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Bush Fighting. Illustrated by remarkable actions and incidents of the Maori war in New Zealand.

Chapter VI

page 94

Chapter VI.

The Waikato river—Rangariri—"Angry Heavens"—Maori entrenchment there—General Cameron reconnoitres the enemy's position, and directs troops to land in rear of it—Arrangements for the attack on the works—Description of them—Difficulty in landing part of the force—The assault ordered—The enemy's lines carried—The 40th Regiment drive the Maoris out of their rifle-pits—Determined resistance of the Maoris in their strong redoubt—Heavy losses sustained there by the troops—Assaults by the infantry, artillery, and the seamen—Operations suspended during the night—The Maoris hoist the white flag and surrender next morning—Account of some of the officers killed and wounded—The war continued.

The Waikato, flowing out of the sacred Taupo lake, in the region of the active volcano, Tongariro, and the snow-clad Ruapehu, is a noble river, a fine full stream, on which I had formerly much enjoyment in paddling in canoes when in command of the outposts of the Waikato. It had bush on the right hand two miles beyond Meri-meri, after this it was mostly open country page break
D.J. Gamble, reduced by J.E.A. Edwd Wellor, Litho. Red Lion Square.Published by Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Scarle Crown Buildings, 188 Fleet street London.

D.J. Gamble, reduced by J.E.A. Edwd Wellor, Litho. Red Lion Square.
Published by Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Scarle Crown Buildings, 188 Fleet street London.

page 95on either side, the banks occasionally fringed with swamps, but principally bounded by undulating hills. The average width of the river was about 200 or 250 yards, and the current about three miles an hour; 9 feet was the minimum depth of the channel, 18 feet the maximum about Meri-meri.

Rangariri ("angry heavens") was the scene of a very severe action in this war, where many brave men fell, both British and Maoris; the struggle was a hard one—the victory dearly bought. The Maori settlement lay low on the river bank, twelve miles above Meri-meri, and a strong line of entrenchment had been constructed there across the narrow isthmus which divides the Waikato river from the Lake Waikare, thus completely blocking up the road up the right bank of the river.

General Cameron reconnoitred the enemy's position on the 18th of November, in the steamer "Pioneer," and determined on landing a force in rear of the line of entrenchment, for the purpose of cutting off the retreat of the page 96enemy, simultaneously with attacking him in front. He did not care to make a golden bridge for him to escape, and much longer to continue the war.

With this view the head-quarters of the 40th Regiment, 300 strong, under Colonel Leslie, C.B., were embarked on the 20th of November, on board the "Pioneer" and "Avon" steamers, which with four gun-boats proceeded up the Waikato under the command of Commodore Sir William Wiseman, Bart., whilst with a force of 860 officers and men, General Cameron marched from Meri-meri towards Rangariri by the right bank of the river. Both arrived at Rangariri at the same time, 3 p.m.

The troops were halted under the brow of a hill, 600 yards from the enemy's position, and they formed for attack in the following order:—200 men of the 65th Regiment, under Colonel Wyatt, C.B., on the right, one half in extended order and the rest in support; between these, a detachment of seventy-two men of the 65th Regiment, under Lieut. Toker, with scaling ladders page 97and planks. Captain Brooke, with ten men of the Royal Engineers, was attached to this party.

The detachment of the 12th Regiment under Captain Cole, and the 14th Regiment under Lieut.-Colonel Austen, prolonged the line of skirmishers and supports to the left of the 65th Regiment; Captain Mercer's two Armstrong guns and the naval 6-pounder Armstrong under Lieutenant Alexander, of H.M.S. "Curaçoa," in the centre of the line of skirmishers. The detachment of the 40th Regiment under Captain Cooke and the remainder of the 65th Regiment in reserve.

The enemy's works consisted of a line of high parapet and double ditch, extending, as was before stated, between the Waikato and the Lake Waikare; the centre of this line being strengthened by a square redoubt of very formidable construction, its ditch being 12 feet wide, and the height from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the parapet 18 feet. The strength of this work was not known before the page 98attack, as its profile could not be seen from the river or the ground in front.

