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

Chapter 8: The Storming-Party at Ohaeawai

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Chapter 8: The Storming-Party at Ohaeawai

PENE TAUI'S STOCKADE was commanded at a range of less than one-third of a mile by the hill Puketapu, upon which Despard's Maori allies flew the British ensign. A modern field-gun at that distance would quickly have reduced the palisade to splinters. But what little impression was made by gun-fire upon the flax-masked defences was repaired by the garrison each night; and even when the 32-pounder arrived from the frigate “Hazard” its projectiles failed to breach the stockade. On the 30th June the gun was mounted on a platform, with strong timber slides, constructed on the lower slope of Puketapu; two of the smaller guns had been placed higher up. On the forenoon of the 1st July the 32-pounder opened fire obliquely at the front stockade.

Every one was absorbed in watching the effect of the gun-fire. Suddenly there came the noise of musket-fire in the rear, on the summit of Tamati Waka Nene's hill, and as the troops turned about in astonishment they saw the friendly Maoris, men and women, flying down the steep slope in confusion, and with them the picket (a sergeant and twelve men of the 58th) posted on the hill for the protection of the 6-pounder. They had been taken in reverse by a sortie-party of Maoris from the pa, advancing under cover of the forest on the right front and flank. The natives shot one soldier, seized the gun, and hauled down Waka's flag, which they carried off. Major Bridge and his 58th charged up and recaptured the hill. A few minutes later Despard's alarm and disgust turned to fury when he saw the captured British ensign run up on the flax-halliards of the Maori flagstaff in the pa, below the rebel flag—a kakahu Maori, as one of my Maori informants describes it—a native garment. Then it was that the Colonel made up his mind to storm the pa that day. He imagined that the few 32 lb. shot—which were soon expended—would so loosen the stockades as to enable the troops to cut and pull them down. Those who ventured to remonstrate were snubbed or insulted. Lieutenant Phillpotts, of the “Hazard,” was roused to such indignation by the Colonel's retort to his protest against a page 61 senseless attack that he threw away every vestige of military attire he happened to be wearing, and in his blue sailor shirt and underclothes rushed to his death. A protest from the free-lance allies met with a similar reception. John Webster tells the story:—

“Maning, myself, and Nene went to interview Despard. We knew well the strength of the pa and its construction. Maning was the spokesman, and commenced with, ‘Sir, we heard that you intend assaulting the pa, and we have come to say that unless a breach is made it will cause great loss of life and will fail.’

“‘What do you civilians know of the matter?’ replied Despard.

“‘Sir,’ said Maning, ‘we may not know much, but there is one that apparently knows less, and that is yourself.’

“Despard got very angry and threatened to arrest us. Nene now inquired what the chief of the soldiers was saying. Maning told him.

“‘He tangata kuware tenei tangata,’ said Nene.

“‘What does the chief say?’ Despard inquired of his interpreter. (I think Meurant was the interpreter's name.) He scratched his head and said, ‘It is not complimentary.’

“‘But I order you, sir,’ said Despard.

“‘The Chief says you are a very stupid person,’ then replied Meurant.

“It was impossible to make any impression on the man who had so many fine young fellows' lives in his hands, and he was prepared to sacrifice them through mere obstinacy.”

Tamati Waka Nene offered to make a feint attack on the stockade in the rear, in order to divert attention from the soldiers' assault, but this suggestion, like all others, met with a refusal.

The Colonel ordered a storming-party to parade at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and instructions were issued by his brigade-major (Lieutenant and Adjutant Deering) for the guidance of the officers commanding the various divisions. The troops were ordered to get their dinners. For many of them that meal was their last. Forebodings of disaster possessed some of the more thoughtful, but in spite of the doubtful character of the enterprise there was a distinct element of elation and relief among the rank and file at the prospect of an attack at close quarters. There was also a strong desire among the troops to avenge the death of a young soldier of the 99th who had been caught by the enemy while foraging for potatoes. The men on outpost duty had heard, as they believed, his cries of agony; and a story, palpably absurd, was circulated after the fight that he had been tortured to death by burning with kauri-gum. In their ignorance of Maori ways they credited their foes with the practices of Red Indians on the war-path.

