The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)
Chapter 29: The Forest Rangers
Chapter 29: The Forest Rangers
The cautious camp, the smother'd light,
The silent sentinel at night.
—Joaquin Miller (“The Ship in the Desert”).
THE CROSSING OF the Manga-tawhiri River by Cameron's troops was immediately followed by Maori attacks upon some of the venturesome settlers who remained upon their farms on the frontier, and even after the army had advanced up the Waikato its rear was threatened by roving bands of Kingites. The broken forest country of the Hunua and Wairoa Ranges, bordering the left flank of the British advance, was the camping-place and war-ground of these natives, who from the cover of the bush could raid farmhouses and ambush military convoys with little loss to themselves. Neither the Regular soldiers nor the newly-enrolled city Militia were competent at the time to pursue the Maoris in their forests, and it soon became clear to the military heads that a special force was necessary to meet the natives on their own ground and levy guerilla war with the object of clearing the bush on the flanks and safeguarding the army's communications and the out-settlements. Taranaki had set an example in the formation of a corps of Bush Rangers, composed largely of country settlers and their sons. There was equally good material in the Auckland settlements, and there was also at hand a body of gold-diggers at Coromandel ready to turn to new adventures now that the excitement and the profits in the primitive mining of that period were dwindling. The Government, urged by the Press and the public, resolved to form a small corps of picked men, used to the bush and to rough travelling and camp life, to scout the forests and hunt out the parties of marauders.
In the first week of August, 1863, the following attractive invitation to arms appeared for several days in the Southern Cross newspaper, Auckland:—page 266
ACTIVE YOUNG MEN, having some experience of New Zealand Forests, may now confer a benefit upon the Colony, and also ensure a comparatively free and exciting life for themselves, by JOINING a CORPS of FOREST VOLUNTEERS, now being enrolled in this province to act as the Taranaki Volunteers have acted in striking terror into the marauding natives, by operations not in the power of ordinary troops.
By joining the Corps the routine of Militia life may be got rid of and a body of active and pleasant comrades ensured.
Only men of good character wanted.
For further information apply to the office of the Daily Southern Cross, O'Connell Street, Auckland.
31st July, 1863.
This appeal soon filled the ranks of a company of Forest Rangers, sixty strong, under the command of Lieutenant William Jackson, a young settler of the Papakura district (afterwards Major Jackson and M.H.R. for Waipa). Towards the end of the year a second company was formed under the command of Captain Von Tempsky. The pay at first was 10s. a day, but it was later reduced to 4s. 6d. a day and rations, and a double ration of rum on account of the rough character of the work.
The Rangers' arms were a breech-loading Calisher and Terry carbine, a five-shot revolver, and, in Von Tempsky's company, a bowie-knife with a blade 10 inches or 12 inches long. Von Tempsky took intense interest in teaching the men the use of the bowie-knife, gripped in the left hand (the right was for the revolver), with the blade along the arm. There was a drill for it—a perfect method of guard and attack in hand-to-hand action. As King Agis answered the Athenians who laughed at the short swords of the Spartans, “We find them long enough to reach our enemies with,” so the Rangers could have said of their bush-knives that they were quite long enough for close quarters. They were more useful than bayonets or cutlasses in the tangled forest. Von Tempsky was a master of the weapon, the use of which he had learned in Spanish America in guerilla warfare. In instructing his men he challenged them to stab him, and demonstrated his perfect ability to defend himself. The knife could also be thrown with deadly effect, being so heavy. When slashing a way through the supplejacks and other undergrowth in the trackless bush it was a first-class tool. Captain Jackson affected to despise the knife as a war-weapon, but one or two of his men adopted it.page 267
Major William Jackson
In 1863–64 Major Jackson commanded No. 1 Company of Forest Rangers. In the “seventies” he was in command of Te Awamutu troop, Waikato Cavalry Volunteers, formed for the protection of the Upper Waikato frontier.