Behind the left centre of this main line, and at right angles to it, there was a strong interior line of rifle-pits facing the river, and obstructing the advance of the troops from that direction; about 500 yards behind the front position was a high ridge, the summit of which was fortified by rifle-pits. As the left of the line of the entrenchments could be enfiladed and taken in reverse by the fire from the steamers and gunboats, General Cameron very judiciously selected that part of the enemy's works for the attack.

The skirmishers of the 65th Regiment were to cover the advance of the ladder party, and, when the latter had succeeded in escalading the entrenchments, were to follow with the support; the whole then bringing the right shoulder forward were to attack the line of rifle-pits facing the river, and having driven the enemy out of it, were to storm the centre redoubt.

The 12th Regiment were to join in the attack on the centre redoubt, and the 14th Regiment page 99to keep the enemy in their front in check until the 65th and 12th Regiments were in the redoubt.

The troops were hardly in position when the enemy opened a heavy fire of musketry from every part of his line, but without effect, the troops being under cover of the brow of the hill.

It had been arranged with Commodore Sir William Wiseman, Bart., that the guns attached to the force with General Cameron and those of the gunboats should, on a preconcerted signal, open fire at the same moment, when the "Pioneer" and "Avon" should also land the 40th Regiment. But the strength of the wind and current rendered the steamers and gunboats almost unmanageable, and at half-past three o'clock, when the signal was given by the General, only one of the gunboats was ready to open fire, and the steamers were still far from the landing-place.

After shelling the enemy's works for an hour and a half, the day being well advanced, and page 100there being little prospect of the remainder of the gunboats getting into position and the steamers reaching the landing-place, the order was given for the assault, the chief influenced by the perfervidum ingenium Scotorum and of the old 42nd, in which we had both held commissions.

The whole line of skirmishers and supports rushed eagerly down the slope of the hill, and advanced towards the entrenchment at as rapid a pace as the rugged and uneven nature of the intervening ground would admit, exposed the whole time to a destructive fire from the enemy. Lieut.-Colonel Austen and Captain Phelps, 14th Regiment, and many others were wounded, and fell almost directly on becoming exposed: the enemy's fire was sharp, quick, and heavy, but nothing could check the impetuosity of the assault.

The skirmishers of the 65th Regiment having reached within fifty yards of the entrenchments, and the scaling-ladders having been quickly planted under cover of the fire, the skirmishers and ladder party, followed by the support, page 101mounted the parapet and forced their way over the enemy's first line; then wheeling to the left, and charging up the hill, they carried the second line of rifle-pits, and continued to drive the enemy before them, until their progress was checked by a deadly fire opened upon them from the centre redoubt, which the enemy seemed determined to defend to the last.

The remainder of the troops on the left, finding it impossible to penetrate the enemy's position on that side, joined the attack on the right, and with the 65th Regiment occupied positions round the centre redoubt, almost completely enveloping the enemy.

Soon after the 65th had passed the main line of entrenchment, the General had the satisfaction of seeing the 40th Regiment landing from the "Pioneer" and "Avon," not far from the spot which had been selected. Colonel Leslie, with Irish spirit—without waiting for the companies to form—directed Captain Clarke to take the first fifty men that were landed and attack the ridge in the rear of the enemy's position, whilst page 102he moved with 100 men round its base for the purpose of intercepting the enemy. The ridge, honeycombed with rifle-pits, was carried at once, and a great number of the enemy were killed or drowned in endeavouring to escape across the swamp of Lake Waikare. A portion of the 65th Regiment, after passing the main line of entrenchment, joined the 40th in the attack.

Leaving a detachment to occupy the ridge, Colonel Leslie, with the remainder of his regiment, joined the force engaged at the centre redoubt.

The main line, and some of the inner works, having been taken as described, the troops closed on the enemy towards the centre redoubt, where he now fought with desperation; and the ladders being rather short, he held his ground against every attempt to dislodge him.

