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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XVII War does not favour my friend

page 199

Chapter XVII War does not favour my friend

The following day we turned inland. I observed that already the surgeons were kept busy all day, not with treating the sick—the heroes of New Plymouth had been away too short a time to contract any diseases and their only ailment was blistered feet—or caring for the wounded, for we had not yet encountered the enemy and no blood had been shed, but in examining malingerers who reported to complain of all manner of imaginary disease. Never have I seen so many tough fellows suffering from arthritis, rheumatism, or hernia. Needless to say there was no foundation in fact for these conditions, as each examination clearly revealed. ‘Can it be,’ I thought, ‘that the men who only the other day looked contemptuously at me when I donned the humble uniform of a medical orderly want to lie their way out of the Egyptian bondage of military discipline? How soon their enthusiasm has melted away in the face of a few hours’ rain!’

Yet even I, hardened as I was by the ups and downs of my adventures, found the weather very trying. It seemed determined to prove what I had once read about New Zealand, that the climate was humid and favoured rapid growth. Every night it rained in torrents, and every day we floundered across innumerable rising streams. Crossing the streams, indeed, was only half the battle. The water in them hardly reached above our knees. But from the tree ferns above us every moment brought down small cataracts, which fell between our flannel shirts and our backs, rolling slowly down our spines—which, as you know, are very sensitive to cold water. As we marched through the forest the wind, which we could not feel at ground level, shook the crowns of the kauri and rimu trees and saturated us with miniature Niagaras. Private soldiers and officers alike found their erstwhile fiery tempers cooled, particularly when, after a day of Nature's inhospitality, we had to sleep under wet blankets on wet grass.

Two days of these delights were enough to restrain the ardour of our commanders, who, in order to bolster the morale of their subordinates and demonstrate their fervour, had at first denied themselves the comforts which their rank allowed. On the first night, although the fourgons which brought up the rear of the column page 200 carried several officers' tents, they slept under the stars (which could not, of course, be seen). Tempski's entire staff, some half dozen of them, made do with one fork, spearing slices of meat in turn as they were cut from a joint, which they then held in their fingers. They used one spoon, which they dipped in icing sugar kept in a tin in lieu of a sugar bowl. When I called on the major to drink the wine he had promised me I looked at the officers' greasy fingers, sticky with the fine sugar, and began to doubt their good upbringing. Surely decent people would have remembered to take such indispensible utensils with them. Even if it was not a natural slovenliness which their conduct betrayed, it seemed a silly ostentatious piece of pseudo-Spartanism. However, they soon grew bored with using hard round biscuits instead of plates and eating with their fingers, and the continuous rain damped their spirits considerably. During the following evening all the baggage wagons were searched and the roof of a tent found which was hastily erected on the spot where the English flag marked our headquarters. It was a canvas shelter rather than a real tent. It had no sides and provided no protection against the wind, but it did outwit the rain. I availed myself of the major's invitation and went to visit him, to the great astonishment of my mates. When he had given his latest instructions for the placing of sentries, Major Tempski began to talk with me about our faraway Home, which I was not to see again for many years, and he never. With so pleasant a task to occupy us the time went by quickly. Minutes and hours passed unnoticed. The whole evening was gone in a moment. We leant against a tree trunk, protected by the dense foliage from the falling rain. A large fire hissed and flamed at our feet. Truly we were comfortable. Then the major tapped his forehead with one finger in a gesture of recollection and said, ‘You won't go back to your quarters in rain like this, will you?’

It seemed to me that he stressed the words ‘your quarters’ to show the difference between his grand hammock and my lowly couch, only some five hundred paces away, where I would curl up like a puppy under the dripping sky and spend the whole long night cursing the foul weather.

‘Why not?’

‘Well, this rain….’

‘I can ignore it—it's no more than a drizzle,’ I replied, shamming indifference and glad to show him that, although I was only a civilian and cared nothing for military vanity, I also paid less attention than he did to the small discomforts encountered in the service of Mars.

‘The rain is getting heavier, and water from the tree trunk is page 201 dripping down my back. Let's run for shelter ….’ said my commanding officer, retreating briskly towards the tent and leaving me without another word in the care of Providence. Another officer offered me a place in the staff tent. I politely declined and ran off to my own nest. It was dark and raining, and the grass reached to my waist. I was wet through when I finally reached our fire. The captain of our unit was drying himself on his return from an inspection. I followed his example. My back remained soaking while my trousers dried. When I tried to dry my back, my trousers got wet again. At length, dry on one side and half-roasted on the other, I scrambled beneath my damp blanket, next to the sergeant, a former miner who took everything the good Lord sent, fair weather or foul, without a grumble and without a word of praise.

