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

Chapter 23: The Fight at No. 3 Redoubt

page 205

Chapter 23: The Fight at No. 3 Redoubt

IT WAS THE practice of the troops to stand to their arms an hour before daybreak as a precaution against surprise. In the raw and chilly early morning of the 23rd January, 1861, the Regulars in the Kairau and Huirangi redoubts turned out as usual and stood in silence awaiting sunrise. Suddenly a single gunshot came from the fern 100 yards to the right of No. 1 Redoubt. This was a Maori signal-gun. The next instant the fringes of the murky plain were a blaze of fire, and the roar of musketry ran along the fern on the right and left flanks of the British posts. The soldiers replied with their Enfields—though there was nothing but the flashes at which to fire—and the gloomy morning, so quiet a few moments before, was thunderous with the bellow and crackle of musketry. Presently the firing near No. 1 Redoubt and No. 2 Redoubt ceased: it was a Maori feint to divert attention from the real attack. No. 3 (400 yards in advance of No. 2) was the objective, and as the excited soldiers in the rear field-works peered through the darkness they saw the advanced redoubt, which had only been completed by the 40th Regiment the previous evening, all at once encircled by a darting ring of flame that lit up the darkness like a blaze of tropical lightning, followed by an incessant roll of small-arms fire and presently the explosion of hand-grenades.

The garrison of No. 3 Redoubt (the headquarters of the 40th, under Colonel Leslie) had a crowded half-hour of fighting before dawn that morning. While the natives in the rifle-pits and the British trenches that flanked the line of advance were making ready to open their feint attack, a picked party of a hundred and forty warriors—Ngati-Haua, Ngati-Maniapoto, Waikato, and Te Atiawa—crept up to the redoubt, and about half of them silently entered the ditches on the left and right faces of the redoubt—the two unflanked sides. Their leaders were Manga (Rewi Maniapoto) and Epiha Tokohihi, from Kihikihi, and Hapurona. Some were armed with double-barrel guns or with rifles; others carried only long-handled tomahawks for close-quarters combat. They were page 206
No. 3 Redoubt, Huirangi The flank A—B was the one first attacked by the Maoris.

No. 3 Redoubt, Huirangi
The flank A—B was the one first attacked by the Maoris.

supported by some hundreds of tribesmen in firing-trenches within close range of the redoubt.

The storming-party stealthily began to cut steps with their tomahawks in the earth of the newly scarped parapet. When they were about to attempt the assault a sentry of the 40th fired at a Maori just outside the trench. A return shot killed the soldier, and the next moment the 40th were at grips with their determined foes. The ditch was crowded with Maoris, some firing at the line of heads above them, some furiously springing up the scarp and slashing at the soldiers with their tomahawks. The men fired into the trench as fast as they could load their Enfields, and others threw short-fuse shells into the ditch. Lieutenant Jackson, of the 40th, was leaning over the parapet firing his revolver into the mass of Maoris when he was shot through the forehead. The attackers (including the supports in the fern) and the garrison were nearly equal in numbers.

Although the British musketry and the exploding shells and hand-grenades spread death and wounds among the warriors in the trench, the Maori forlorn hope stuck to their work tenaciously. Again and again those daring spirits essayed to scale the straight-cut scarp, only to be shot down or bayoneted by the soldiers. So the struggle went on until reinforcements came doubling up and cleared the ditch of all but the dead and dying.

