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

The Storming of Katikara

The Storming of Katikara

Early in June General Cameron moved out against the southern tribes who were resisting the Government's title to the Tataraimaka Block. At St. George's Redoubt, the post which he had established at Tataraimaka, he concentrated a considerable force, having previously arranged that H.M.S. “Eclipse” should co-operate by shelling the Maoris. The Taranaki, Ngati-Ruanui, Nga-Rauru, and Whanganui men had entrenched themselves in a position above a mile beyond St. George's Redoubt and near the mouth of page 226 the Katikara River. Falling in at daybreak on the 4th June the 57th (under Colonel Warre) and the 70th crossed the Katikara River and advanced upon the native entrenchments, while a preparatory bombardment was carried out by the “Eclipse”— which had anchored off the mouth of the river more than a mile from the pa—and by an Armstrong battery posted on the edge of the cliff above the river near the redoubt. After the shelling the 57th carried the position at the point of the bayonet, cleared the rifle-pits and trenches, and pursued the beaten foe inland. Sergeant-Major E. Bezar, one of the few surviving veterans of the 57th, took part in the charge; he thus described to the writer the storming of the trenches:—

“The Taranaki natives' position had not been completed when we attacked it. The place was about fifteen miles from New Plymouth, on the southern side of Tataraimaka and more inland. St. George's Redoubt at Tataraimaka was about a mile away. After leaving the redoubt our force had to cross a river and then advance in single file up a rough ferny ridge; at the top we halted so as to give the men time to come up, and it was a considerable time before we had enough men there to enable us to rush the pa. The distance we had to charge across the open was about 150 yards. In the meantime Ensign Duncan with fifty men of our regiment had been sent on to cut off the Maoris' retreat in the rear. Duncan marched up from the redoubt to within a short distance of the pa, but instead of taking post in the rear, as he should have done, he simply came up along the right flank of the Maoris and rushed in at the front of it as we did. Had he done his duty properly the Maoris would have been surrounded, and probably the war would have ended there.

“The place, properly speaking, was not a pa, as there was no parapet or palisade. It consisted simply of trench-work and rifle-pits. The main trenches, about 4 feet wide or so, roughly formed three sides of a parallelogram, with the longer side on the front which we rushed. Inside the trenches was a series of rifle-pits—three or four of them—and within again were two or three large wharepunis, sunk in the ground after the usual native fashion, with low roofs; they were thatched with raupo.

“We charged in across the trench with the bayonet, and the Maoris were soon bolting out at the rear. The glacis across which we rushed was a potato cultivation; on the south there was a maize-field. I saw one man running down across this field, and I took a shot at him and dropped him. By the time I had loaded again and caught up to my men we were in the pa. The whares were set fire to, or caught fire from the shooting close to the thatch, and as they burned the raupo fell in. There were several men's bodies under the burning debris when the fight was over.

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“When the action was over we collected the dead and wounded. Three of our men were killed. The Maoris lost about forty killed. We carried twenty-eight bodies out across the trenches and laid them in a long row in front of the works they had defended. Then General Cameron came up with Sir George Grey, and complimented our captain, Russell, on the day's work. The dead Maoris were loaded into carts and taken down to the Tataraimaka, and all were buried in one large square pit close to our redoubt.

“A picture in the Illustrated London News, 1864, is a very inaccurate drawing of the fight. There was no large earthwork as shown in the sketch—only trenches and rifle-pits.

“Ensign Duncan, so far as I know, was never taken to task for his blunder; but there is no doubt that his fifty men could have disposed of the Maoris had they been in their proper position in the rear.

“The surviving Maoris, we heard afterwards, held a meeting at night in the bush, and they all decided to wage war to the uttermost in revenge for their losses that day.”

A number of Upper Wanganui natives were killed in this attack, and these losses accounted in part for the readiness with which the river tribes embraced the Hauhau fanaticism in 1864.

The principal trophy captured on this successful expedition was the large board on which the list of Maori tolls was painted, set up originally by the Kingites near Te Ika-roa-a-Maui, the large assembly-house at Kapoaiaia, near Warea, and afterwards brought to Puke-tehe, in the vicinity of Tataraimaka. The tolls demanded ranged from £500 for a pakeha policeman to 6d. for a Maori pig carried in a cart. The board was put on board H.M.S. “Eclipse” for Auckland.

