The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 4 (July 1, 1938.)
The Royal Tigers — British Bayonet and Maori Tomahawk — The Story of a Desperate Storming Party
Of all the British regiments that helped to make wartime history in New Zealand, none saw so much service as the 65th, known popularly as the Royal Bengal Tigers, because of their long association with India, and their valorous work there. A striped tiger was their badge. The old system of numbers has been abolished and the corps is now the 1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment. From first to last, it served for twenty years in this country; the first detachments came from Sydney in 1846 to take a hand in Wellington's little war. By the time the Taranaki and Waikato wars began the 65th was a well-seasoned regiment. The Maoris had a great respect and liking for the veterans of the “Hiketi-Pift,” and the soldiers, for their part, thought a great deal of their tattooed opponents, truly warriors worthy of their steel. The 65th ranks at the time of this story were more Irish than English; this preponderance of Irishmen was the condition in numerous British regiments. The Irishman, while hating the English heartily, hated still more to miss any fighting anywhere, and the easiest way to get into the devil's own row was to join the Army.
Among the Englishmen in this Anglo-Celtic regiment was a young officer named Henry Stretton Bates, of a wealthy South of England family. He came out with new drafts for the battalion in New Zealand in the middle fifties, and he immediately took a great liking to the Maori people, and addressed himself so well to the study of the language that by 1860-61 he could speak it well; presently he was appointed an interpreter on the General's staff. He married in Wellington a chieftainess of the Atiawa tribe.
In 1860 Lieutenant Bates was serving with his regiment in Taranaki. He made sketches of various events in the Waitara campaign, and among these were water colours of scenes in General Pratt's extraordinarily long sap towards Te Arei Pa. This slow and cautious approach, at the rate of a mile a month, and the construction of redoubts every few hundred yards along the Kairau-Huirangi plain towards the Maori stronghold, was regarded as a huge joke by many of the combatants on both sides. It was varied by some sharp fighting, and the most dramatic and fierce incident in the year's work was the Maori attack on No. 3 Redoubt, between Kairau and Huirangi.
Rewi Maniapoto's War Party.
A remarkable feature of all this Waitara campaign was the fact that the most vigorous and determined warriors were not the Atiawa, of Taranaki, for whose land the war was waged by the Government, but their allies of the Ngati-Maniapoto, Waikato and Ngati-Haua tribes, from the North. Amor patriae and the clan spirit were strong among the tribes; the Northern clans came to help Taranaki because they were all banded in the Kingite cause against the whites. The pakeha knows about Rewi Maniapoto chiefly because of his valiant leadership at Orakau in 1864. But Rewi (who had taken the name Manga when war began) won fame among the Maoris three years before that for his daring break-of-day attack on No. 3 Redoubt. With gun and long-handled tomahawk he, with two other chiefs (Epiha, of Kihikihi, and Hapurona, of Taranaki) led a storming party of the best fighting blood in New Zealand against that strong field work—three square earthworks placed close together en echelon—garrisoned by the 40th Regiment, with two howitzers.
Here I draw upon a manuscript narrative of this thrilling morning's work sent to me by the late Mr. H. D. Bates, of Wanganui, son of the young officer who became Colonel of the Regiment. Lieutenant “Te Peeti” had a gift of narrative that I have already referred to in the “Railways Magazine,” in describing his adventures on Secret Service work in a canoe on the Waikato River. The story of No. 3 Redoubt is best told in his own words; he was in the thick of it with his Royal Tigers. He begins with a general description of the campaign, on the Waitara and the slow advance towards the entrenched position at Te Arei, overlooking that most beautiful sweep of the river below the famous old fortress of Pukerangiora.
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“It was the greed of the white settlers for the broad lands of the natives,” Lieutenant Bates wrote, “that had brought on the Waitara war. The representative of Her Majesty's Government had been unable to withstand the pressure put upon him by his Colonial advisers, and the Maoris were making a brave but hopeless struggle. We respected and commiserated our antagonists, but duty had to be done. Night after night, as we lay in our tents in the rough field fortifications which protected us, we heard the calls of the natives on all sides of us, the braying of the tetere or war trumpet, and the monotonous cries from the fern around: ‘Kill the white men! Death to the soldiers!’ Morning after morning we stood to our arms ere break of day, the favourite time for Maori attack.
“Day by day the ‘butcher's bill’ slowly mounted up. It was beautiful midsummer weather, and that fair land was wearing its most charming aspect. The forest that bordered the plain on which we were encamped was dotted with the crimson glories of the rata blossom. The Maoris occupied a strong position. Their right rested on the Waitara River, and the pas of Huirangi and Mataitawa, screened by dense bush, were on the left.
