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

Chapter 24: Pratt's Long Sap

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Chapter 24: Pratt's Long Sap

IN THE BEAUTIFUL midsummer weather the advance upon Te Arei was carried on under conditions which made soldiering life a pleasure in spite of the harassing tactics of the Maori snipers and the toil of redoubt-building. The tardy progress towards Hapurona's fortress was enlivened by numerous skirmishes, and there were casualties nearly every day. The flanks of the British advance were as animated as beehives with the native musketeers, whose guerilla activities kept the Regulars' covering-parties busy. No Volunteers or Militia were employed on these operations—their attention was concentrated on the patrolling of New Plymouth and its outskirts; but they could have been of assistance to the General in scouring the bush and working round to the rear of Te Arei. Pratt, however, made no attempt to engage his antagonists otherwise than by a frontal advance. Like his successor, General Cameron, he had a horror of bush warfare, in which the mobile Maori had so great an advantage over the soldier of the line. Yet there were not only settler-soldiers but many of the veterans of the 65th which could have been formed into an excellent forest-ranging corps, competent to follow the Maori into the roughest country if given a free hand and unhampered by the rigid Imperial methods. But it was not until 1863 that the value of such bush-fighting companies was recognized.

The advance was along a plateau of inconsiderable width with a very gentle upward slant inland to Te Arei, bordered on either flank by deep lateral valleys and ravines filled with karaka and rata trees and other timber. On the left these gullies fell steeply to the Waitara River; on the right they were enclosed by rolling hills, all densely wooded. In the rear was a forest country practically untrodden by Europeans; it was known, however, that in there were large plantations at Mataitawa and other well-sheltered retreats of the Atiawa. Day after day the Maoris in their fern-masked firing-pits on the edges of the plateau made practice with their tupara at the working-parties and the page 212
From a drawing by Lieutenant H. S. Bates (65th Regt.)] The British Positions at Huirangi, 1861 Showing Maoris sniping from the edge of the bush.

From a drawing by Lieutenant H. S. Bates (65th Regt.)]
The British Positions at Huirangi, 1861
Showing Maoris sniping from the edge of the bush.

covering-details. Nightly the soldiers, withdrawn into their field fortifications, heard the distant doleful sound of the putatara and the tetere, the warriors' war-horns, and the high, long-drawn chants of the whaka-araara-pa, or sentinel songs. As the summer weeks went on, the troops became impatient for the order to advance at a pace somewhat quicker than Pratt's mile a month. “When are we going to rush the pa?” many a Regular asked, with his eyes lifted to the entrenched positions of his foe. “Look ye here, towney,” a big 65th man was heard to say to his comrade, “two glasses of rum and a shout, and we'd be into them rifle-pits and picking the Maoris out with our bay'nits.”

The work on the long series of saps carried towards Huirangi and Te Arei was begun on the afternoon of the 22nd January, the day before the attack on No. 3 Redoubt. A double sap, termed also a “gabionade” in the Royal Engineers' technical phraseology, directed towards the centre of the Maori position, was commenced from the front of No. 3 Redoubt, and nearly 200 feet were excavated by dark. The working-party consisted of fifty men with five Royal Engineers. During the following eleven days the sap was steadily pushed forward, often under fire. The total length of this double sap dug was 768 yards, crossing page 213 the Maori rifle-pits when they abandoned the Huirangi position. The manuka gabions used were generally made at the Waitara camp by men of the Naval Brigade, assisted by soldiers, under the direction of Royal Engineers non-commissioned officers.

Another redoubt, called No. 4, was constructed on the 27th and 28th January, 310 yards ahead of the place where the sap was commenced. This was a small square work, measuring 13½ yards each side inside the parapet; it was garrisoned by fifty men.

A fifth redoubt, 24 yards square, was built 200 yards farther on, and 260 yards from the nearest of the Maori rifle-pits. It was garrisoned by a hundred men, with a 24-pounder howitzer.

On the afternoon of the 1st February the Maoris were discovered to have abandoned their position at Huirangi, falling back on the main fortress on the height at Te Arei, the north-west front of the famous old pa of Puke-rangiora, several hundreds of feet above the Waitara River. No. 6 Redoubt was built at Huirangi, its front slightly in advance of the abandoned Maori rifle-pits, in the middle of a field of high Scotch thistles; its left-front angle was close to a patch of dense bush extending to the left and front. A portion of this bush was cleared by axemen.

From the end of the double sap at Huirangi a short single sap, 90 yards, was carried on in the direction of Te Arei. Fifty men were employed in filling in the native rifle-pits to the right of No. 6 Redoubt; they extended for half a mile. No. 6 was garrisoned by the headquarters of the 65th Regiment, and a platform was laid for an 8-inch gun.