As the Waikato War had now begun, the Ngati-Maniapoto and other northern fighters who had gone to Taranaki in response to the appeal from the runanga at Mataitawa, when the troops occupied Tataraimaka, returned to defend their own territory, and left the west-coast tribes to continue the hostilities. There was intermittent skirmishing for some months; in these events the Taranaki Rifles Volunteers and the Militia played a conspicuous part. The principal engagement during the latter part of 1863 was an encounter on the 2nd October at Allen's Hill, or Hurford Road, five miles and a half from New Plymouth along the south road. Colonel Warre took out a strong force of the 57th and the settler-soldiers, and there was some brisk fighting on the hill and in the fields around the homestead to the west of it. Captains Atkinson, Webster, and W. B. Messenger were in charge of the Volunteers and Militia, numbering between ninety and a hundred. Captain Frank Mace and some of his mounted men were also engaged. Two V.C.s were won at Allan's Hill, by Ensign J. T. Down and Drummer D. Stagpoole, of the 57th, who went to the page 228 rescue of a mortally wounded comrade under fire near the bush.

Now and again the Regular troops, in emulation of Atkinson's active Bush Rangers, essayed to lay ambuscades for the Maoris. An incident of this kind was the ambushing of a small party of natives at the foot of the Patua Range, on which the Kaitake pa was built, by a detachment of the 57th, under Captain H. R. Russell, from the Poutoko Redoubt. Seven natives were killed in this morning surprise.

The Tataraimaka Block was once more temporarily abandoned to the Maoris, and the available forces were concentrated on the defences of New Plymouth and its outposts as far as Omata and Poutoko on one hand and the Bell Block on the other. The bush-scouring parties of the Volunteers were now most useful in patrolling the broken forest country in rear of the town, and in blocking communication between the southern tribes and the Atiawa.

An example of the numerous bush skirmishes in which the settlers' corps were engaged in 1863–64 is described by Captain J. R. Rushton, now living at Kutarere, Ohiwa Harbour. Captain Rushton says,—

“Upon my arrival in New Plymouth, a few days after the ambuscade of Lieutenant Tragett and Dr. Hope at the Wairau, I joined the Bush Rangers, a scouting corps, under Captains Atkinson and Webster. Our duties were to patrol on the outskirts of the town, which was now isolated from other parts of the colony, the Maoris having burned down many houses and murdered some settlers. This is how we foiled a Maori ambuscade, through the smoke from the pipes: We had been out all night some distance past the Bell Block, and, not meeting with the enemy, started to return by the edge of the bush, through Street's Clearing, swinging along at ease in single file on the bullock-cart road. I was near the front with Bill Smart and others. The fern was high, but looking over we saw distinctly, at about 250 yards, at the edge of the bush, a small curl of smoke ahead, and upon looking again saw a group of Maoris in their mats leaning upon their guns. Captain Atkinson now got up to us and saw the Maoris, and about fifteen or eighteen of us actually formed up in line, and at the word ‘Fire,’ gave them a volley. We expected to get their killed and wounded, but before we got across the swamp they had dragged those hit or killed into the bush. So we did not venture in after them, being not far from Mataitawa pa. We got many mats with holes through them, and I think, some guns. We now continued our way in the direction of Bell Block, and at a small rise we got a volley from behind logs. Following up the Maori party, we killed two. We now started again for home, in the direction of the Bell Block, and had not gone far when we saw coming towards us two bullock-carts. There was a strong wind blowing page 229 from them, and they told us that they never heard the firing. It was a most wonderful escape. The two ambuscades were ready for the firewood-carts from Bell Block, and it was evident that the second ambuscade never heard our first volley. We now started for town, having done a good morning's work.

“Just a word for my old comrades, the Taranaki boys. The Maoris had no chance with them, man for man, in the bush. Skirmishing with them under Captain (afterwards Major) Sir Harry Atkinson taught me much about taking cover in bush fighting that served me well in other campaigns during nearly eight years active service in the Maori wars. It is always pleasing to an old soldier to be able to remember with affection his old officer. When spoken to by Sir Harry Atkinson one knew that he was a kind friend as well as a commanding officer.”