Colonel J. M. Roberts, N.Z.C., who began his military career in the Forest Rangers, and was a subaltern in No. 2 Company, 1863–64, was one of the young bushmen-soldiers who appreciated the bowie-knife. “It was rather awkward in the bush sometimes,” he says, “for it was nearly as long as a bayonet, but it certainly was very handy for cutting tracks. We were taught to hold the knife with the blade pointing inward and upward, laid along the inner arm. With the arm held out, knife-defended thus, a blow could be warded off, and then out would flash the blade in a stab. When we were in camp at Paterangi in 1864 my fellow-subaltern Westrupp and I frequently went out in the manuka together and practised the fighting drill. At Orakau we found the knife very useful—not for fighting, but for digging in. Our position was on the east side of the pa, a cultivation-ground bordered with low fern—a place very much exposed to the Maoris' fire. We lay down on the edge of this cultivation and went to work as hard as we could with our long knives, each man digging page 268 a shallow shelter for himself and throwing up the earth in front; the bullets were coming over thick that day.”
The men who were provided with these arms were as efficient as the weapons they carried. They were a varied set of adventurers. The bush-trained settlers of Papakura, Hunua, and the Wairoa were the dependable nucleus of the corps, and to their ranks were added sailors, gold-diggers, and others who had seen much of the rough end of life. Von Tempsky, describing (in an unpublished manuscript journal) his company of fifty men at the end of 1863, wrote: “Like Jackson, I had two black men, former men-o'- war's-men; one had also been a prize-fighter. I had men of spendid education, and men as ignorant as the soil on which they trod.” All nationalities were in the ranks—English, Welsh, Scotch, Irish, Germans, and Italians. Some of Von Tempsky's best volunteers had been members of the 1st Waikato Regiment of Militia.
The Rangers' field equipment was simple. On the war-path in the Wairoa and Hunua bush their bed was a bundle of fern, and the forest was their tent. “In our campaigning in the Waikato,” says a survivor of the corps, “we used blue-blanket tents. These were army blankets, with fastenings for use as bivouac shelters; there were two blankets to every four men. Two of the four would carry the blankets when on the march, and the other two would pick up and carry along sticks for tent-poles (unless, of course, they were in the bush). The two blankets joined over a ridge-pole sheltered the four men; at any rate, they kept off the dew.”
An important item of Ranger equipment was the rum-bottle, cased in leather to prevent breakage. Two good tots a day was the allowance. “It was the rum that kept us alive,” says one of Jackson's veterans, ex-Corporal William Johns; “we had so much wet, hard work, swimming and fording rivers and creeks, and camping out without fires. When we camped in the bush on the enemy's trail it was often unsafe to light a fire for cooking and warmth, because we never knew when we might have a volley poured into us. So we just lay down as we were, wet and cold, and we'd have been dead but for the rum.”
Of the Rangers' two commanders, Gustavus Von Tempsky, Captain of No. 2 Company, was by far the more experienced bush fighter. Of aristocratic Polish blood, he began his military life in the Prussian Army in the early “forties,” but quickly sought a career more to his taste. In Central America he commanded at one time an irregular force of Mosquito Coast Indians page 270 against the Spanish, and he guided British naval parties against Spanish stockades in one of the little wars in those parts. Later, we find him trying his fortune in California in “the days of Forty-nine,” and travelling adventurously through Mexico. The news of the gold find at Coromandel brought him to New Zealand from Australia, and when the Waikato War began he was working No. 8 claim on the diggings. The first shots of the Waikato War excited the old war-fever, and after trying unsuccessfully to form a diggers' corps at Coromandel captained by himself—there was some prejudice against him on the score of his nationality—he joined the Southern Cross newspaper in Auckland as a temporary war correspondent, hoping presently to have an opportunity of getting into action. Lieutenant Jackson he frequently met at the first Forest Rangers' headquarters, the “Travellers' Rest” inn, on the Papakura—Wairoa Road. He accompanied Jackson as correspondent on one of the early expeditions into the Wairoa Ranges; and it was on this excursion, lasting three days, that the young Rangers' officer discovered that the lean, swarthy ex-digger with the very pronounced foreign accent was far better fitted than himself to command a fighting corps. So Von Tempsky soon found himself invited to join the Rangers as subaltern and military adviser, and the Government gave him a commission as ensign. The early prejudice against the roving soldier soon disappeared when his comrades realized his soldierly talent, and when he was commissioned to enlist a company of his own he was able to pick a little body of first-class men from the many recruits offering. The first body of Rangers was disbanded after three months' service, and toward the end of the year 1863 two companies were formed, each of fifty men.
