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With the Lost Legion in New Zealand

Chapter V — The Uriwera Campaign

page 325

Chapter V
The Uriwera Campaign

It was now high time to call on the Uriwera so as to punish them for past offences and teach them that, because they inhabited the very wildest and most rugged country in New Zealand, they could not with impunity murder white people and friendly natives.

The Uriwera are a queer tribe almost distinct from other Maoris, for although they belong to the same race, yet they have held but little intercourse with the other tribes, who look upon them as being somewhat uncanny, and perhaps stand slightly in awe of them. Their country at that time was absolutely unknown, no white man having ever entered it, and no Maori war party had ever possessed the temerity to attack them, so they lived among their inaccessible mountains and deep valleys, a people quite apart from any others. This strange people were, however, extremely warlike and ferocious, continually making raids on their neighbours. They had never had any cause to quarrel with the white settlers, yet they were one of the first tribes to join the king movement, and had fought desperately against Sir Duncan Cameron in the Waikato campaign; then they had joined the Hau Haus, and had committed many murders.

On Te Koati's landing, without receiving any 325 page 326provocation whatsoever, they had joined him, and accompanied him in his raids on Poverty Bay, revelling in the brutal massacres that had taken place there, while, to make their cup of iniquity overflow, they had invited the arch-devil himself to come to their country, after we had routed him out of Ngatapa. Well, if they had invited Te Kooti, the little Colonel invited himself, and he determined to twist their tails so as to teach them decorum.

As it was well known this was going to be a most arduous campaign, all hands, officers and men, had to undergo a rigorous medical examination, and even then only those were selected who were well known to possess determination and ability to put up with hardships without grousing, and of course every man was a past master in the art of bush fighting.

Colonel Whitmore's plans were very clever, though, when we came to carry them out, they were found to be too comprehensive, for although no man knew better than he did the great difficulty there is in carrying out combined movements in a rough country, still neither he nor anyone else knew what an infernal country we were going to soldier in, nor had even the most pessimistic man among us gauged the sufferings we were to undergo. The Colonel, however, was far too good a soldier to leave anything to chance, so that each of the four columns about to enter this terra incognita at different points were strong enough to act alone, and give a good account of themselves should they even be attacked by the whole strength of the Uriwera plus Te Kooti's own men.

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I should have gone in with the mounted column, which was to start from Napier and march up to Te Haroto, so as to block any fugitives from getting across into the Waikato country, but as I knew that the horsemen would have but little chance of fighting, I was very glad to hear that Colonel St John had applied for me to be attached to his column as boss scout. Tim, of course, I was allowed to take with me, while Pierre and George did not ask for permission, but came of their own accord, neither of these gentlemen being troubled with any qualms of conscience regarding discipline, orders or anything appertaining to red tape or respectability.

Colonel Whitmore's own column was to march from Te Matata, cross the Kaingaroa Plains and attack Te Harema Pah in the Ahikereru Valley; so far all plain sailing, no great natural obstacles to be overcome and fairly open country in which strings of pack-horses, though not drays, could be used. Here he would make a depot for stores. But then he was to strike into quite unknown pastures and try to meet Colonel St John at one of those mythical Maori strongholds, Ruatahuna, which, like Te Ngaihere, everyone had heard about but no one had ever seen.

Colonel St John was to move in from Whakatane, advancing up the river's bed, there being no tracks in that country, and to get to Ruatahuna as best he could, destroying everything en route in the way of pahs, kaingas or food he might come across; then, provided the two columns did meet at this mysterious trysting-place, they were to capture it, and then, combined, were to trust to Providence page 328to find their way somehow or other across the Huiarau ranges, and join Colonel Herrick's column at the big lake Waikaremoana. The whole plan looked well on paper. It had required an indomitable man to conceive it, and would require indomitable men to carry it out, as, should any of the columns meet with a reverse, they could hope for no assistance from any of the others.

