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

Chapter 35: The Battle of Rangiriri

page 326

Chapter 35: The Battle of Rangiriri

FIFTY-SIX MILES SOUTH of Auckland the Main Trunk trains pass the station of Rangiriri. Nothing is to be seen there of the battle-ground of the 20th November, 1863—the view is of swamps and lagoons and a forest of weeping-willows bordering the Waikato River—but from the line a little distance north of the station one may see, a mile away, the hill where the engagement was fought. Westward of the railway is the still, sedge-bordered Lake Kopuwera, now a bird sanctuary, alive with wild duck and swans and wading-birds. This lagoon extends to the eastern base of a ridge marked by a dark plantation of pines: that is the spot where the Maoris of Waikato built their redoubt and dug out their rifle-pits and trenches to resist General Cameron. On the west side sweeps the Waikato River, here a full third of a mile wide. The Great South Road, running west of the railway, traverses the battlefield. Half a mile before reaching Rangiriri Township going south from Auckland the traveller motors or rides over the actual site of the entrenchments. The central redoubt of Rangiriri was just on the western side of the present road. The trenches and rifle-pits extended down the slopes on either side of the Waikato on the west and to the small lake on the east. The long double trench and parapet on the north (or front) face of the position can still be traced from the hilltop; it is about three-quarters of a mile in length, stretching from water to water. The redoubt in the centre of the works, the apex of the ridge, is indicated by a ditch still about 6 feet deep, with a parapet extending westward over the crown of the hill.

In the rear of the left centre of the main line and at right angles to it there was a line of trenches and rifle-pits parallel to the Waikato River, designed to resist troops landing from the war-steamers. In rear again and some distance from the pa there was a separate earthwork on the spur, the southern terminal of the ridge. This work General Cameron had observed on a reconnaissance, and arranged to attack it by landing a force from the steamers simultaneously with the land attack on front of the page 327 main position. The distance between the central redoubt on the ridge and the entrenchment in rear immediately overlooking the swamps and lakes was about 500 yards. The whole of the Kingite defences consisted of earthworks; no palisading was used.

General Cameron, after reconnoitring Rangiriri on the 18th November in the “Pioneer,” moved against the Kingite stronghold on the 20th. The whole of the river fleet was engaged in taking up sailors and soldiers from the Manga-tawhiri, while the troops encamped at Meremere and Takapau marched up along the right bank of the river. The “Pioneer” and “Avon” brought up the headquarters of the 40th Regiment, about 320 strong. In tow of the steamers were the four armoured gunboats filled with men. Commodore Sir William Wiseman commanded the flotilla. A Naval Brigade of a hundred men, under Lieutenant Alexander, of H.M.S. “Curaçoa,” marched up the bank with the infantry column. The force which assembled on the north front of the Rangiriri ridge at 3 o'clock in the afternoon after a hot march totalled about 850, made up as follows: Royal Navy, 100 officers and men, with a 6-pounder Armstrong; Royal Engineers, 15; Royal Artillery, 54, with two Armstrong guns; 12th Regiment, 112; 14th Regiment, 186; 65th Regiment, 386. On the river side of the operations much delay was caused, as the “Pioneer” became unmanageable and was not able to anchor at the point arranged, owing to the powerful current of the flooded Waikato and the strong wind blowing.

The attack began with an artillery bombardment at a range of about 700 yards. The three Armstrong guns shelled the Maori works for nearly two hours; a fire was also directed on the pa from the gunboats. The solid earthworks suffered very little from the shelling, but many casualties were inflicted on the Maoris crowded in their trenches and pits. The heaviest gun employed was a 12-pounder Armstrong. Then General Cameron, concluding that this artillery preparation was sufficient, ordered an assault of the the Kingite trenches. For this task the 65th Regiment was detailed. The leading company, under Lieutenant Toker, carried scaling-ladders and planks; with the stormers was a small detachment of the Royal Engineers, under Captain Brooke. Three companies of the 65th followed, with the 14th in support. The storming-party, with fixed bayonets at the charge, swept gallantly up the manuka-grown slope of the hill, and quickly forced the defenders out of the first line of entrenchments, but lost several men. A bullet smashed Captain Gresson's right arm.

The Kingite warriors fell back to defend the second line of rifle-pits, and for a few minutes held the position with great page 328
From plans by Captain E. Brooke, R.E., 1863] The Maori Entrenchments at Rangiriri

From plans by Captain E. Brooke, R.E., 1863]
The Maori Entrenchments at Rangiriri

page 329
Cross-sections of the Central Redoubt, Rangiriri

Cross-sections of the Central Redoubt, Rangiriri

determination, but this system of defences also was captured at the point of the bayonet.

The long lines of outer works were now in the British hands, and the greater number of the defenders crowded into the central redoubt, a rectangular citadel of high and broad parapet surrounded by an unusually wide ditch. The scarp of the earthworks was 17 or 18 feet in height from the bottom of the trench. From the rough banquette inside the rampart the defenders, resting their guns on the top, fired heavily on the troops. Many of the Maoris, however, were unable to reach this redoubt on the hilltop. When the outer trenches were stormed the musketeers on the Maori right flank ran for the lagoon and the swamps in the rear, but were fired on hotly by detachments of the 65th, which pursued them. Some of these were hit and wounded in swimming away, and most of the other fugitives lost their guns.

