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

Chapter 20: Puke-Ta-Kauere and Other Operations

page 183

Chapter 20: Puke-Ta-Kauere and Other Operations

THE WINTER OF 1860 drew on with its heavy rains, which converted the roads and tracks, cut up by the continuous military traffic, into mud-channels, and the difficulties of campaigning were correspondingly increased. The rivers were often in a state of high flood, and the swamps became almost impassable. Under these conditions the Imperial forces fought an action which developed into the most disastrous affair for the British in the first Taranaki War.

Half a mile south-east of Te Kohia (the L pa) the native belligerents constructed two forts close together and supporting each other, on small mounds called Puke-ta-kauere and Onuku-kaitara. Outside these strongholds were numerous rifle-pits and trenches, well masked by the high fern and tutu bushes. The double fortification was on considerably higher ground than the British main camp at Pukekohe, on the Waitara, and its situation was admirably chosen for defence. The spur on which the twin knolls were embossed lay between two small swampy water-courses which joined a short distance to the north-east and ran through a deep morass of flax and toetoe to the Waitara River, half a mile distant from Puke-ta-kauere, the northernmost pa. The forts thus were situated in a kind of V, with the apex towards the river. The ferny plateau south of the swamps and extending to the cliffs of the Waitara offered suitable ground from which a flanking fire could be poured on any attacking-party. The Onuku-kaitara pa was the larger of the two. The other was notable for its strong earthwork defences; it was surrounded with two trenches; the scarp of one of these ditches presented a face nearly 20 feet high. To all intent the places were impregnable to assault. Unfortunately for the British, the commander at the Waitara neglected to have the approach to the pas properly scouted, and lack of knowledge of the ground, conjoined to an ignorance of Maori field-engineering genius and skill in skirmishing tactics, was responsible for a defeat which enormously heartened up the pakeha's antagonists, and deepened the dissatisfaction page 184 of the Taranaki settlers with the Imperial command. The British main camp was only a mile away, and the building of the pas was carried on in plain view of the soldiers. From the Onuku-kaitara pa flagstaff flew a Maori ensign, white with a black cross. A reconnaissance-party from the camp was fired on. The senior officer, Major T. Nelson (40th Regiment), a veteran of the Indian and Afghan wars, then determined to attack.

The garrison of the double fort was much better fighting-material than the purely Atiawa force which had built and evacuated Te Kohia at the beginning of the war. Reinforcements of warriors had arrived from the Upper Waikato and the district afterwards known as the King Country, and from the southern parts of the west coast. The tribes which confronted Nelson and his 40th, besides Te Atiawa and Taranaki, were Ngati-Maniapoto and Ngati-Raukawa, Nga-Rauru (Patea and Waitotara), and Whanganui. Waikato as a tribe did not come, but some of their eager young men (such as Mahutu te Toko, a near relative of the Maori King) had joined Ngati-Maniapoto.