The heaviest righting and the hardest work would fall to the lot of Colonel St John's column, as we not only had to fight our way right across the worst of the Uriwera country, but it was absolutely impossible for us to use a pack-animal of any sort, so that we must carry everything necessary on our own backs, or go without. Winter was also beginning, which that year promised to be a very cold one. It was quite impossible to defer the expeditions, indeed it was high time something should be done, as Te Kooti, just previous to our arrival on the coast, had made one of his lightning raids against the Mohaka Settlement, where (thanks to the—well, let us be charitable and call it discretion—of the militia officers, who, although amply supplied with men and horses, made no offer to resist him) he had brutally murdered over seventy white settlers and friendlies, so that we were all boiling to get after him.

Although everyone worked with a will, it was not before the 2nd of May sufficient stores and ammunition arrived to enable us to make a start, but at daylight the following morning the field force paraded in front of our camp at Oporiau, numbering, all told, two hundred and forty-five page 329white men and one hundred and eighty friendly natives. That parade was a queer sight and one that would have made a stickler for military uniforms shudder. Our men, dressed in their blue jumpers with their shawls round their waists, and smasher hats, looked like disreputable Highlanders, while we were loaded up like pack-donkeys.

To give you some idea of our loads let me tell you what each man had to carry: a Schneider carbine with one hundred and sixty rounds of ammunition; a revolver with thirty rounds; and of course each man carried his tomahawk, sheath-knife and pannikin; then each four men had to carry, taking it in turns, an axe, shovel or pick; then every twelve men in like manner carried a case containing four hundred and eighty rounds of carbine ammunition; while each division had to carry five stretchers.

After these loads had been apportioned, each individual might hump as many blankets, as much clothing, rations and private property as he saw fit, but all officers under field rank had to take their turn at the extra ammunition, tools, etc., as well as to hump their own swag. True we were all picked men, tried and seasoned by many months of bush warfare, in robust health, and, with the exception of a couple of field officers, not a single man under the age of twenty-four or older than thirty.

Oh, my gentle tourist friend, you who buckle on a pretty, light knapsack, and tramp for a few hours on a summer's day along the shady lanes of Old England, and after a bounteous repast sleep in the lavender-scented sheets of some picturesque old-fashioned country inn, and fancy page 330you have earned your repose, picture us, who had to hump our swags over what is perhaps the very roughest country in the world, perform our marches in torrents of cold rain or icy sleet, and sleep covered by a tattered blanket on the sodden ground, soon to be frozen hard by the bitter frosts of the New Zealand winter, for the months of May, June and July are the coldest in the year; and at the same time bear in mind we had to do all that living on foul, putrid bacon and mouldy lumps of what had at one time been the commonest of ship's biscuits.

I have previously stated I was delighted at having been told off to join Colonel St John's column, and that for more reasons than one, as he was universally loved and respected by every officer and man who had the honour and pleasure of serving under him. Colonel St John was at this time past middle age, tall and handsome, a gentleman to the tips of his fingers, and a thorough good sportsman. He had seen much service, had distinguished himself greatly both in the Crimea and in India, and although perhaps he lacked the great tactical skill possessed by Colonel Whitmore, still he could get more out of the men, as they loved the one and hated the other.

He was, moreover, just and considerate in his dealings with his junior officers, who regarded him more as a father than as a colonel. To me individually he was always most kind and friendly, and as he knew my father and family well I was only too pleased to serve under him.

It was on the morning of the 4th of May, Colonel St John's column commenced its march into the page 331Uriwera country, the scouts having left the night before, my orders being to enter the Whakatane River, proceed up its bed, keep a bright lookout for ambuscades and fall back to the Colonel every night.

The first day's march was a very bad one, as it necessitated the column crossing the river twenty-eight times during the twenty miles that brought the tired men to a deserted kainga called Tunanui, where we bivouacked with fair comfort, this being the jumping-off spot into the unknown.

The next day the same sort of thing had to be gone through again. The river-bed did not improve, while during the day heavy showers of sleet and rain soaked us through. Moreover, as we were now in the enemy's country we dare not light fires when we bivouacked, so that we had to get what rest we could during the bitter cold night, deprived of any warmth and without the pannikin of miserable tea we all so greedily looked forward to after a cold and fatiguing day.