The 40th Regiment, late in the afternoon, succeeded in landing from the steamers where the present township of Rangiriri stands, in rear of the pa, and attacked and captured a series of entrenchments on a spur above. The defenders of this outwork fled across the swamps and made for Lake Waikare, which they crossed in canoes. A portion of the 65th Regiment now worked round to the Maoris' left rear, crossing the deserted double trench and parapet which extended from the crown of the ridge to the Waikato River. By this time an attempt by the main body of the 65th and the 14th to storm the central redoubt failed, because the ladders brought were too short to page 330 reach to the top of the parapets; and although a few did mount the high rampart they were hurled back or shot down.

The Maoris in the main work were now fighting with desperate determination, firing at close range as quickly as they could load their guns. There were women among them; after the battle a beautiful girl was found lying dead on the hilltop, killed by a fragment of shell.

Late in the afternoon General Cameron issued the most extraordinary order of the day. A detachment of the Royal Artillery, armed with revolvers and swords, was to storm the redoubt. Captain Mercer led thirty-six of his men to the assault. Leaping into the wide trenches, they attempted to gain the top of the parapet, but only one or two succeeded in planting foot upon it. Sergeant-Major Hamilton reached the top and fired his revolver into the Maoris, but was forced back with a severe gunshot wound in the right arm. Captain Mercer fell, mortally wounded, outside the trench; he was shot through the mouth.

This repulse only strengthened Cameron's stubborn resolution to take the redoubt, and another assault was ordered. This time the Royal Navy men were selected for the forlorn hope. Captain Mayne, of H.M.S. “Eclipse,” was directed to make a frontal attack with ninety sailors of the Naval Brigade, consisting of portions of the crews of the “Eclipse,” “Curaçoa,” and “Miranda.” The bluejackets, with rifle and cutlass, dashed at the works and endeavoured to swarm up the straight-scarped parapet, but once more the stormers were thrown back, and dead and dying men strewed the ditch and the ground in front of it. A few reached the top of the parapet. Midshipman Watkins was one of them; he fell back into the trench with a bullet through his head. Commander Mayne was severely wounded in the left hip; Lieutenant Downes, of H.M.S. “Miranda,” was shot through the left shoulder; and two officers of the “Curaçoa” suffered bad wounds, Lieutenant Alexander in the right shoulder and Lieutenant C. F. Hotham (afterwards Admiral) in the right leg.

When this attack failed a party of seamen, under Commander Phillimore, of the “Curaçoa,” charged up to the ditch and threw hand-grenades over into the redoubt, but this attempt did not alter the position. In the Naval Brigade was Midshipman C. G. Foljambe (“Curaçoa”), afterwards Earl of Liverpool and father of a recent Governor of New Zealand. He and his comrades made several attempts to scale the parapet, but the task was hopeless.

It was now almost night, and the General was compelled by the darkness to cease the waste of brave men's lives. The pa was surrounded by the troops in readiness to renew the combat page 331
From a sketch by Major C. Heaphy, V.C.] The Repulse of the Royal Navy Storming-party, Rangiriri Pa. (20th November, 1863)

From a sketch by Major C. Heaphy, V.C.]
The Repulse of the Royal Navy Storming-party, Rangiriri Pa. (20th November, 1863)

page 332 in the morning, and sailors and soldiers lay in the main ditch all night listening to the shouts and war-songs of the maddened Maoris, and occasionally returning the fire directed at them from the parapet. Many of the Maoris contrived to escape during the night; among them was Te Wharepu, a leading warrior, who was severely wounded. Hand-grenades were thrown into the redoubt in the darkness and caused a number of casualties.

The British casualties in this second Ohaeawai totalled 128. Of this number two officers were killed outright (Mr. Watkins, R.N., and Lieutenant Murphy, 14th Regiment), four died from their wounds (Lieut.-Colonel Austen, 14th, Captain Mercer, R.A., Captain Phelps, 14th, and Ensign Ducrow, 40th), and nine others were wounded. Forty-one men were killed or died of wounds, and seventy-two were wounded. The Maori losses were greater; thirty-six dead were buried after the capture of the pa on the following day, and many were shot or wounded in escaping across the flooded lagoons.

Before daybreak next morning (21st November) the men of the Royal Engineers, under Colonel Mould and Captain Brooke, made an attempt to mine the main pa, and a gallery was run in under an angle of the parapet for the purpose of blowing it up and making a breach. It was found, however, that the fuses had been mislaid on board the “Pioneer.” Picks and shovels were afterwards used to bring the parapet down, but shortly after daybreak the Maoris ceased firing and hoisted a white flag in token of surrender.

