Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.
The Ruakituri Engagement
The Ruakituri Engagement
Whitmore's force was now reduced to about 140, of whom 40 were Hawke's Bay natives. The terrain proved very difficult. In some places progress could be made only by crossing and re-crossing the Ruakituri River, which was swollen with snow-fed waters. On the afternoon of 8 August the rebels were found at Tuahu under cover on the bank opposite what has been described in some accounts as an “island” in the stream, but which, in fact, was only the tail of a boulder spit that had formed around the shaft of a rock known as “Te Wero-a-Tohe.” This rock was about 3 ft. 6 in. in diameter and stood about 12 ft. above water level.
When the engagement began, a large number of the pursuers were in exposed positions in the riverbed. Most of them took refuge in the mouth of Mako-ka-Muka Creek. Captain Carr and Captain Canning made for the inadequate shelter of the rock, page 242 and both were fatally wounded. Two hours later Whitmore wisely decided to retire. He had found it impossible to draw the rebels out into the open, and it was getting on towards sunset and he had no supplies. The bodies of Carr and Canning could not be recovered. Nothing authentic was learned as to the rebel losses, but it became known afterwards that Te Kooti was wounded in an instep. Great privations had to be endured during the retirement.
“All night,” Whitmore says, “we toiled, carrying the wounded up a long ascent, with the groans of several seriously injured men ringing in our ears after the reaction from great excitement had set in, when hunger had begun to press upon us, and the hard frost was chilling us to the marrow.” [Three of the wounded men—Privates Byrne, A.C., J. Condon, A.C., and W. Oates, Wanganui Militia—died during the first night.]
During the night a colt was roasted and eagerly devoured by the ravenous troops. Next day they plodded up and down the snow-covered hills from 5 a.m. till 5 p.m. They were exhausted when they got back over the Hangaroa River on the following morning.
Whilst the campaign was being discussed in Parliament, Colonel Whitmore claimed that he knew, when the Poverty Bay Volunteers and the Poverty Bay natives left him, that he would not receive the aid which he had ordered from Wairoa. Richardson had, he said, informed him that Mr. Locke had seen a dispatch from the Government, giving orders that the pursuit of the rebels should be abandoned. However, in the position in which he was in, he had not felt disposed to take orders on mere rumour. In reply, the Hon. J. C. Richmond said that both he and Mr. McLean had advised the Government that it would be futile to pursue the rebels into inaccessible country, and that Mr. McLean had mentioned the fact to Mr. Locke. Richardson had not been delayed by what he had heard; he had merely passed on to Whitmore the information that such a rumour was in circulation.
Colonel Whitmore also told his fellow-members of Parliament that it was “on the entreaty of his men” that he decided he would not allow the last two miles to stand between his force and the enemy. It took three hours, however, to cover the final stretch, and that meant that he was compelled to go into action under the absolute necessity of returning that night for food and blankets. He added: “We went off from Ruakituri with the honours of war and were never followed a single yard.” In his book he claims that, after the fight, “Te Kooti continued in full retreat towards Puketapu mountain.” But Biggs, in a letter to Mr. McLean (18/8/1868), put the matter very differently. page 243 “Whitmore,” he said, “came back on Friday after getting what everybody but himself calls a thrashing … Many such victories will cost us dearly!”