The following morning at the first glimmer of dawn we scouts left the bivouac, and pushed on up the river-bed, but before we had progressed a couple of miles we came to a place where the river rushed through a deep, rocky gorge that prevented us making any further use of its bed as a thoroughfare. I therefore awaited the arrival of the Colonel, who shortly joined me, and after a short discussion he determined the column should cross the stream and make its way up a steep, razor-backed ridge that sloped down to the water. We had considerable difficulty in crossing, as not only the current ran very fast, but the bed was page 332composed of slippery boulders over which many of our men stumbled and fell. At last they were all over, but long before the last man crossed we scouts had out tomahawk and were painfully chopping a path through the tangled fern, ground-vines and lawyers—the latter being scrub, bearing thorns shaped like fish hooks, and are as dangerous to come in contact with as their human namesakes—with which the steep slope was densely covered. On reaching the summit we found ourselves on a long serrated ridge running within a point or two of the direction we wanted to go, both sides of it being heavily bushed, but the ridge itself, thanks to its narrowness and the rocky nature of the soil, only carried stunted fern, through which we could march with comparative ease. We therefore thanked our stars for this slice of luck, and, after we had excavated the larger thorns, licked such scratches as we could get at to lick, and swallowing a handful of soaked mouldy biscuit, we scouts started, while the column was still painfully crawling up the slope. Towards midday we came to where the ridge suddenly ended in a very nearly perpendicular drop into a deep valley, on the other side of which, situated on a plateau of the same altitude as that on which we stood, we saw a large kainga. The cover on our side was very good, so I halted, sending back Tim and George a few hundred yards to await and report to the Colonel, while Pierre and I scouted to either flank, prospecting for the best place to descend. This I found, but when found it had not much in its favour to recommend it, as it simply bristled with huge boulders and trees, the ground in page 333between which was, as per usual, a dense tangle of ground - vines, lawyers and tough fern. Still it was practicable, and the Colonel on viewing it decided to make use of it to descend into the deep valley. I also pointed out to him that across the valley ran up two steep spurs leading to the plateau upon which the kainga stood, and which perhaps, faute de mieux, could be used for attacking purposes. Facilis decensus Averni may be true, but we found it by no means easy, much less pleasant, to descend that infernal hill, and it was only by lowering our loads, and even one another, down the worst places that at last, tattered and torn, we reached the foot, but fortunately, although many men were badly bruised, still no one had received sufficient injury to render him unfit for further exertions.

On reaching the valley the Colonel, taking myself and scouts with him, moved forward to reconnoitre, while the main body rested, and as best they could repaired damages. We had, however, barely time to make certain that the aforementioned spurs were practicable when from the kainga on the plateau above out rang the report of a gun that, being multiplied by the echoes of the mountains and valleys, rumbled like thunder. Of course we thought we had been spotted, and cursing our bad luck we fell back to the main body as rapidly as we could. As there was nothing to be gained by delay the Colonel determined to attack immediately, so throwing off our packs fifty of the most bruised men were rapidly told out to remain in charge of them, then, the remainder of the force being divided into two parties, we started off to force our way up page 334the spurs. Fortunately these, though steep and serrated, were not covered with thick scrub, so that the men relieved of their packs mounted rapidly, and as both parties were in sight of one another we could regulate our pace so as to arrive simultaneously at the top. Of course after we had heard the shot we had thought that it had been fired to give the alarm, and that the Maoris, resenting our intrusion, would do their best to obstruct our arrival; in fact we had made up our minds we should have to fight every yard of the way up the spurs. We however were agreeably disappointed, the shot not having been fired to give the alarm, but, as we were subsequently informed, it was fired to execute a mighty big pig.

The Uriwera were in blissful ignorance of our proximity. They had never fancied for a moment that white men would ever dare to enter their inaccessible country, and had therefore kept no lookout whatever, so that instead of meeting with a determined resistance, while mounting the narrow spurs, we reached the plateau, formed line, extended, and had advanced close to the kainga before they spotted us.