Te Huia Raureti, of Ngati-Maniapoto, one of the few survivors of the Orakau defence, gave me an account of his tribe's first participation in the Waitara war. He said that when the news of the quarrel over the Waitara reached the Upper Waikato the runanga (council of chiefs) of Ngati-Maniapoto discussed the question of assisting Wiremu Kingi. This runanga consisted of Rewi Maniapoto (the tumuaki, or head of the council), his cousins Te Winitana Tupotahi and Raureti te Huia Paiaka, Epiha Tokohihi, Hopa te Rangianini, Pahata te Kiore, Matena te Reoreo (the clerk), and several other chiefs. Kihikihi Village was at that time the headquarters of Ngati-Maniapoto, and the runanga met in a large house which bore the famous old Hawaikian name “Hui-te-rangiora.” This house of assembly was destroyed by the troops when Kihikihi was invaded in February, 1864. The conclave of chiefs did not act hastily. Two delegates, Raureti te Huia Paiaka (father of the narrator) and Pahata te Kiore, were despatched to Taranaki by the runanga to investigate the dispute and its causes. Their inquiries satisfied them that Wiremu Kingi's cause was just. “My father and Pahata,” said Te Huia Raureti, “came to a decision adverse to Ihaia te Kiri-kumara, the Government adherent, because he had taken sufficient utu for his personal wrongs (the seduction of his wife) by killing the offender, and there was no just cause (take) for parting with tribal lands in order further to involve Wiremu Kingi's people. On the return of this deputation to Kihikihi the runanga considered their report, and Rewi Maniapoto then went down to Ngaruawahia to lay the matter before King Potatau and his council. He requested the King to consent to a war-party of Ngati-Maniapoto marching to page 185 Taranaki in order to assist the Atiawa. The proposal was assented to. The old King delivered his command to the assembly of chiefs in these words: ‘Ngati-Maniapoto, haere hei kai ma nga manu o te rangi. Ko koe, e Waikato, ko Pekehawani taku rohe, kaua e takahia.’ (‘Ngati-Maniapoto, go you as food for the birds of the air. As for you, Waikato, Pekehawani is my boundary, do not trespass upon it!’)”

Pekehawani, an ancient Hawaikian name, was here used by Potatau as an honorific term for the Puniu River, the boundary between the Waikato and the territory of Ngati-Maniapoto. Rewi Maniapoto's tribe only he released for the war, but in all probability the fiery Rewi would have gone in spite of a royal prohibition. Waikato and Ngati-Haua were restrained for the present, but after the news of the Maori victory at Puke-ta-kauere arrived they could no longer be held back from the war. The usual route taken by the Ngati-Maniapoto and the Waikato on their journeys to Taranaki was down the Mokau River by canoe from Totoro to Mokau Heads, thence along the beach by Tongaporutu and the White Cliffs to Waitara. War-canoe expeditions down the rapid-whitened Mokau frequently covered the distance from Totoro to the Heads (forty-five miles) in one day, and by a forced march the warriors often reached Urenui or the Waitara at the close of the second day.

It was scarcely daylight on the morning of the 27th June when Major Nelson moved out from Waitara camp to the attack. He was accompanied by Captain Beauchamp-Seymour, commanding the Naval Brigade of H.M.S. “Pelorus.” The force, totalling about three hundred and fifty, was divided into three. The main body, under Nelson, crossed the Devon Road and marched across the fern plain. A detachment of sixty men of the 40th Regiment, under Captain Bowdler, marched to the left, with orders to occupy a mound south-east of the camp, in order to prevent the natives escaping along the left flank of the main body and attacking the camp. If this was not attempted, Bowdler was to double up to the support of his Major. The other division, 125 strong, consisting chiefly of the Grenadier Company of the 40th, under Captain Messenger (a cousin of Ensign W. B. Messenger, of the Taranaki Militia), was detailed to get possession of Puke-ta-kauere mound, to cut off the retreat from the other pa, and to bar the way to Maori reinforcements. The main body (Naval Brigade numbering sixty-five, Royal Artillery with two 24-pounder howitzers, Royal Engineers, and the Light Company of the 40th) moved in extended order towards the south-west side of the fortifications, and was soon engaged by the Maoris in large force.

The artillery opened fire at 7 a.m. from level ground north-west of Onuku-kaitara, but failed to make a large-enough breach page 186
The Seat of War, North Taranaki Showing redoubts and line of sap to Te Arei, on the Waitara.