The enemy continuing to defend with great tenacity and resolution, General Cameron ordered two successive assaults to be made on the redoubt, the first by the Royal Artillery, armed with swords and revolvers, led by that page 103brave Englishman, Captain Mercer: they were, however, unable to overcome the difficult nature of the work and the heavy fire brought to bear upon them.

Captain Mercer received a severe wound through the jaw and tongue, the shot having been fired through a narrow opening of the enemy's work facing to the rear, which he was crossing in search of a point favourable for making an entry. Every man who attempted to pass that opening afterwards was wounded, except Lieutenant Pickard, R.A.: he received a Victoria Cross afterwards for nobly exposing himself to assist his fallen commanding officer. Captain Mercer, and the other wounded men who fell after passing the opening, could not be moved out till it was masked with earth and planking.

A second assault was made by ninety seamen of the Royal Navy with cutlasses and revolvers, under direction of Commodore Sir William Wiseman and Commander Mayne, of H.M.S. "Eclipse." They went against the front of the page 104work, and were received with a deadly volley, and were also unable to effect an entrance. An attempt was afterwards made by a party of seamen under Commander Phillimore, of H.M.S. "Curaçoa," to dislodge the enemy from his work with hand-grenades, but without success.

It was now dark, and the General resolved to postpone further operations until daylight, ordering the troops to remain during the night in the several positions they had gained.

At daybreak, Colonel Mould, C.B., of the Royal Engineers, suggested that a breach should be made in the redoubt by labour with the pick and shovel, and the operation was in progress when, at six o'clock, the enemy hoisted a white flag, and 183 men surrendered unconditionally, and laid down their arms, though they had a plentiful supply of ammunition. It was understood that the works had been manned at the commencement of the action with 700 men. The surrender of arms is always a trying matter for fighting-men. There was hesitation when the Maoris at Rangiriri were told to give page 105up theirs. At last Te-ori-ori, the chief, handed his rifle to the General, and all then gave up their firearms. Afterwards a leading Waikato chief made a speech:—"We fought you at Koheroa, and fought you well; we fought you at Rangiriri, and fought you well; and now we are friends, aké, aké, aké" (for ever, for ever, for ever).

The Maoris at once cordially fraternised with our men (I had seen the same occur at Te Arei pah, in the Taranaki), and were particularly good-humoured under their reverse.

Their immediate leader was Te Piori, a remarkably fine-looking Waikato chief, and among the prisoners were several chiefs of note. They were sent to Auckland, and as a temporary arrangement placed on board H.M.S. "Curaçoa."

The list of British casualties amounted to 4 officers killed, 11 wounded; 37 men killed, 80 wounded. Total, 132 killed and wounded.

The loss of the enemy must have been very heavy; 41 bodies were found in and about page 106the works, and a great many were shot or drowned in their flight across the swamp. They must have removed their wounded during the night, as, strange to say, none were found among the prisoners.

The British loss was severe, but not greater than was to be expected in attacking so formidable a position. General Cameron deeply deplored, in common with all under his command, the loss the service had sustained in the death of Captain Mercer, Commanding Royal Artillery in the Colony, who died from the effects of the wound he received while gallantly leading his men to the assault on the redoubt. It was a serious misfortune that the force was deprived of the services of so able and energetic an officer.

Captain Mercer's death was particularly affecting. His wife was sent for to see him in his last moments at the Queen's Redoubt; and as he was unable to speak, from the nature of the wound in his mouth, he wrote with a pencil, "Do not grieve for me. I die contented, and page 107resigned to God's will." This is the true spirit of the Christian soldier.