Whoop, then there was a deuce of a commotion, women and children running and screaming, men yelling, pigs grunting and singing hymns, while above all this turmoil out rang our bugles, which, together with our cheering, added to the din that was in a moment multiplied a thousandfold by the crash of firearms, while the echoes of all these noises combined were so extraordinary that anyone might have thought thousands of men were engaged, or that all the fiends in Hades were holding their page 335annual beanfeast, and were all drunk at that.

Completely surprised as the Uriwera were, still they made a stout resistance, but they could not stand for long against our impetuous charge, for we swept through the village like a flooded reservoir bursting its dam, so that the surviving men, and there were not many of them, turned their backs and bolted for the bush. A number of men, however, unable to escape, took refuge in their huts, from which they still continued to fire. These were ordered to come out, and so as to expedite their movements their huts were set on fire. It was however only granting the inmates a polite choice of deaths, as those who came out were immediately shot, and those who remained in were quickly burned to death.

Our losses on that day were trivial, only amounting to one man killed and four wounded, while we captured fifteen women, a great many pigs and large stores of potatoes. The women, after being well questioned, we let go; the pigs were killed, and when each man had taken as much meat as he could eat and carry, the remainder, with the surplus potatoes, were destroyed. Truly it was a shocking waste of food, but absolutely necessary in savage warfare.

That night we fared sumptuously, those men not being on duty sleeping the sleep of the just, and next morning, as soon as it was light enough to see, we completed the destruction of the kainga, ate a big breakfast, and again made our way to the river above the gorge to proceed on our weary way.

It was now a case of looking out for squalls, as page 336the news of our being in the country would have by this time been spread from one end to the other. The country itself was splendidly adapted for ambuscades. The Uriwera were past masters in the art of laying them, and now, being enraged by their late losses, would be burning to avenge them, therefore it behoved us to keep all our senses on deck.

On reaching the bed of the river the Colonel took every precaution, one of which being, instead of sending forward three or four scouts, who might be captured, he ordered a party of twelve men to precede the main body. These men were only to carry their own personal swags, so that they might be ready at a moment's notice to put up a fight. The loads the men of the main body had to carry on this day were very heavy. In the first place we had three wounded men, who, being unable to walk, had therefore to be borne on stretchers, and then every man had brought along with him as much pork and potatoes as he could stagger under. The bed of the river was also if possible worse than it had been before, as it was full of big slippery boulders over which the heavily laden men staggered and tripped as if drunk, many of them having very nasty falls indeed.

We had journeyed about two miles when the advance-guard halted, and at the Colonel's request I accompanied him to the front, where we found the officer in command of them uncertain as to what course he should pursue. Our advance up the side of the stream we were on was blocked by a steep though not very high ridge that was covered as usual with densely tangled scrub, the end of it jutting out into the water, which was there too page break
Advance Guard Ambuscaded: Death of Lieut. White.

Advance Guard Ambuscaded: Death of Lieut. White.

page 337deep to allow the men to wade round it. Where we stood a rocky bar ran to the other side of the river, which appeared practicable, although the water rushed swiftly across it to the depth of perhaps four feet. The far bank of the river was low but heavily bushed, and behind the bush rose up a steep, razor-backed ridge, down the crest of which ran a narrow path broad enough in places for two men to climb it abreast.

After carefully studying the look of the country the Colonel decided to cross the river and take to the path, so that when the main body had closed up the' advance-guard began to wade over, the water in the centre of the stream, which there ran very fast, taking them half way up their chests.

That day they were being led by Lieutenant White, a very gallant fellow, much liked and respected by his brother officers and men. He had been wounded the evening before, but as he was able to march he insisted on taking his turn of duty at the point of danger.