“The intervening space of some fifteen hundred yards was a long line of Maori rifle pits, a mode of defence little known at that time to European soldiers, page 10 but traced with the utmost skill by the natives. They flanked one another, with artfully contrived passages to the rear, so that at the supreme moment, after delivering a volley, the defenders could escape to the dense bush in rear of their position.
“General Pratt's plan of attack, a plan conceived with the idea of saving as far as possible the lives of his men, was to drive a sap or trench towards the Maori position, securing his ground as he advanced by the erection of redoubts. That sap was three-quarters of a mile long by the time it closely approached the Maori positions.
The Early Morning Battle.
“On the 23rd of January, 1861, the Royal Tigers and the two companies of the 12th Regiment which were with them in No. 1 Redoubt stood to their arms as usual an hour before daybreak. Some 300 yards in advance of us was a small earthwork, No. 2 Redoubt, garrisoned by one company, and some 300 yards more in advance again was a larger fort known as No. 3 Redoubt, which we had just finished under a continuous fire from the rifle pits. This advance work, consisting of three redoubts en echelon, was occupied by the 40th Regiment.
“We stood silent and shivering, for even at midsummer the hour before sunrise is chilly, and awaited the appearance of the sun and looked forward in another half-hour to turning in between the blankets for another hour's snooze.
“But see that flash of fire a hundred yards to the right of our redoubt, followed by the whizz of a bullet and the report of a musket. In a moment there is a semi-circle of fire on two sides of us. The fern is alive with Maoris, who have crept up unseen even by the sentries. Our men reply, and for a few moments there is a continuous roar of musketry, with apparently little result on either side, for the attackers are invisible. In a minute or two more the fire of the Maoris slackens and gradually ceases. A false attack to divert attention from more serious business.
No. 3 The Objective.
“There are sparks of fire round No. 2 Redoubt and the crack of rifles reaches our ears, but that, too, appears to cease. But where No. 3 Redoubt stands the sky is now lurid and the roll of musketry incessant. The whole work is encircled with flame, and jets of fire dart forth and muskets crackle from the fern.
“Now and again there is a greater blaze followed by the loud dull report of a field-piece, and then again we distinguish the sound of hand-grenades exploding.
The Perfect Gunner.
“'Hullo, Mac, There goes your old girl,’ one of us says, turning to Macnaghten of the Artillery, who had been standing there. We had two field-pieces with us in No. 1 while in No. 3 were two more guns, one of them a 24lb. howitzer, which Macnaghten loved as he never loved woman. The shyest, most silent, retiring of men, it was said of him that when he was in any civilized place he took his walks at night in order to avoid meeting women. Certain it was that if he did meet a lady he was as likely as not to jump a wall and so escape having to return her salutation. None of us, men or officers, wore uniform in its proper sense—blue serge smocks, corduroy trousers, and so forth, constituted our usual get-up, but shabbier than all the other rags was Macnaghten's pea-jacket. But that rusty jacket covered perhaps the most gallant heart of all. Poor lad, you have no length of days before you! Ere two months have passed a bullet is to pierce that brave heart.
“But Macnaghten was now nowhere to be seen. It turned out that when he saw that the real attack was directed on No. 3 Redoubt his thoughts turned to his beloved 24lb. howitzer, and he longed to be with her. So, knowing that if he asked permission to go down by himself to the front, it would be refused, he quietly slipped out of our redoubt and stole away to the beleaguered fortifications, regardless of the risk of encountering Maoris in the darkness, or of being shot by the defenders of No. 2. He reached the rear of it, entered, and assured himself of the safety of the ‘old girl.'
Call for The Tigers.
“Now the firing around No. 3 became hotter than ever, and the 40th called for reinforcements. The regimental call of the 65th rang out.
“The great bearded fellows, looking more like bushrangers than soldiers, fell in without a moment's delay. Before the bugle had sounded a third appeal for help, the column of fours was out of the redoubt and, under command of the senior Captain, was off over the plain at a steady double.
“The remainder of the Tigers, leaning over the parapet, watched the drama which was being enacted in front. As the three companies passed No. 2 Redoubt, the occupants gave them a loud cheer, and in a few minutes more the advanced redoubt was reached.
“Day was now breaking, the fire was not so continuous as before, and what there was came from the front face principally.
“Loud cheers rose from the 40th as they saw the Tigers coming. They called out that the ditch in front of the redoubt was crammed with Maoris, but that the thickness of the parapet and want of flanking defence prevented their rifles being sufficiently depressed to reach the attackers.