Paparata and a Scouting Adventure
From the hills near the Queen's Redoubt the fortified position of Paparata, on the open country to the east, was plainly visible, a long line of freshly turned yellow clay showing against a prominent fern ridge. This was a Kingite half-way post between the Waikato River and the shores of the Hauraki; from its shelter war-parties could raid in either direction, or could enter the Wairoa Ranges at will. Below was a valley covered with fields of wheat, potatoes, and maize, and with many groves of peach-trees; the Manga-tawhiri, here a clear gravelly stream, flowed through the cultivations. Here and there along the rim of the valley were patches of native forest. The distance from the Queen's Redoubt was about ten miles, but the most convenient approach was from the Koheroa ridge, on the south of the Manga-tawhiri.
General Cameron was anxious, after a futile reconnaissance page 271 towards Paparata, 1st-2nd August, to obtain accurate information regarding the route and the character of the fortifications, and Von Tempsky and Thomas McDonnell volunteered to scout the position. McDonnell (afterwards colonel in command of the Armed Constabulary Field Force) was, like Von Tempsky, well qualified for the enterprise. He was a young officer in Nixon's Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, was eager for any dashing and perilous mission, and had a perfect knowledge of the Maori tongue. The two scouts set out from the Whanga-marino Redoubt at night, after reconnoitring their route with field-glasses from the Koheroa hills. The track lay in a general north-east direction from the ridge, along an open belt of fern land with swamps on each side. Each scout was armed with two revolvers, and McDonnell carried a tomahawk and Von Tempsky his bowie-knife.
The two scouts crossed the open ground in the darkness, and just before daylight found themselves almost within the first line of the Maori entrenchments. They had intended to take cover in a neighbouring belt of bush, but it was fortunate for them that they were unable to do so, for soon after daylight the bush was swarming with Maoris pigeon-shooting. Hidden in high flax-bushes on the edge of the swamp and alongside the track from Paparata to Meremere, they watched their enemies all day through the loopholes of leaves. Once they were all but discovered by a pig-hunting dog. When it began to rain in the afternoon and the Maoris retired to their whares the scouts felt themselves secure; they knew also that the rain would obliterate their footmarks near the hiding-place. It was dark before they ventured to leave their flax-clump, after light-heartedly laying a train of broken biscuits from their nest in the flax to the track, by way of puzzling the Maoris next morning. They returned safely from their perilous mission, and for the information they were able to give the General they were highly complimented. Both soon afterwards received commissions as captain. Von Tempsky fell at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu in 1868. McDonnell lived to receive the decoration of the New Zealand Cross for his scouting-work at Paparata.
The remains of biscuit and some empty meat-tins which the officers left at their hiding-place had a curiously important effect upon the Maoris and the campaign. It came to be known some time afterwards that the natives were so disturbed by this evidence of pakeha scouts in their midst that they concluded their stronghold would soon be untenable, and it was not long before they evacuated it. In December, after the troops under Lieut.-Colonel Carey had built a chain of redoubts across the ridges from the Miranda, Von Tempsky, with his subaltern, Mr. Roberts, and a dozen men, made a reconnaissance of the scene of his scouting exploit. The page 272 Surrey Redoubt had been built on the south-eastern rim of the Paparata Valley, and the Ranger officers, accompanied from the redoubt by McDonnell, explored the works before which they had crouched in the flax-clump. “From what we saw,” wrote Von Tempsky in his journal, “it appears that we had been encircled within two hundred yards of a zigzagging line of rifle-pits traversing nearly the whole valley. A sharp elbow of the river (the Manga-tawhiri), with its convex angle towards Koheroa, had been taken advantage of in the following way: The inner side of the bank had been dug out in proper traversed shape in their usual fashion of rifle-pits, but the earth had been thrown into the river, so that an enemy could never have expected the existence of these rifle-pits till within a dangerous distance of a volley from pieces resting on the very ground on which you trod. Moreover, a few withered bushes had been allowed to remain immediately in front to mask still more the formidable line. Whares with bullet-proof flax mats for roofs were built all along inside the rifle-pits.” On the ridge above was the stockaded and rifle-pitted pa. The whares in the various entrenchments were capable of accommodating nearly a thousand men.