He was an old hand, this sergeant of mine. He had contrived a shelter against the weather by spreading a blanket over a rifle and a stick. We thus had a roof over our heads but only one blanket between us for covering. About midnight a sudden gust of wind from the bush demolished the structure. The rifle fell on to the sergeant's most tender part. He instinctively kicked out at me. Luckily he was not wearing his boots, since he was using them as a pillow. The angry sergeant's kick, and his uncomplimentary references to my laziness in not getting up to help him cope with the stick, rifle, and blanket in order to reconstruct his ingenious shelter, were not sufficient to rouse me from my cosy bed; but a deluge of cold water from the blanket, which only a moment before had been masquerading as a tent, soon had me changing my position.

‘What's up?’ I asked, rubbing my eyes.

‘The tent fell down.’ (He had such backward notions of comfort that he regarded this shaky semblance of a shelter as a fully fledged tent.) ‘We'll have to put it up again. What's worse, ‘he added, ‘several quarts of water settled in the middle of the blanket and have flooded our bedding.’

‘Since we already had gallons and gallons of it,’ I thought, ‘a few more quarts can't do much harm.’ Another thought succeeding this had a greater effect in overcoming my lethargy. I jumped up from my bed and frantically sought the bag which held our food, known in the colonies as ‘grub’. The sergeant understood my eloquent though silent anxiety.

‘Is the grub all right?’ he asked anxiously. It was not often that his voice showed any concern.

‘It's all right!’ I replied, having checked on the sugar and the page 202 matches which were wrapped together in an oilcloth for dry storage. Both of us sighed with relief. The cloth held our rations for five days.

Thunder and lightning woke us again before dawn. The wind made short work of our pseudo-tent. Not content with this achievement, it also tore down several trees, scattered the camp fires and helped the rain to extinguish them, and dragged us up to save our own fire from the fate of others. Sheltering it from the rain and wind we huddled over it, our teeth chattering. Streams of water poured mercilessly over us. Yet despite these tribulations we could not help laughing at the plaintive faces and dripping uniforms of our comrades. My German friend just then crawled over to our fire. His new uniform looked as if he had been pulled out of a river. I exploded with laughter at the sight of the damaged feathers, stained uniform, and sour face of the erstwhile dandy, and reminded him of our expedition through the bush. He swore that when he got back to New Plymouth he would abandon his military career and devote himself henceforth entirely to the oil business.

This appalling night marked the end of the bad weather. The sky began to look more promising soon after dawn. The beams of the rising sun reminded us in no time that we were living in a subtropical climate. Clouds of vapour floated above the ground and amongst the flax and fern, filling the air with a steamy heat. This stifling air which always follows heavy rain in hot countries is far worse to a European than the most scorching heat. Fortunately in New Zealand the humid heat at least does not bring fever, for the strong westerly winds blow malaria from that happy land.

On our third day out of New Plymouth we made only slow progress. We had already reached a part of the country abandoned by the settlers. Here and there we guessed from the ruins of burnt homesteads and out-buildings that the Maoris had passed this way in force. At any moment the scene might change to one of war. The enemy was near, or might be near, and we must take precautions. From experience of another war I wondered at the negligence shown by our column and the carelessness of the troopers assigned to guard our flanks. When we made camp that afternoon the same casual attitude was apparent in the allocation of positions and the behaviour of the individual sentries, despite the fact that the commanding officer personally supervised all the officers and men on duty. Unfortunately, he could not be everywhere. In complete disregard of his orders, anyone who wanted to go beyond the line of outposts did so. Some went fishing. Others who had spotted a peach orchard by a page 203 burnt-out cottage, a common sight on the Island, went fruit picking. Half our company wandered outside the camp.

The fishermen soon returned with news of a herd of wild pigs in the fern. In the hope of finding fresh meat a large number of troopers, and even some officers, resolved to go hunting in defiance of the major's orders that no one should venture into the bush. Those who went did not take rifles with them, picking up anything they could in the way of a missile. They soon disappeared into the fern. The pigs were found quite a distance beyond the last outposts. The men all rushed to the attack, whistling, shouting, throwing anything that could be thrown—stones, sticks, the iron pegs to which the mules were hobbled for grazing, knives, bayonets, and God only knows what. The soldiers tried to catch the piglets by their tails, beat them with bayonets, ran about, stumbled against each other, and laughingly fell to the ground. We had a good view of this hilarious scene from the hill on which our company was camped. The uniformed soldiers flitted like goblins among the undergrowth.