The advance-guard entered the ford and had crossed three-fourths of the way when from the dense brushwood on the far side, over which up till now the silence of death had reigned, came a tremendous volley, and down went poor White, shot dead, while four of his men, badly hurt, splashed the water like wounded wild-fowl. Immediately some of us dashed into the stream, recovered White's body, and dragged out the wounded men; at the same time one division opened a smart fire on the ambuscade, who, however, after a couple of volleys, ceased from returning it.

It was a nasty place; the ford was a very narrow page 338one, the stream ran fast, and the Colonel plainly saw that by hook or by crook the enemy's position must be turned, or, should he rely on a frontal attack, he would lose half his men. He therefore despatched one hundred men, with whom I went, to cut our way over the aforementioned ridge, ascend the river until we found a crossing, and then, descending the far bank, attack the flank of the enemy's position, he at the same time making a dash at the ford.

Away we went and tackled the job, having to put in two hours' hard chopping before we could get a crossing place, and then, when we had succeeded in crossing, we had to cut our way down the bank till at last we came close to the ford, when a toot on our bugle let the Colonel know we were on the enemy's flank, there or thereabouts. Out rang his bugle, and with a cheer we tore and struggled through the remaining undergrowth, while a storm of whizzing bullets, which fortunately did us but little harm, tore the foliage to pieces over our heads. At the same time we charged we could hear close to us the shouts of the Colonel's party as they dashed through the water, the sharp file-firing of his coverers and the volleys of the defending Hau Haus.

Bristling with wrath, we cut and forced our way through the last intervening scrub, fondly hoping that a good hand-to-hand scrap would recompense us for our past labour, but as both of our parties simultaneously broke through the curtains of greenery we found not one single Maori there to receive us.

Their lines of rifle pits had been beautifully page 339constructed, and were admirably placed so as to both rake and enfilade the ford, so there could be no shadow of a doubt that had the Colonel decided upon making only a frontal attack our butcher's bill must have been a very heavy one, or we might have been beaten back; as it was we had forced the ford with only the loss of Lieutenant White and some half-a-dozen men wounded.

A party of us at once rushed on up the ridge, exchanging a few shots with the enemy, who by some hidden path had gained a similar ridge some three hundred yards off, which they dared us to attack.

The Colonel, however, was convinced that we were on the right footpath—else why had they taken the trouble to build such elaborate rifle pits to defend it?—and he was far too old a bird to be drawn away on a wild-goose chase. His plan was to push on to the famous Ruatahuna, of course attacking any pahs he came across, and not to lose time in running after Maoris, who, if he did so, would only retire in front of him.

As soon as poor White was buried, which was done as rapidly as possible, the only ceremonies being the volleys the Hau Haus fired at the burial-party, the whole force moved forward to attack the enemy, who had occupied another very strong position on the top of the ridge, from which they poured in a continuous fire at our party that was slowly mounting the steep and narrow track that ran up from the river. This track wound about so that both of our flanks were as often exposed as our front, so it soon became quite evident it would cause an awful loss of life to try and take their position with a frontal rush.

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The Colonel therefore again despatched a party to try and turn the Hau Haus' right flank, and again, after immense labour, the movement having been carried out, we made a combined rush, and charged, the rifle pits receiving two smashing volleys, and when we entered them we found nothing but three guns, which some of the Hau Haus must have dropped in their retreat. These rifle pits were also well constructed, and were well worthy of being better defended, but, by their having been vacated without a stouter resistance, we saw it was evidently the game of the Hau Haus to carry on a war of ambuscades and not risk a stand-up fight.

After a short halt we again moved forward, our advance-guard being fired into every few hundred yards, while sometimes, by way of a change, the enemy would tickle us up on the flanks; in fact it was a most sinful and cuss-wordy march, as the track, if you could call it such, was never broad enough to allow us to show a greater front than two men abreast, while the wounded men we had now to carry added considerably to the toil of our already overloaded men.

We had moved forward about three miles when we sighted on a spur, with a bush in rear of it, a pah which we afterwards learned was called Te Whenuanui. It was in a very strong position, but the works and fence were in a ruinous state, as the Uriwera had never dreamt of our entering their country, and of course had not had time since they had heard of our visit to put it into a proper state of defence.