The Seat of War, North Taranaki
Showing redoubts and line of sap to Te Arei, on the Waitara.

page 187 in the stockade—in the Major's view—to justify an order for the assault. The Maoris, however, did not wait to be attacked in their forts, but came out into the fern and manned their outlying trenches. Their first fire was directed upon Captain Messenger, who was struggling around to the rear of the position on the Waitara side; but Nelson and Beauchamp-Seymour were soon in the thick of it. Large Maori reinforcements hurried down from the Kairau and other settlements in the rear, and quickly worked round the British right flank. Captain Bowdler now brought his division up at the double, but the combined strength was not sufficient to deal with the foe, who were fighting with the utmost fearlessness and determination. The bluejackets and marines, led on by their captain and supported by the Light Company of the 40th, carried a long trench on the right front, but were held up by a deep gully and two more entrenchments dug on the slopes in the fern, and found themselves under a destructive fire from the Maori double-barrel guns, loaded and discharged with lightning-like rapidity. Some survivors declared the fire encountered was hotter than anything in the great Indian battles or in the attack on the Redan in the Crimea. The British right flank came under what was described as a terrible fire from a series of trenches on the sides of the gullies.

In this tight corner Major Nelson looked anxiously, but in vain, for expected reinforcements from New Plymouth. He had arranged with Colonel Gold, Officer Commanding, who had left the time of attack to him, that he would signal with ship's rockets on the night before the movement against the pas, Gold undertaking to march at daylight with four hundred men and two guns and take the Maoris on their left flank. Through an artillery non-commissioned officer's default this signal—which would have been seen at the Bell Block stockade and repeated to Marsland Hill—was not sent up. The sergeant forgot to use the rockets, and Gold was unaware of Nelson's attack until the heavy firing was heard in New Plymouth. The force which was then hastily marched to the relief only got as far as the Waiongana. The river was in flood, and, as the firing had ceased, Gold considered there was no need for assistance, and marched his men back to town.

Meanwhile Major Nelson's force and the division under Captain Messenger had desperate work, and the 40th suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Maori musketeers. Nelson's regiment and the “Pelorus” men fought well, but they were no match for their active opponents, who came at them with the long-handled tomahawk when the commander began the heavy task of withdrawing his force from the field. It was with great reluctance that he gave the order to sound the “Retire,” but there were many casualties, the obstacles in his front were great, there was page 188 no sign of reinforcements, and ammunition was running short. With the utmost difficulty the force was extricated; the Light Company was the rearguard. There was ferocious fighting in the fern at close quarters. The killed and many of the wounded were left behind. Captain Beauchamp-Seymour was shot in the leg, and had to be carried off the field. The howitzers, under Lieutenant MacNaghten, R.A., covered the retreat with a steady fire of case shot.

Captain Messenger's division of the 40th, which was given a difficult task, suffered most of all. Messenger, whose subalterns were Lieutenants C. F. Brooke and Jackson, took his men along a flat near the Waitara, and up towards the right rear of the Maori entrenchments. The route was full of obstructions—swamps, gullies, and high fern and scrub—and the Regulars were soon in trouble. It was unfortunate for them that none of Stapp's or Atkinson's settler riflemen were on the field that day. Approaching the double-ditched Puke-ta-kauere pa from the rear, Messenger was assailed in great force by Ngati-Maniapoto and Te Atiawa. The high fern and heavy fire caused confusion, and the 40th were soon scattered in groups, fighting a hopeless fight against a skilfully directed enemy. Messenger got some thirty men together and worked his way on in rear of the pas until he passed over the ground from which the main body had retreated, and caught up to Major Nelson, who sent him back to bring in the rest of his men. He found Jackson and many of his party fighting their way out. Lieutenant Brooke had been killed in the deep swamp on the Waitara side of the Maori position. Some accounts say that Brooke surrendered, offering his sword, hilt first, to his captor, but in the heat of the battle it was impossible to spare him. He, like some of his men, was waist-deep in the swamp, which few but the half-stripped Maoris could cross. “We killed them in the swamp,” says a Maori who fought there. “We used chiefly the tomahawk. Such was the slaughter of the soldiers in that swamp that it came to be called by us Te Wai-Kotero [meaning a pool in which maize and potatoes are steeped until they become putrid]; this was because of the many corpses which lay there after the battle.”