A vivid account of the morning's fight is contained in an unpublished manuscript written by Colonel H. Stretton Bates, then a young ensign, who was an eye-witness of the combat. Colonel Bates was in No. 1 Redoubt with his regiment, the 65th—the “Royal Tigers”—nearly all stalwart Irishmen with experience of page 207 more than one combat. His story, after narrating the beginning of the attack, describes the despatch of reinforcements and the final scenes:—*

“It was evident to us in No. 1 that the surprise had failed, but the defenders of No. 3 were hard pressed. The heavy firing continued, and the cheers of the gallant 40th mingled with the wailing cries of the attackers as they adjured each other to be brave (‘Kia toa’) and to slay the soldiers. But hark to the clear notes of a bugle ringing out in the morning air from the advanced post! We recognize the regimental call of the ‘Royal Tigers,’ followed by the advance. ‘Whew!’ muttered our Colonel Wyatt, ‘the 40th are calling for trumps’; and he ordered two companies of the ‘Tigers’ and one of the 12th, a detachment of which corps was with us in No. 1, to proceed at once to the help of the defenders of No. 3 Redoubt. The great bearded fellows, looking more like bushrangers than soldiers, fell in without a moment's delay, and ere the bugle had sounded a third appeal for help the column of fours was out of the redoubt and, under command of the senior captain, who was destined to receive a brevet majority for his morning's work, was making its way over the plain at a steady double. The remainder of the ‘Tigers,’ leaning over the parapet, watched the drama which was being enacted in front. As the three companies passed No. 2 Redoubt the occupants gave them a loud cheer, and in a few minutes more the advanced redoubt was reached.

“Day was now breaking; the fire was not so continuous as before, and what there was came mostly from the front face. Loud cheers rose from the 40th, and they called out to the reinforcers that the ditch in front of the redoubt was crammed with natives, but that the thickness of the parapet and want of flanking defence prevented their rifles being sufficiently depressed so as to reach the Maoris. There was a hasty consultation, and then the ‘Tigers’ descended into the wide ditch on the right of the work, and the company of the 12th Regiment into the ditch on the left, and both parties made their way towards the front of the redoubt.

“The ditch in front was crowded with the attackers. Poor fellows! they had felt confident of surprising the soldiers, and had evidently come to stay, for they had brought provision of Indian corn with them. Better that they had brought ladders or bundles of faggots to enable them to scale the parapet. One page 208 of their number was a native catechist, who repeated prayers incessantly from the Church of England prayer-book all through the struggle. His blood-stained prayer-book was found on his body. Though the warriors were comparatively sheltered from musketry fire as they huddled together in the ditch, still ghastly wounds were being inflicted, as the soldiers lighted and flung over hand-grenades amongst the crowded mass, while some of the artillerymen, finding it impossible to depress the muzzles of the guns sufficiently, got shells and, having cut short the fuses, ignited them and rolled them over the parapet, so that falling they exploded, spreading havoc around them. In vain the doomed wretches tried to pick up the spluttering hand-grenades and fling them back; the natives were packed too closely together, and the horrid things exploded amongst them with grim result. The Maoris feared to quit the ditch and endeavour to retire, as to do this would have exposed them to the fire of the rifles which lined the parapet; besides, amongst the warriors were many of the warlike Ngati-Maniapoto and other Waikato tribes, whose motto was ‘Death before dishonour.’ On came the ‘Tigers’ along the side ditch. It was evident that a volley would greet the head of the little column as it turned the corner to make its way into the front ditch which the attackers occupied.

“Half a dozen guns ring out and down goes our leading man with a bullet through his forehead. A comrade staggers against the counterscarp, for a ball has struck him in the face and carried away part of his upper lip and some of his teeth. But on go the ‘Tigers’ with a wild shout. For a moment the leading files cross bayonet with tomahawk. Ugly wounds are inflicted by the whirling tomahawks and thrusting bayonets, and then the dusky warriors turn and scramble as best they can out of the ditch, endeavouring to gain the shelter of the fern and the forest. The occupants of the redoubt fire one round at the fugitives, and then hold their hand to avoid hitting the ‘Tigers’ and the 12th men, who have scrambled up the counterscarp of the ditch and are now scattered in pursuit of the flying foes. There is no time to reload, and the bayonet does its deadly work. The swifter-footed of the fugitives gain the shelter of the bush, and then the bugles sounding the ‘Recall’ check the pursuit. The repulse is complete.