One of the staff interpreters, Mr. Gundry, was sent forward, and after some discussion the principal chiefs, headed by Tioriori, of the Ngati-Koroki (a section of Ngati-Haua), agreed to submit unconditionally. The gallant Tioriori had sustained three wounds when chivalrously attempting to remove a wounded officer out of the line of fire. The defenders surrendered to the number of 183, and gave up 175 stand of arms of varied makes, chiefly double-barrel shot-guns. The troops entered the redoubt—a pitiful scene after the battle—and the prisoners of war were escorted to the native church near the river; they were afterwards taken down the Waikato in the “Pioneer,” and marched from the Manga-tawhiri to Auckland.

Soon after the surrender of the pa a large force of Maoris was seen near Paetai, on the south side of the Rangiriri Stream. An interpreter found that they were a body of reinforcements, under Wiremu Tamehana. The leader was desirous of surrendering, and sent his greenstone mere to the General as a token of peace. His men, however, were strongly opposed to giving up themselves or their arms, and Tamehana accordingly retired with them to Ngaruawahia.

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The Entrenchments at Rangiriri, Present Day

The Entrenchments at Rangiriri, Present Day

This photograph, taken from the site of the central redoubt of Rangiriri pa (intersected by the Great South Road), shows the long parapet and double ditch extending westward from the hilltop to the Waikato River.

Many prominent Kingite chiefs were captured when Rangiriri surrendered, besides Tioriori. The Maori of highest rank was Ta Kerei (“Sir Grey”) te Rau-angaanga, a near relative of the Maori King. Others who surrendered were Wiremu Kumete (Whitiora), Tarahawaiki, Te Kihirini, Te Aho, Tapihana (of Kawhia), Wini Kerei, and Maihi Katipa. Te Wharepu, the principal engineer in the construction of the pa, escaped badly wounded. Among the men of importance killed were Te Tutere, of Ngati-Haua, and Amukete Ta Kerei, son of Ta Kerei te Rau-angaanga. The total Maori loss in killed was between forty and fifty.

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A veteran of the Ngati-Tamaoho Tribe says that the principal reason for the surrender of Rangiriri on the second day was the fact that all the ammunition was expended. “The highest chief who remained in the pa, Ta Kerei te Rau-angaanga, spoke to the interpreter sent forward by the General and said, ‘Kaore e mau te rongo’ (‘Peace shall not be made’). In response to the summons to surrender he declared, ‘We will fight on.’ Then he made the request, ‘Ho mai he paura’ (‘Give us some gunpowder’). He thought it would be fair play if the soldiers gave the Maoris some powder to continue the fight. But the interpreter said, ‘No.’ Ta Kerei and his people therefore decided to surrender.”

The same authority says, “Wiremu Kingi te Rangitaake, of Taranaki, was in Rangiriri at the beginning, but retreated when he saw the war-steamers coming up the river.”

The Escape from Kawau Island

On the night of the 11th September, 1864, the Waikato prisoners of war taken at Rangiriri escaped from Kawau Island to the mainland. The escape was planned chiefly by Tapihana, of Kawhia; other leading men in the party were Wi Karamoa (the Waikato lay reader, who was the only man to surrender at Orakau) and Wiremu Kumete te Whitiora, of Ngati-Mahuta. Tioriori and Ta Kerei had been released. The prisoners, after a confinement of many months in the hulk “Marion” in Auckland Harbour, under a guard of fifty Militia (Captain Krippner), had been removed to the Kawau, but no charge was laid against them, nor were they tried by any tribunal. This uncertainty and their home-sickness were quickened by wild reports that they were to be taken out to sea in a vessel and sunk by gun-fire—a story which had gained currency owing to a warship having carried out target practice off the island. Their quarters were near the old copper-workings on the Kawau. They were allowed the use of boats for fishing, but the oars and rowlocks were locked up at night. To the number of nearly two hundred they crowded into the boats, taking all the craft on the island, and worked their way across to the nearest point of the mainland with their spades and shovels and pieces of board which they had shaped into paddles. The fugitives landed at Waikauri, and ascended the mountain Otamahua, overlooking Omaha and Matakana. There they entrenched themselves on a narrow ridge commanding a view over the surrounding country for many miles. Their nikau-hut camp, partly fenced and ditched around, was about 150 yards in length by 15 to 20 yards in width; on either side were precipices, and the only approach was up a steep spur. Here they watched for pursuers, and were visited by many of the neighbouring Ngapuhi people, who supplied them with food. They were visited also by Government agents and their late keeper, who tried to coax them back to their prison island; but Wiremu Kumete asked sardonically, “How many birds, having escaped from the snare, return to it?” The Government wisely left them alone, and they presently made their way across to the Kaipara, and thence to West Waikato.

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There had been some discussion between the Governor and his Ministers with regard to the treatment of the prisoners from Rangiriri, and some ill-natured critics even professed to believe that Sir George Grey had connived at their escape from his island home, the Kawau. Upon this the entertainer Richard Thatcher, whose topical songs were highly popular among the Auckland audiences of the “sixties,” wrote and delivered a song (to the old-fashioned tune of “Nellie Gray”), one verse of which ran—

Oh, ka kino! Hori Grey,
For you let us get away,
And you'll never see your Maoris any more;
Much obliged to you we are,
And you'll find us in a pa
Rifle-pitted on the Taranaki shore.