In small groups or one by one the survivors floundered through the morass and broke their way through the fern, and were picked up by Messenger and Jackson. Others hid in the fern and crawled out cautiously to the camp. There were many desperate hand-to-hand encounters. A curious report, given currency by Major Nelson in his official report, was that a European, supposed to be a military deserter, was shot dead while leading on a party of Maori skirmishers. Four members of the Taranaki Rifles were on the field that day and under a heavy fire. George Hoby page 189
Proclamation Under Martial Law, New Plymouth

Proclamation Under Martial Law, New Plymouth

was mounted orderly to Captain Beauchamp-Seymour; George F. Robinson, Oliver Hoby, and Isaiah Freeman drove transport teams hauling ammunition and the howitzers, and taking the wounded off the battle-ground.

The British casualties were thirty killed and thirty-four wounded, or about 18 per cent. of the force engaged. The heaviest losses fell upon the Grenadier Company of the 40th. The Maori casualties were relatively much lighter. Among the killed were two chiefs of Ngati-Maniapoto, Pahata te Kiore (one of Rewi's first delegates to Wiremu Kingi) and Wereta. One of the leaders of this tribe's war-party was Epiha Tokohihi, a member of the Kingite runanga at Kihikihi. Hapurona directed the skirmishers of his tribe, Te Atiawa.

The defeat at Puke-ta-kauere and the increasing confidence of the Maoris made it dangerous for the hemmed-in citizens of New Plymouth to venture out beyond the precincts of the town. It was now that the central portion of the settlement was entrenched, and it was considered necessary to remove the women and children. A proclamation calling upon the families to prepare for departure by sea was issued by Colonel Gold. Steamers were sent to take the women and children to more peaceful homes until the war was over, and most of them went to Nelson, where they were page 190 treated with great hospitality; but there were some stout-hearted wives and mothers who steadfastly refused to leave their husbands and sons, defied the authorities to shift them, and remained to share the alarms and privations of a state of siege. Reinforcements of men and artillery came in from Auckland; the principal addition to the garrison was the headquarters of the 40th Regiment (Colonel Leslie), nearly two hundred and fifty strong. Major-General Pratt arrived from Melbourne (3rd August) in the Victorian Government's warship “Victoria,” with his Deputy Adjutant-General, Lieut.-General Carey.

During August, 1860, the Taranaki and their southern allies became particularly daring, and numerous skirmishes occurred close to the town. Fort Carrington blockhouse and Fort Niger were fired on, and a lively skirmish occurred on the 20th August within half a mile of the barracks on Marsland Hill. Lieut.-Colonel Murray led out three companies of the 65th and a detachment of “Iris” bluejackets against a body of Maoris estimated at over two hundred. The natives, who left several dead on the field, were driven back into the bush. In a previous skirmish Captain Harry Atkinson, with his Volunteers and Militia, when out on an expedition to bring in settlers' property, fell in with a Maori marauding-party, whom, after a sharp engagement in the open, he followed into the bush, inflicting loss on them. In August two naval 32-pounders were emplaced on the end of the spur in the rear of Marsland Hill fort, in order to sweep the ground to the south of the town.

By night the blaze of fires, and by day columns of dark smoke, announced the destruction of many a settler's deserted home. The Village of Henui, only a mile from the town, was burned. The Maoris, however, invariably respected the churches in the abandoned settlements, and those at Henui, Bell Block, and Omata were found untouched at the end of the war. The town defences were reorganized by Major-General Pratt, and every Volunteer and Militiamen knew his place in the trenches in case of an attack.

The Taranaki Maoris, with some Ngati-Ruanui, laboured with enormous energy at the construction of a system of field-works on the south side of the town. They dug trenches and rifle-pits on the Waireka hills to menace Major Hutchins, who was in charge of a redoubt erected on the site of the Kaipopo pa. Tataraimaka was thick with well-designed entrenchments, representing a great amount of spade-work. There were frequent skirmishes about the Omata and the Waireka; at the latter place the Taranakis were shelled from the redoubt.

