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The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)

(Chapter 30) — The Defence of Pukekohe Church Stockade

(Chapter 30)

The Defence of Pukekohe Church Stockade

Mr. James McDonald, of Fenwick Avenue, Takapuna, Auckland, who as a boy shared in the defence of the Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church stockade against a Waikato war-party, supplies some important additional notes regarding that encounter (14th September 1863). The details are supplementary to the narrative given in this chapter (pages 273–283).

“It was about the middle of July, 1863,” states Mr. McDonald, “that things became very unsettled in Pukekohe and surrounding districts. Following the murder of Meredith and his son near the Great South Road, not far from Drury, a meeting was held at Mr. W. Runciman's house, and it was decided to convey the women and children to Auckland for safety. A deputation was then appointed to wait on the Minister of Defence in Auckland to ask for a fully equipped garrison for Pukekohe. The outcome page 452 of this deputation was that ten special constables, including two new arrived from the Old Country—Sergeant Perry and Corporal Donald—arrived in the district and it was these men, with the help of the settlers, twenty-six all told, who built the stockade around the little church.

“This Pukekohe East stockade, a hurriedly constructed defence, consisted of New Zealand cedar (kohekohe) logs, 10 in. by 11 in., flattened on two sides and let into each other at the ends; these logs were laid horizontally on one another. Perpendicular to the logs were kahikatea slabs 6 in. by 3 in. Immediately outside this stockade was a trench 6 ft. wide and about 4 ft. deep. As an attack was feared, the slabbing was not completed on the southern side, and as a temporary protection wide 1 in. boards were nailed on.

“About six weeks had elapsed since the arrival of the garrison, and although news of Maori raids reached us from time to time no direct attack was made against any of the Pukekohe force until about ten days before the assault on the stockade. On returning to the bush one day after lunch, members of the slab-splitting party, who had a bull-dog with them, surprised some Maori scouts, who fired at the dog. The men reached the stockade safely. The following morning a party of settlers—Scott, Roose, and Hodge—had an exciting encounter with Maoris while looking over the cattle on their farms. They escaped, but Hodge lost his rifle. On the afternoon of the same day Colonel Nixon, of the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, inspected the stockade, and, being informed of the attack, decided to reinforce the garrison that night. A detachment of the 70th Regiment arrived in the evening, and next morning a party under the command of Sergeant Perry left to search for Hodge's rifle, which was recovered. Perry's party on returning with the rifle reported that there was no sign of Maoris, and the 70th reinforcements left for the Shepherd's Bush Redoubt (Ramarama).

“A little after 8 o'clock on the morning of the 14th September the attention of the men resting outside the stockade was drawn by the intent gaze of some cattle towards the bush. An old bushman, who was talking to me while I was engaged in harnessing a horse, raised his rifle and fired towards the forest. The answer was a shower of bullets, which sent the men hurrying for shelter. It was this man's shot that really started the fight.

“The defenders of the stockade were twenty-three men all told. I was then a lad of fourteen, two years under military age, and I took no active part in the firing, but distributed ammunition among the men. The defenders were placed two at every loophole. Brisk independent firing was carried on for about two hours. Then, fearing a shortage of ammunition, Sergent Perry ordered a volley to be fired, with the idea of impressing the Maoris with the strength of the garrison's resistance. With the exception of one Maori who reached a point about 30 yards from the church, none got nearer the defences than approximately 60 yards. Corporal Donald, the crack shot of the garrison, was appointed to dislodge this sniper, but failed.

“Reference has been made to a young chief whose outstanding bravery and continuous encouragement to his men did much to prolong the battle. His death was the signal for great bewailing among his tribesmen, and this tangi continued for about half a hour, during which time things were much quieter. About 11.30 a.m. the sound of a bugle announcing the arrival of British reinforcements was hailed with cheers by the well-nigh exhausted garrison and loud curses from the natives. When approaching the stockade the leading sergeant was wounded by the Maori sniper at the puriri tree, but before the native warrior could gain the safety of the bush he was shot dead by the wounded man. Things page 453 were still fairly quiet, and the reinforcements distributed their quota of ammunition. Heavy firing then started again.

“About 2.30 o'clock in the afternoon further reinforcements arrived; these were detachments of the 18th (Royal Irish) and 70th Regiments. Between 3 and 4 o'clock a charge led by Captain Saltmarsh, was made down the southern slope of the steep hill below the church, and it was during this charge that most of the British casualties occurred. One Maori seen taking a rifle from a dead soldier was wounded in the chest by the Captain, but not so severely as to hinder him from wounding the Captain in the mouth and throat. Another 70th man came up, killed the Maori, and recovered the rifle—which, however, was stolen from him later.

“In half an hour of this fighting outside the stockade the Maoris were routed. The British losses were three killed and eight wounded. It was not until many years afterwards that a Government native interpreter, Mr. Grace, was able to estimate the native losses. This estimate was twenty-five killed and fifty-six wounded, twenty-five of whom died of wounds; total, fifty dead.

“After the bayonet charge on the south slope the enemy took up quarters for the night in my grandfather's (James McDonald's) house, where sniping took place at 900 yards range. Next day the bodies of five Maoris were buried in the church burying-ground, not on Easton's land, as previously reported. After trying to set fire to my grandfather's house, the Maoris all retreated next day. On the following Saturday the garrison left for Drury, and was discharged. As I was under the military age I did not receive any pay. Sergeant Perry recommended me to the Minister of Defence for the war-medal, but so far I have received nothing.

“The reference made by Te Huia Raureti to the Maori chieftainess who took part in the fight is entirely new to me, and it seems hardly credible that some allusion to a warrior woman of such outstanding character should not have been made by others engaged in the defence had she been so prominent in the attack as to be observed. None of the Maoris, with the exception of the sniper already mentioned, got nearer than 60 yards. It was after our breakfast that the Maoris carried off the dinner cooking at the fire outside the stockade; this would be about 11 a.m. The Royal Irish reinforcements did not open fire on the Maoris until after the stockade had been gained, as they approached from the north. Captain Moir arrived on the day of the fight and remained. The reference to the pigeon perching on the roof of the church and remaining there while firing was going on is correct. It was seen by my father and myself. It was not a native wood-pigeon, but a tame white one.

“There was no Pukekohe Company of the Forest Rifle Volunteers actually formed until 1869; I joined the company on its formation in that year.”