The Fight in the Trench.
“There was a hasty consultation, and then the Tigers descended into the wide ditch on the right of the work, and the company of the 12th Regiment into the ditch on the left, and both parties made their way towards the front of the redoubt, where hand-grenades had been hurled among the crowded warriors. Some of the Artillery, unable to depress their guns sufficiently, got shells, and having cut short the fuses, ignited them, rolled them over the parapet, so that falling they exploded, spreading havoc around them.
“In vain the doomed Maoris tried to pick up the sputtering hand-grenades and fling them back. They were packed too closely together, and the horrid things exploded amongst them with grim result. The warriors feared to quit the ditch and retire. This would have exposed them to the fires of the rifles which lined the parapet; besides, amongst them were many of the brave Ngati-Maniapoto and other Waikato tribes, whose motto was ‘Death before dishonour.'
“On came the Tigers along the side ditch. The firing slackened and ceased page 11 for a moment, there was a pause. It was evident that a volley would greet the head of the little column as it turned the corner to make its way into the front ditch which the attackers occupied.
“Let me through, men!’ shouts Charlie Broadmayne, in command of the Light Company, as he struggles to make his way through the throng. ‘I'll give you a lead.'
“Private Thomas Bridges was in front, and alongside him Pat Ryan, a great hairy Irishman, one of the smartest soldiers in the field, but the greatest scamp in the regiment, the despair of the Adjutant and Sergeant-Major whenever liquor was procurable.
“'Lead be damned!’ shouts Pat, dashing on. ‘Yer sowls to glory, boys!’ Half a dozen muskets ring out. Down goes poor Pat with a bullet through the forehead. Tom Bridges was by his side, staggers against the counterscarp; a ball has struck him in the face and carried away part of his upper lip and some of his teeth. But on go the Tigers with a wild shout. The garrison deliver a volley, and then hold their hand to avoid hitting the Tigers and the 12th men, who have scrambled up the counterscarp of the ditch and are now scattered in pursuit of the flying foes. There is no time for the Tigers to reload their Enfields. The bayonet does its deadly work. The swifter-footed of the fugitives gain the shelter of the bush, and then the bugles sounding the recall check the pursuit. The repulse is complete.
The Army Sword.
“Back from the pursuit came a disreputable-looking figure. Young Brown of ‘ours'—Goodie Brown as he was called to distinguish him from another Brown, who was supposed to be not so good.
“An amusing youngster was our Brown. He had lately joined, and was a general favourite, with a fund of dry humour and an enthusiastic way with him.
“'Oh, I say,’ cries the boy, ‘I wish you would come back with me and look at my Maori. Such a lark! I was charging those fellows across there, when I caught my foot and tumbled head foremost into a rifle-pit, and landed in the arms of a noble savage. There we were hugging one another. He could not get away from me and I could not get away from him. My revolver was empty. But I had my trusty sword, ‘Excalibur,’ and luckily the noble savage had not got a tomahawk. So we held on to one another like grim death, I all the while cutting him across his bare head with my sword. I was so close to him that I could only use the part of the blade near the hilt, but I slashed and slashed, calling to mind all that I have read about ‘pleaving the Paynim to the chin.’ I should think that we were five minutes at this game, and I was getting devilish tired, for cleaving skulls for five minutes is hard work, especially when the owner is trying to throttle you. So I was not sorry when Corporal Kearney of Ours rushed up, and with a yell drove his bayonet into him.
“Ugh! see what a beastly mess I am in!’ However, when he was dead I examined his head, to see the result of my hammering him for five minutes with my sword. I give you my honour, that after looking very carefully I could distinctly see a slight red mark on his forehead! An abrasion of the skin. Oh, yes! the skin was distinctly broken! I was never so delighted in my life. And yet they talk of a regimental sword being an unreliable weapon. Well, all I can say is I have not found it so!'
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That touch of comedy was a trifle of relief from the terrible scenes of the defeated forlorn hope. The Maoris lost nearly half their number killed. Fifty men and youths lay dead. Rewi marvellously escaped, though he was foremost in the attack and tried to chop steps in the parapet with his long-handled tomahawk. Of the British five were killed and eleven wounded.
It was another Mahoetahi for the Maoris—that was a disastrous defeat of Ngati-Haua in the previous year. Waikato was a land of grief. “The land is swept and desolate,” the weeping people chanted. “Mournfully roll the waters of Puniu; the waters sob as they flow.”