The Hau Haus in the pah were evidently very upset and excited by our call, as they opened a page 341heavy fire at us when we were quite eight hundred yards distant, which was of course harmless; and Colonel St John, splitting his command into three parties, gave orders for an immediate attack. The party I was with had been sent to the left, and as we had to get over some very rough country before we could charge, time was allowed us to get into position.

At last we were all ready; the bugle sounded the advance and charge, when we all rushed at the tumbledown works, to be met by the usual heavy but badly directed fire. There was nothing to make us pause; the rotten fences gave way before our rush, so with a cheer we burst into the place, just in time to see the tail end of the bolting Hau Haus disappearing into the bush, and to send a volley after them that hastened their departure. We did not pursue, as most likely they had planted a nice little ambuscade at the edge of the bush, and as a rule there is nothing to be gained by running your head against a stone wall or walking into a Maori trap, so we humped up our swags and the wounded men, whom we made as comfortable as possible, and occupied the pah ourselves for the night.

During the night we had one false alarm, caused by a patrol falling into a ditch, and various ill-bred Hau Haus prowled round us, telling us nasty things about ourselves. One of these lewd fellows kept it up till daylight, and so interfered with one man's rest that just at day-dawn he took his carbine and went gunning after the disturber of his slumber. Good luck attended him, for just as it became light enough to see his foresight the retiring night page 342prowler, all of a sudden calling to mind something very ribald that he had up to that moment forgotten to say, paused at the edge of the bush to unburden himself. Silly fellow, he had better have taken cover, for he had only made one indecent gesture, and had only shouted a small portion of what he had to say, when something hit him, and, ceasing his oration, he took a header among the fern, where the last thing he ever heard in this world was the laughter of the men he had lost his life in trying to insult.

The Maoris had left us a bare larder in Te Whenuanui Pah, and our rations, bad as they had been when issued to us, were by now quite unfit for human food, and that day we ran completely out of even the offal we had carried, so we were not sorry when about midday we came across a pah called Tatahoata, which afterwards turned out to be the real Ruatahuna.

This pah, or rather fortification, was built on a flat, with a dense bush to its right front; the Whakatane River, with precipitous banks, on its left; a deep, rocky creek with high, scrub-covered sides defended its rear; while a small but thick bush commanded its right flank. It was indeed an ugly-looking place, but take it we must, or starve. After an hour spent in reconnoitring, the different divisions were told off for their several lines of attack, and, the advance being sounded, we all moved forward.

The Maoris were not only holding the pah, but they had detached parties in the bush who had to be driven back before we could rush the work itself. We had just about completed this portion of the page 343game when, for some reason that has never been explained, the Colonel's bugler, without receiving orders, sounded the cease fire, together with the retire twice over, and then fell, shot dead. The calls filled everyone with astonishment, nearly amounting to consternation, but of course the orders were obeyed, and before the O.C. and the few men he had with him could rush round with counter-orders the natives charged up to our retiring divisions and poured in a heavy fire, which killed and wounded a lot of men, among the former being Captain Trevor.

Orders or no orders, we were not going to stand that, so turning on our pursuers we flew at them like wild cats, and as just at that moment we received the new orders we pushed our charge so well home that we drove the Hau Haus before us like chaff, nor did they even make an effort to defend the pah, but bolted as hard as they could for the shelter of the bush and broken country, while we occupied the place, which we eagerly prospected for food.

It was not long, with two such sublime marauders as Pierre and George looking after my interests, before I had a good square meal stowed away under my waistbelt, and the Colonel had just sent for me to settle about some scouting when we heard a distant bugle-call.

Our men started cheering, and shortly afterwards it was reported that Colonel Whitmore's column was in sight, while the little man himself, attended by a few men, came into the pah before sunset, his column camping some two miles away. That two columns should have been able to march page 344through such rough country and meet at an appointed though unknown spot on the prearranged day, speaks well for the officer who planned the campaign, and also for the men who carried his plans out.