“The dead and wounded are collected. There are between forty and fifty natives left on the field, and most of the wounds are mortal.

“Amongst the wounded was one youth of striking aspect. His long black hair and regular features would have made him appear effeminate but for the length of limb and splendid muscular development which caught the eye even as he lay on page 209 the ground, looking like a dusky Antinous. A good-natured soldier, one of the ‘Tigers,’ hearing him moaning something which sounded like ‘wai’ (water), was trying to make him drink from his canteen, saying, ‘Here, Jack, here's wai for you.’ The soldiers always addressed the Maoris as ‘Jack,’ and the Maoris the soldiers as ‘Tiaki’ also. My knowledge of the language enabled me to recognize that the wounded man was moaning ‘Kia maranga,’ meaning that he desired to be raised up. I noticed the small red mark in his chest which showed that a bullet had probably penetrated a lung, the bleeding from which was choking him. So kneeling down and putting my arms round him I raised him gently and supported him in a sitting position. He smiled and whispered, ‘It is well’; but the blood gushed from his mouth, and he fell heavily back in my arms as I knelt behind him. After a little he rallied, and I heard him panting as in whispers he endeavoured to repeat the Maori rendering of the Lord's Prayer, ‘Murua o matou hara’ (‘Forgive us our trespasses’). So far he got in an agonized and almost inaudible whisper, and then the blood poured from his mouth again; there was a short struggle, and the weight I was supporting became very heavy. Slowly I laid him down, and I am not ashamed to say that my eyes grew dim as I thought how desolate some heart in the far Waikato land would be when the morning's work was known.

“As I turned away I saw sitting near me, propped up with a bundle of rugs and mats, an elderly grey-haired Maori, whose name I afterwards heard was Marakai, or Malachi. (This was a man of Ngati-Mahutu.) He was gravely smoking, and had been watching the poor youth's end. From him I learned the lad's name, and that he was one of the Ngati-Maniapoto Tribe. The name I treasured in my memory, and some two years later, when I had been sent on a political mission to the warlike and resentful Ngati-Maniapoto, I found myself one night at the village from which the dead warrior came, and was able to relate to his mother the particulars of her son's death. Several of my then hearers confessed that they had been of the attacking-party on that 23rd January, and proudly exhibited the scars of bullet-wounds on their bodies. They told me that their original design had been to make a simultaneous attack on all three redoubts.

“Knowing that Marakai was wounded, I inquired if he was in much pain. With a courtly, half-sarcastic smile he inclined his head so as to direct my attention to his knee, which had been frightfully damaged by the explosion of a shell or hand-grenade, quietly remarking, ‘With a wound such as that one must suffer somewhat.’ Poor old fellow! What a noble man he was! A nobleman in fallen circumstances if you like, but page 210 always a noble man. I heard that he afterwards bore the amputation of his leg in the most plucky manner, but sank a day or two after the operation.

“Leaving the ghastly line of dead or dying Maoris I passed into the redoubt, where in a tent were lying our dead and wounded men. In his own tent was lying poor old Lieutenant Jackson, of the 40th, who had received a bullet through his forehead while leaning over the parapet at the beginning of the attack and firing his revolver at the natives.”

The British losses in the No. 3 Redoubt fight were five killed and eleven wounded. The Maoris lost quite fifty killed outright or mortally wounded. Among the dead were the chiefs Te Retimana and Paora te Uata (Ngati-Raukawa) and Ratima te Paewaka, of Waikato. Thirty-seven double-barrel and single-barrel guns and flint-lock muskets were found on the field, besides some stone meres and many tomahawks.

* Manuscript narrative by the late Colonel H. S. Bates, of England, lent by his son, Mr. H. D. Bates, of Wanganui. Colonel Bates served with the 65th Regiment in New Zealand for several years, and was a staff interpreter under General Cameron in the Waikato in 1863.