No. 7 Redoubt was now constructed (10th to 12th February), about 1,300 yards ahead of No. 6, and about 800 yards from the front of Te Arei pa. Its building was carried on on the first day under a sharp fire from a line of Maori rifle-pits in commanding positions, and from the pa itself. This fire was replied to by a line of British skirmishers, supported by four guns and howitzers. Captain Strange (65th Regiment) was mortally wounded. The redoubt was garrisoned by four hundred men, including the headquarters of the 40th Regiment. The front face and part of the left face were surmounted with gabions filled with earth, with sandbag loopholes at intervals to protect the interior from the natives' plunging fire. A man had been killed and an officer and a man wounded within the redoubt. A screen for an 8-inch gun was erected on the left flank of the redoubt; it was 12 yards in length, and was formed of two rows of gabions surmounted by a third row, all filled and backed up with earth from a ditch in the front. A parapet was also thrown up on the right of the redoubt outside as a cover for field-guns.

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On the 16th February the sappers were again set to work. A single sap was commenced from the right-front angle of No. 7 Redoubt, being directed to clear the Maoris' rifle-pits close to the precipitous banks of the Waitara. This sap was continued, often under heavy fire, until the 25th; 452 yards had been excavated 5 feet 6 inches wide. The first 62 yards of the sap were without traverses; thenceforward the work was protected with traverses at intervals at from 10 to 12 yards. Meanwhile No. 7 Redoubt was considerably strengthened. The parapets were raised, and the ditch was widened to 9 feet, the earth being laid to form a glacis outside. The sap was now abreast of a hill called by the troops “Burnt Hill,” about 500 yards distant. The Maoris dug rifle-pits on the slope of this hill, and their fire considerably annoyed the working-parties.

On the morning of the 25th February the direction of the sap was changed towards the left of Te Arei pa, and it was carried on as a double sap. A demi-parallel was commenced on the left, about 40 yards from where the double sap commenced.

The slow but sure approach of the sappers was now seriously disturbing the Maoris, who decided that it was time to interfere more actively than by sniping from distant cover. Accordingly, on the night of the 27th February, when the troops had withdrawn to the redoubts, a large body of natives crept silently out of the pa and vigorously set to work to fill in the trenches. They destroyed the whole of the double sap, the portion of demi-parallel, and more or less filled in nearly 150 yards of the single sap. They carried some of the gabions into the pa, and burned others and removed also the sap-rollers.

Next day, to guard the progress of the sap, another redoubt (No. 8) was constructed; its front face was 34 yards from the end of the single sap. This field-work, the last of the elaborate series, was square, with a side of 16 yards within the parapet. It was occupied nightly by a guard of fifty men.

On the morning of the 1st March the whole of the old double sap was filled in, and the single sap was connected with the ditch of the rear face of No. 8 Redoubt. A new double sap was then commenced from the centre of the front ditch of the redoubt. It was directed to the right (the British left) of the entrance to Te Arei fortress. The traverses were at intervals of 10 yards. This day it was seen that the Maoris had put the stolen gabions to use by setting them up as a screen in front of the entrance to the pa.

By the 3rd March the workers in the sap came under a heavy plunging fire from the front of the pa. A demi-parallel was now thrown out to the left, about 50 yards in front of No. 8 Redoubt, and was continued to the edge of the cliff above the Waitara page 215
From a drawing by Lieutenant H. S. Bates (65th Regt.)] The Attack on Te Arei Showing the advanced British positions, 1861.

From a drawing by Lieutenant H. S. Bates (65th Regt.)]
The Attack on Te Arei
Showing the advanced British positions, 1861.

River. This work was 43 yards in length; the last 20 yards were converted from a line of Maori rifle-pits.

Under many interruptions the sap was pushed forward. The ground being commanded from the pa and the rifle-pits, the sap was deepened to 4 feet 6 inches; the traverses were placed from 8 feet to 10 feet apart, and made two gabions in height. The demi-parallel to the river-cliff was connected by an approach with the left-front angle of the redoubt, and about 10 yards of the demi-parallel was made into a battery for howitzers and a mortar. On the afternoon of the 5th March a party of warriors from the pa crept through the bushes on the edge of the precipice to the left and fired a volley into the sap, killing one man and wounding four others. To draw attention from this point of attack the native garrison had commenced a brisk fire from the bush on the right rear of No. 7 Redoubt, and continued it along the whole line of their entrenchments.

As the ground rose towards the pa the traverses were placed 14 yards apart and made one gabion in height, and the trench was excavated to the depth of 3 feet only. Heavy rain for two days interrupted progress, then the work was pushed on again steadily. Slight changes in the contour of the ground involved alterations from time to time in the intervals between the traverses. On the 11th March the sappers were making the traverses 12 yards apart and one gabion in height.

