enterprise, so maybe he was right.
Anyhow, picking up our dead and Wounded we slowly retreated to Nukumaru, and next day took up a new line of defence on the Kaiiwi, as it was the best position to defend the town of Wanganui.
A few days afterwards we received the intelligence of the massacre of Poverty Bay, and it was decided to despatch Colonel Whitmore with two hundred picked men to the east coast. It was, however, first necessary to provision Patea, and the strong redoubt at Te Wairoa. This was done, and then, handing over the lines of defence to local militia, with one hundred Armed Constabulary to give them backbone, the little Colonel in an infernal temper embarked, on the 2nd December 1868, with two hundred and twelve men for Poverty Bay, and I bade farewell to the west coast for a time.