Suddenly puffs of white smoke leapt from the thicket and we heard the sounds of shots. The outposts returned the Maori fire. Fugitives and retreating sentries shouted that the natives had surrounded and slain our defenceless comrades. The captain lost his head. Most of the hunters who had fallen into the ambush belonged to his company, and he was therefore responsible for their loss. The old sergeant took over from the captain and the other equally useless officers, gathered the remnants of the company, and rushed to the rescue of their trapped companions. Thundering cannon hurled shrapnel into the thicket where it was supposed that the Maori reserves were hidden. Tempski had spied the danger spot and was trying to destroy it. Troop after troop passed our hill in scattered battle order. A long curved line of continuous fire embraced the fern where our soldiers were dying. The tirailleurs forced their way at last into the thicket which protected the ambuscade. The glade and bush discharged tongues of fire and were cloudy with the smoke of gunpowder. Within half an hour of the first alarm the Maoris had vanished without trace. The pursuing party found nobody. The detachment detailed to collect the casualties brought in more than thirty bodies and not a single wounded man. The Maoris had slaughtered our wounded, taken their prisoners with them, and carried away their own dead and wounded. Each company was mustered for a roll-call.

We discovered that our carelessness had cost us more than a minor defeat. Apart from the dead, some twenty men of various ranks could not be accounted for. Our company had suffered the most in casualties page 204 as well as in missing men, and had lost one quarter of its strength. Among the recovered bodies we recognized several non-commissioned officers. The second lieutenant was also missing and since his body could not be found despite a careful search we presumed that he had fallen into the Maoris' hands. This news swept the camp from end to end and caused greater dismay than if it were one of the staff officers who had vanished. During these last few weeks, Charles had become very popular in this small provincial society so cut off from the rest of the world by the mighty ocean. His extraordinary love affairs, his talents, the acumen he displayed in the oil venture, his status as a Continental nobleman had made him the centre of attention. The capture of such a man by an enemy who seldom kept prisoners alive upset us all, even those who were not his friends. In a small militia force each subaltern plays a part no less important than a major-general's in a European army. The death of thirty men, the capture of many others, and the sorry fate of a second lieutenant shook us as badly as a great army would be shaken by a bloody defeat in which one of its field marshals lost his life.

The misfortune taught our men to be more cautious. Next day we had to be ready in battle order before dawn and were ordered to set off at the double. I noticed how watchful our pickets were. Every half hour we had an alert, which was always found to be a false alarm caused by a strangely shaped stump, shrunken and deformed, looking like a crouching human body among the young trees, or a suspicious noise in the clumps of fern raised by the flight of a herd of wild pigs. The enemy remained invisible all day long. Yet the tracks left by the Maoris were wide and unmistakeable. Our native guides knew how to find and follow them with the skill of hunting dogs. All our baggage wagons and gear had been left at the last bivouac as a supply column. Each of us carried only his blanket and a week's rations. We were able to advance rapidly through the bush into country which gradually became wilder and more mountainous Eventually, chains of steep high mountains slowed our advance. These mountains branched from the middle of the Island towards the sea like rays, dividing the land by deep ravines bottomed with rapid streams. We crossed these waters with the help of a long pole held tightly by a whole platoon. Those who could swim went first carrying one end of the pole across the fast-flowing water and clinging to it with all their might when they could not touch bottom. A few men were drowned during each such operation. Despite these losses and constant dangers we pressed along the trail indicated by our guides. We were spurred on by a hope of rescuing the prisoners page 205 and crippling the northern invaders once and for all. Fresh footprints and recently abandoned fires, sometimes still warm, proved that we were gaining on them. The mountains and bush would have to end soon. The enemy's withdrawal could then only continue along the meadows of the Wanganui valley where the white soldier could march just as quickly as the native. There we should be able to cut the invaders off from their own land, driving them either among the villages of the friendly natives or against the English regulars to the south. They could not cross the river without serious losses, for a flotilla of our boats and small ships constantly patrolled its water. Or so our officers claimed.