For three days (12th, 13th, and 14th March) hostilities and engineering-work were suspended at the request of Wiremu Tamehana, page 216 who was just arrived from the Waikato to negotiate for peace. His efforts were not successful at the time, but peace was near.

On the 15th March, the truce having expired, the works were recommenced, and a demi-parallel was begun at the left of the sap at 236 yards from No. 8 Redoubt. The object was to drive the natives from their rifle-pits along the precipice to the British left front. This trench was dug about 50 yards in two days, and carried to the verge of the cliff into the rifle-pits, which were evacuated.

Two days were spent by strong working-parties enlarging No. 7 Redoubt and constructing platforms and cover for heavy artillery, which presently opened fire on the pa. The Maoris on the afternoon of the 15th March carried on a very heavy musketry fire all along their front. That night they made an attempt to carry off the sap-roller at the end of the demi-parallel, but their scheme was violently frustrated by the explosion of an 8-inch shell which had been placed behind it, and connected with it and a friction-tube by a lanyard. (The sap-roller was a large cylindrical bundle of manuka-branches and fern, bound round gabions filled with earth, and 6 or 7 feet thick. It was rolled along in front of the advanced sappers for head-cover.)

Two important additions to the Imperial field force arrived in January, 1861—the 14th and 57th Regiments. The 14th came to Auckland from Cork in the auxiliary-screw ship “Robert Lowe” and the ships “Boanerges” and “Savilla.” Their Commander was Colonel (afterwards Major-General) Sir James E. Alexander, an officer of great experience in many climes. The 57th (First Middle-sex), the famous “Die-hards” of Albuera glory, under Major Logan—who was followed by Colonel (afterwards General) Sir H. J. Warre—arrived from Bombay in the ships “Star Queen” and “Castilian.” The “Die-Hards” proved highly competent in frontier warfare, and in after-years they were called upon for a great deal of hard fighting under General Chute. They shared, in fact, with the veteran 65th the toil and the honours of the most arduous service in the campaign undertaken by the Imperial regiments.

Between the Maoris and some of the troops fighting at Te Arei the war was conducted quite in the spirit of a chivalrous tournament. The 65th, who had had very friendly relations with the Taranaki natives in the intervals of peace, were singled out for good-humoured banter and frequent injunctions from the rifle-pits to “Lie down, Hiketi Piwhete, we're going to shoot.” Sometimes, as the sap drew near the pa, there would come a loud request, “Homai te tupeka,” and when in response a packet of tobacco was thrown over into the Maori trenches, back would come a basket page 217
The British Sap at Te Arei

The British Sap at Te Arei

(1) Cross-section of sap, with traverse and gabions.

(2) Head of the sap, close to Maori works, Te Arei, in March, 1861.

(3) Remains of sap near north face of Te Arei pa, as existing at the present time.

of peaches or a kit of potatoes. These amenities did not extend to the other regiments; the 57th were bidden “go back to India.” For all the amusing interchange of courtesies between the opposing lines there was a great deal of hot firing, though with little result. Sergeant-Major E. Bezar (ex 57th), of Wellington, recalls that one morning before breakfast every man in his part of the advanced trenches had expended all the ammunition he had brought—120 rounds. Bezar himself one morning fired 160 rounds. It must be remembered that the Enfields which the troops used were muzzle-loaders, with necessarily a rather long interval between each shot, so that the barrel did not heat so greatly as that of a modern magazine rifle.
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There was now a heavy siege-train battering away at the Maori defences. The storm of shot and shell compelled the garrison to take to their underground quarters, but even there they were not always safe when the Armstrongs began to play on them. There were in front of Te Arei two 8-inch naval guns, two 8-inch and two 10-inch mortars, four Coehorn mortars, two 24-pounder howitzers, three 12-pounder and one 9-pounder field-guns. The large-calibre mortars and the Armstrong field-pieces had been brought in the ship “Norwood” to Auckland (arriving 4th March, 1861) by the Royal Artillery, under Captain Mercer (killed at Rangiriri, 1863). The mortars and half the field-guns were landed at the Waitara River in surf-boats on the 13th March, and commenced firing on the pa from No. 7 Redoubt on the 15th March. The precision of the gunnery and the destruction caused by the bursting shells, added to the harassing effect of the night firing of the artillery, convinced Hapurona and his allies that their stronghold was no longer tenable.

On the 17th March the demi-parallel reached a point at a bend in the rifle-pits where a palisade on the cliff-edge barred further passage. Near here Lieutenant MacNaghten, R.A., was shot dead. It was he who had fired the first shot in the Waitara war, exactly a year before his death. Next day the sap, which had been suspended since the 11th, was recommenced, and 27 yards were formed during the day. The last two shells thrown into Te Arei were fired from the big mortars mounted at No. 7 Redoubt at 4 a.m. on the 19th March, 1861. The Maori white flag went up about 6 o'clock. The working and covering parties were then withdrawn and hostilities ceased.

