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

The Battle of Hairini

The Battle of Hairini

The news of the General's surprise expedition and the attack on Rangiaowhia brought the main body of the Waikato and their allies pouring eastward into the invaded village, and a few hours after the fight the leaders were hastily planning the fortifications for the defence of their supply headquarters. They realized now that Paterangi, Pikopiko, and Rangiatea represented so much heavy labour lost as the result of the British turning movement, and those forts were evacuated immediately. A position was selected for an entrenchment to block the road from Te Awamutu to Rangiaowhia. The place chosen was the crest of a ridge at Hairini (“Ireland”), the highest part of the approach to Rangiaowhia from the west. An old line of ditch and bank, fencing in some large cultivations, crossed the crown of the height from north to south. This line the Maoris quickly strengthened on the morning after the invasion of the village, deepening the ditch and converting the bank into a strong parapet, with a stake fence surmounting it. The road was blocked by a rifle-trench with a narrow opening. The entrenchment ran down the hill on the north side—the defenders' right flank—into a deep swamp; on the south side the ditch and bank extended along a slope to the cover of thick bush and manuka, which continued thence steeply down to the kahikatea forest in the swampy valley of the Manga-o-Hoi. The flanks of the Kingites were thus well protected. Members of many Kingite tribes shared in the work of defence. Besides numerous subtribes of Waikato, there were many Ngati-Maniapoto, one of whose chiefs was Wahanui—a gigantic figure of a man, afterwards the most celebrated orator of the King party—some men of Ngai-te-Rangi from Tauranga, and a contingent of nearly a hundred Urewera warriors, under Piripi te Heuheu, Hapurona Kohi, Te Whenuanui, and Paerau. With the Ngai-te-Rangi was a savage fellow of Ngati-Rangiwewehi from Rotorua, named Kereopa te Rau; he became notorious in the following year as Kereopa Kai-Karu (the “Eye-swallower”), the Hauhau apostle who put the missionary Volkner to death at Opotiki.

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From a painting by G. Lindauer, in Auckland Municipal Art Gallery] Wahanui Huatare

From a painting by G. Lindauer, in Auckland Municipal Art Gallery]
Wahanui Huatare

Wahanui, whose home was at Hangatiki, received a slight wound in the fight at Hairini. He was the most prominent chief of Ngati-Maniapoto after the war, and was the leading representative of the Maori King party in the negotiations with the Government.

On the morning of the 22nd February, the day following the attack on Rangiaowhia, an outlying picket on the north side of the Manga-a-Hoi Stream at Te Awamutu was fired upon by a party of Ngati-Maniapoto from the cover of some manuka at Matariki, on the river-bank a short distance above the bridge. The troops in the camp at Te Awamutu had been reinforced by a large body from Te Rore, including the 50th Regiment (under Brevet-Colonel Weare), a detachment of Royal Artillery, and a party of Royal Navy men from the ships at Auckland, page 359 with two 6-pounder Armstrong guns and a naval 6-pounder. The soldiers were just preparing for dinner when the “Assembly” sounded. The Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, under Captain Pye, v.c., and Captain Walmsley, led the advance upon Hairini which was now ordered, and the Forest Rangers, as usual where there was fighting in prospect, were well ahead of the other infantry corps. The General, immediately on learning that the natives had taken up a position on Hairini Hill, determined to attack before they had time to strengthen their defences, and early in the afternoon nearly a thousand bayonets flashed back the sun as the column advanced in fours along the narrow road towards the ridge with high fern on either side. (The present main road follows exactly this route.) A mile from Te Awamutu the route led under the southern crest of a rather steep spur; below was a gully of scrub and bush and swamp. A Maori skirmish line under cover of a hedge was driven in, and on a hill about 500 yards in front of Hairini height the guns were placed and opened fire on the entrenchments, now manned by five or six hundred men. The infantry went on and halted in the ferny hollow between the two hills, awaiting the order to storm the position. Just outside the road gateway at the trenches a wild figure leaped and brandished a taiaha, yelling defiance at the troops and encouraged his comrades with cries of “Riria, riria! Patua, patua!” (“Fight on, fight on! Strike, kill!”) This was Kereopa te Rau. The field-pieces fired shells over the heads of the Forest Rangers (mustering seventy-nine) and the 50th (480 strong)—the 65th were in support, and the 70th Regiment in reserve—and the Maoris all along the line replied heavily with their double-barrel guns. “It was as pretty a bit of hot firing as I have ever seen,” says a veteran of Jackson's company of Rangers. “The Armstrongs were sending their shells screeching over us, and the Maori bullets were cutting down the fern near me with as even a swathe almost as you could cut it with a slash-hook. We were lying down within 300 yards of the enemy. At last the ‘Charge’ was sounded, and away we went, the whole of us, we Rangers making for the Maoris' right flank, and the 50th Regiment, on our right, for the centre. With a great cheer the 50th swept splendidly up to the parapet with bayonets at the charge. We on their left stormed the Maori line on even terms with them; we had no bayonets, but used our revolvers for close-quarters work.”

The Kingite warriors maintained a heavy fire, but their bullets flew too high, and as the fatal line of steel approached they broke into confusion and flight. Some raced down to the left into the shelter of the deep swamp on the north side, and struggled across it in the direction of Rangiaowhia; others fled across page 360 the hill in the rear and into the cover of the bush on the south.

Now came the opportunity for the cavalry. One detachment of the Colonial Defence, under Captain Walmsley, advanced on the right flank, taking the high ground overlooking the Manga-o-Hoi Valley; the other troop, under Captain Pye, galloped up on the left, crossing a maize-field above the swamp, with its patches of kahikatea bush. The trumpet sounded the “Charge,” and the troopers rode into the Maoris with their sabres, cutting down a number as they went over them. Some of the warriors bravely faced the horsemen. Captain Pye's men met a volley. “Our detachment,” says a veteran of this troop, “got in among a party of Maoris who attempted to resist us. I made a cut with my sword at one man, but he jumped aside and I missed him. As I passed ahead I looked round and saw another trooper, Middleton, running his sword through him. Some of the Maoris ran down on the south side of Hairini, where we could not follow them; others retreated across the swamp at Pekapeka-rau, where the Maori dam and flour-mill were.” This was one of the few occasions on which cavalry charges were practicable in the Maori wars. Cavalry were used at Orakau, a few weeks after the Hairini fight; the other principal instances of charges with the sabre occurred at Nukumaru, on the west coast, in 1865, and at Kiorekino, on the Opotiki Flat, in the same year.

The Forest Rangers, under Von Tempsky, meanwhile were firing from a peach-grove on the left upon the Maoris escaping through the swamp, and they, with some of the 50th and the 70th, skirmished up towards Rangiaowhia, where the fighting ended. The village was looted, and the Rangers and many other troops returned to Te Awamutu laden with spoils in the way of food and Maori weapons.

The day's casualties numbered two soldiers killed, one of the Defence Force Cavalry mortally wounded, and fifteen others wounded, including Ensign Doveton, of the 50th. The Maoris lost about a score killed, besides many wounded, some of whom were captured and treated in the field hospital at Te Awamutu. The troops probably would have suffered more severely when doubling along the road to the assault but for the clouds of dust that obscured them.

A British redoubt was built at Rangiaowhia, near the brow of the hill Hikurangi, overlooking the Manga-o-Hoi forest and swamp (the district school now stands close to the spot). The post was garrisoned by a company of the 65th Regiment, under Captain Blewitt. In later years, when the Waikato frontier was threatened by the King Country Hauhaus, a blockhouse was built on the site and held by the armed settlers, some of whom were old Forest Rangers of Jackson's No. 1 Company.