Colonel Austen's wound was not at first supposed to be mortal, but he succumbed to it. He was an excellent officer, and well liked in the regiment. As an old soldier, I here take the opportunity of giving a warning against the too free use of tobacco. Poor Colonel Austen was a "slave of the pipe," and his system was full of nicotine—hence the wound was difficult to be got over. Mild tobacco, and very little of it (or none at all), is best.*

Captain Phelps, 14th, was a fine young man; had been educated for a surgeon, and his wound being in the groin, he knew well what would be the fatal result, and, like Captain Mercer, he calmly resigned himself to his fate. When the doctor, Assistant-Surgeon Temple,

* The well-known and highly esteemed Bishop Selwyn, of New Zealand, and now Bishop of Lichfield, when visiting one of our camps on the Waikato, said, when I asked his Lordship if I could offer him a cigar, "The Almighty has given me a certain degree of intelligence, and I don't want to obscure it with tobacco." Narcotics are found all over the world for moderate use, not to be abused—tobacco is certainly abused.

page 108R.A., came to dress Captain Phelps' wound, he said, "Attend to those poor fellows around us; they may have a better chance than I have, for I know my wound is mortal;" and the doctor was obliged to get assistance to compel him to have his wound dressed.

The General had every reason to be satisfied with the conduct of the whole of the troops engaged at Rangiriri. The 65th Regiment, under Colonel Wyatt, C.B., and the detachment of the Royal Engineers, under Captain Brooke, particularly distinguished themselves by the impetuosity of their attack on the left of the enemy's position, and were most gallantly led by their officers, among whom Captain Gresson and Lieutenant Talbot (both severely wounded), with the skirmishers, and Lieutenant Toker, with the ladder party, were most conspicuous. Lieutenant and Adjutant Lewis, of the 65th, collecting a handful of men, gallantly led them against the redoubt, and was severely wounded in the attempt. The rapid and spirited manner in which the 40th Regiment, under Colonel page 109Leslie, attacked and carried the ridge in rear of the position reflected great credit on the corps.

The Royal Artillery displayed great daring and intrepidity in the assault on the central redoubt, Sergeant-Major Hamilton, and other non-commissioned officers, standing on the top of the parapet and discharging their revolvers into the work.

Captain Brooke, R.E., was most active throughout the engagement; and after the assault by the Royal Artillery on the redoubt, this officer, with the assistance of Lieutenant Pickard, R. A., succeeded in masking, with planks and earth, the narrow opening in the parapet of the redoubt, through which the enemy had kept up a deadly fire, and prevented the wounded from being removed, among them Captain Mercer. Assistant-Surgeon Temple, R.A., here performed an act of courage and devotion to his duty worthy of record, by passing this opening for the purpose of attending to the wounded, although the extreme page 110danger of his doing so was pointed out to him;* every man but one (Lieutenant Pickard) who had previously attempted to cross having been killed or wounded.

The advice of Colonel Mould, C.B., R.E., and his assistance, were of great value on this occasion; and the officers of the general staff did excellent service in carrying out the instructions of General Cameron; as did Lieut.- Colonel Carey, C.B., Deputy Adjutant-General; Lieut.-Colonel Gamble, Deputy Quartermaster- General; Lieut.-Colonel Sir Henry Havelock, Bart., Deputy Assistant-Quartermaster-General; Major MacNeil, and Lieutenant St. Hill, Aide-de-Camps.

Deputy Inspector-General Mouatt, C.B., P.M.O., caused the, wounded to be promptly attended to and carefully carried on board the steamers. The Royal Navy, under Commodore Sir William Wiseman, gave cordial and most able support. Prominent in the assault with their men on the lines and on the redoubt were

* He well earned the Victoria Cross.

page 111Commander Mayne, H.M.S. "Eclipse," and Lieutenant Alexander, H.M.S. "Curaçoa," who were both severely wounded; as were Lieutenant Downes, H.M.S. "Miranda," and Lieutenant Hotham, H.M.S. "Curaçoa." Lieutenant Murphy and Midshipman Walker, H.M.S. "Curaçoa," were killed.

Captain Lacy, commanding H.M.S. "Himalaya," had marched with the General, and was present during the engagement.

The Maoris had never received such a blow as at Rangariri; the capture of prisoners and arms they had not been accustomed to (they had always been well prepared for retreat in case of repulse), and what had now occurred they must have regarded as a heavy misfortune. It was hoped at the time it would have had the effect of re-establishing peace on a permanent basis, but this did not occur.

Tents and stores were landed on the 21st of November, the troops encamped in the position, and the construction of a redoubt was commenced.