The total length of the sap executed in this advance on Te Arei was 1,626 yards, exclusive of the 45 yards double sap filled in after having been destroyed by the Maoris, and of the final demi-parallel, 67 yards. This length is made up as follows: Double sap from No. 3 Redoubt to Huirangi, 768 yards; single sap (stopped), 90 yards; sap from No. 7 Redoubt towards Te Arei (single sap), 452 yards; from No. 8 Redoubt (new double sap), 316 yards: total, 1,626 yards.

The war was terminated by an agreement between Hapurona and the Government, Wiremu Kingi having gone to Kihikihi, Upper Waikato, to live with his friends the Ngati-Maniapoto. Mr. Donald McLean (afterwards Sir Donald), Native Secretary, and the Rev. J. A. Wilson, of the Church Missionary Society, were the chief agents of the Government, and after some days' discussion they persuaded Hapurona to accept the conditions laid down by the Governor in Council, the Waikato tribes agreeing at the same time to return to their homes. The terms agreed upon included the investigation of the title to the Waitara Block and page 219 the completion of the survey, restoration of plunder taken from the settlers, and the submission of the Atiawa to the Queen's authority. Hapurona and Wiremu Ngawaka Patu-Kakariki signed the peace treaty on behalf of the Maoris. Ngati-Ruanui declined to sign, pending a meeting of the Waikato tribes to discuss the war.

The net result of the war was the enormous destruction of settlers' property at comparatively small cost to the Taranaki Maoris. More than three-fourths of the farmhouses at Omata, Bell Block, Tataraimaka, and settlements nearer the town had been burned or sacked. The premises of 187 farming families were destroyed, many of them in daylight, and some within rifle-range of the stockades. The total value of homes and stock lost was estimated at £200,000. The blunder of the Waitara purchase had set the province back well-nigh twenty years. The Government made some compensation, but the parliamentary vote for the purpose (£25,000) went only a very small way to satisfy the ruined settlers' claims. Further financial assistance, however, was granted later on.

A considerable portion of the sap towards Te Arei pa, Puke-rangiora, is still to be seen. The traveller turning up from the New Plymouth-Waitara Road from near Kairau drives along a plain studded with the ruins of British redoubts and Maori entrenchments, and when within about half a mile of Te Arei may observe on the left-hand side, in the paddocks between the road and the Waitara River, the depression in the turf which marks the line of the sap. At the end of the plain before the ascent to Te Arei begins the earthworks of No. 7 Redoubt are seen in the middle of a field on the left of the road as one goes from Kairau. Tall pine-trees grow on the grassy parapets and cast their shade over the many-angled redoubt, a camping-ground sixty years ago for four hundred Imperial troops. A little beyond this, parallel with the road, the shallow dip in the grass indicates the olden sap, and when the Government fenced scenic reserve is reached on the slant upwards to Te Arei the long trench is more clearly defined. About 200 yards of the sap, ending within 100 yards of the Maori position, are in almost perfect order. The trench here is 10 to 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep, with a low parapet on either side formed by the earth thrown up. The traverses (mounds of earth left alternately right and left in the trenches to guard against a raking fire) are still intact, as shown in sketch-plan; they are about 12 paces apart. A little above the end of the sap there are partly filled-in Maori rifle-pits and a small redoubt on the brink of the Waitara River cliff, with thick bush below, affording perfect cover for the defenders, pickets of the pa garrison. Above are the high fern-grown parapets of Te Arei.

Sergeant-Major E. Bezar (late 57th Regiment) supplied the following note, under date 13th January, 1921, regarding the death of Lieutenant MacNaghten, R.A., at Te Arei on the 17th March, 1861: “I have seen different accounts of the way this gallant and popular officer met his death, but they all differ. Possibly I am the only man now living who witnessed the event, and I can positively say I was the last man to speak to him page 220 before he went to his death. We were at the head of the sap. It was afternoon, and the enemy were very busy and excited, and we deemed it necessary to be prepared for a sudden rush over our way, and we fixed bayonets. Lieutenant MacNaghten expressed a desire to go to the top of the rise we were cutting through, and I remarked that it was very risky, seeing how the bullets were coming over. He climbed out of the trench and crawled through the fern to the top of the rise. I fancy they must have noticed the moving fern. He was lying flat and looking through his glasses when he received the fatal shot. A year ago that day he fired the first howitzer shot at the enemy. He was not laying a gun on this occasion, as I have seen stated, for there was not a gun nearer than No. 7 Redoubt, several hundred yards to the rear. I have a very vivid recollection of this sad event, and I never took my eyes from the officer, for the bullets were pinging over that rise by the dozen.”