On the Waitara Major Nelson was busy. He took a column of the 40th and a Naval Brigade across the river and destroyed the large Atiawa villages Manu-korihi (“The Singing Bird”) and page 191
British Positions at the Mouth of the Waitara

British Positions at the Mouth of the Waitara

Tikorangi. He also cleared the country near the road between the Waitara and the Bell Block, and demolished the fortified villages at Ninia and Tima.

On the 4th September a large composite force in three divisions, under Major-General Pratt, marched out to Burton's Hill, four miles south of the town, near Waireka. This place had been entrenched by the southern tribes, but was found deserted, the Maoris having gone home to plant their crops. The roughest work was performed by the division of Rifle Volunteers and Militia under Major Herbert; it penetrated into the bush on the march round to the rear of Burton's Hill, and burned the pa at Ratapihipihi on the return journey. The night and day march covered twenty miles under very wintry conditions.

On the 9th September Major-General Pratt, with the largest force yet taken into the field in New Zealand—it numbered fourteen hundred men, including a Naval Brigade, detachments of the 12th, 40th, and 65th Regiments, Rifle Volunteers, and artillery—marched out to Kairau and Huirangi, on the plateau above the left bank of the Waitara. The force burned four entrenched villages and looted many horses and cattle—some of which had, no doubt, previously been looted from the settlers. There was a sharp engagement near a large grove of peach-trees at Huirangi with some of the Atiawa under Hapurona, and the bush and trenches which sheltered the Maori tupara men were raked with grape and canister shot from the field-guns. A stockaded blockhouse was erected at Onuku-kaitara, on the site of the palisaded pa which had been evacuated by the Maoris soon after their victory in June.

page 192

On the 19th September a force of six hundred men under Major Hutchins (13th Regiment) marched for the southern settlements, and went as far as the Kaihihi River, where three occupied pas close together were discovered. It was found that twenty-six settlers' homes had been burned on the Tataraimaka Block, and about a hundred in the Omata and Waireka districts. The loss in stock driven off from the Tataraimaka was a hundred head of cattle, between two and three thousand sheep, and many horses.

On the 9th October a composite column numbering over a thousand—bluejackets, Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, 12th, 40th, and 65th detachments, Volunteers, and Militia—marched from New Plymouth along the south road with the object of reducing the fortifications on the Kaihihi River. Major-General Pratt was in command. The Taranaki Rifles, Mounted Rifles, and Militia numbered 105, and there were 105 friendly natives of Te Atiawa under the charge of Mr. Parris, of the Native Department. After a march of twenty miles across difficult country for the large cart-train which accompained the column, the force entrenched itself on the north side of the Kaihihi River and within three-quarters of a mile of the principal pa, Orongomaihangi. On the 11th October a sap was commenced towards the fortification by Colonel Mould, R.E. (Pratt believed in approaching such positions by means of a sap in order to avoid loss of life, and his extraordinarily long advance upon Te Arei later in the campaign remains a classic example of slowness and caution in warfare.) The outer palisade of the pa was covered with green flax (as at Ohaeawai in 1845), and the artillery—a naval 68-pounder, two 24-pounder howitzers, and a Coehorn mortar—failed to breach it until next morning (12th October), when a small opening was made. Preparations were being made to blow up part of the stockade with a bag of powder, and an assaulting-party was ready, when the garrison of the fort rushed out at the rear, and the place was taken. The Kaihihi River was crossed, and the Mataiaio pa, a square fort, was rushed by the 65th and found empty. The remaining pa was Puke-kakariki, a fort on the edge of the river-cliff, about 300 yards from the first pa taken; after a short bombardment it was captured without opposition by Captain Stapp's Rifle Volunteers and the friendly natives. All three pas were double-palisaded and well rifle-pitted, with shell-proof dugouts. Ropes of plaited flax hanging from the cliff-top at the first pa taken showed the way by which the Maoris escaped into the bed of the Kaihihi. All three pas were destroyed. Orongomaihangi was a particularly interesting example of Maori military engineering. Its front, with a prominent sharp salient, resembled the figure of a Vauban trace, familiar to students of the science of fortification.