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From a drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge] Repulse of the British Storming-parties at Ohaeawai

From a drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge]
Repulse of the British Storming-parties at Ohaeawai

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From a portrait about 1860] Colonel Cyprian Bridge

From a portrait about 1860]
Colonel Cyprian Bridge

Major (afterwards Colonel) Cyprian Bridge, of the 58th Regiment, was uncle to Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge, G.C.B., who commanded H.M.S. “Espiegle” in the Pacific, 1882–85, and was Admiral in command of the Australian Station, 1895–97. When the 58th returned to England from New Zealand Major Bridge was appointed to the command of the regiment. Mr. H. E. Bridge, of Oriental Bay, Wellington, is a son of the Colonel. Five sons of Mr. Bridge volunteered for the Great War and wore khaki; four served abroad; one was mortally wounded on Gallipoli, and one was killed in action in France.

At 3 o'clock the bugles sounded the assembly. Volunteers were called upon for the forlorn hope. The whole of the men of the 58th stepped forward. The right-hand man, front and rear rank, of each section was ordered to the front; a similar procedure was followed in the 99th Regiment. Two assaulting columns were composed of men of the two regiments, with a number of seamen and Pioneers. When the selection had been completed the storming-parties formed up in the little valley on the west and north-west side of the pa, about 100 yards from the stockade. This was the composition of the force: Advance-party, or forlorn hope—Lieutenant Beattie (99th Regiment), two sergeants, page 64 and twenty men. Assaulting column—Major Macpherson (99th Regiment), forty grenadiers from the 58th and forty from the 99th, with a small party of seamen from H.M.S. “Hazard” and thirty Pioneers (to carry axes, scaling-ladders, and ropes) from the Auckland Volunteer Militia: total, about one hundred and twenty men. Second assaulting column—Major Bridge (58th), with the remainder of the grenadiers of the 58th, made up to sixty rank and file from a battalion of that regiment, and forty rank and file from the Light Company of the 99th: total, one hundred men.

Lieut.-Colonel Hulme was posted in the valley west of the pa with a supporting-party consisting of a hundred men of the two regiments and some naval men. Major bridge's party, in rear of the forlorn hope, took up a position exactly north-west of the nearest angle of the stockade (the Maori's left front); Major Macpherson was posted due north of the same angle, under cover of a grove of puriri trees. The north-west angle of the pa was the principal objective of attack—this despite the fact that it was enfiladed by loopholed bastions on either flank.

There came now an awful interval of waiting. The storming-parties stood ready in their appointed places, while the guns in rear of them threw shot and shell into the stockade. The glinting lines of bayonets caught the fitful sunshine of a wintry afternoon; the campaign-stained red tunics and white cross-belts, too, were brightened by those gleams of gold beneath the drifting clouds. Tattered was many a uniform; coats and trousers torn and roughly patched; some of the men barefooted, some with battered boots tied on their feet with strips of flax-leaves.

Half an hour of such waiting, then out blared the bugle. It was the “Advance.” There was a quick fire of orders from commanders of columns—“Prepare to charge”; “Charge”; and with a “Hurrah!” up the ferny slope dashed the advance-party. Major Macpherson's column quickly followed; then up came Major Bridge's party of bearded campaigners in four ranks, their commander leading, sword in hand.

That charge up the bullet-swept glacis of Ohaeawai was described to me with graphic word and action by the last survivor of the stormers, Lieutenant W. H. Free, of New Plymouth, who was a corporal in the 58th under Major Bridge. Free was a County Wicklow lad of twenty; he had enlisted three years previously, and one of his recent memories was a voyage from England to Hobart Town as a private in the military guard in a convict ship, the “Anson.”

“We formed up in close order,” Free said, “elbows touching when we crooked them; four ranks, only the regulation 23 inches page 65
W. H. Free, a Veteran of Ohaeawai

W. H. Free, a Veteran of Ohaeawai

Corporal Free (58th) was the last survivor in New Zealand of the stormers at Ohaeawai. He fought in the Taranaki War, and was given a commission as Lieutenant. He died at New Plymouth in 1919, aged 93 years.

between each rank. There we waited in the little hollow before the pa, sheltered by the fall of the ground and some tree cover. We got the orders, ‘Prepare to charge’; then ‘Charge.’ Up the rise we went at a steady double, the first two ranks at the charge with the bayonet; the second rank had room to put their bayonets in between the front-rank men; the third and fourth ranks with muskets and fixed bayonets at the slope. We were within 100 yards of the pa when the advance began; when we were within about fifty paces of the stockade-front we cheered and went at it with a rush, our best speed and ‘divil take the hindmost.’ The whole front of the pa flashed fire, and in a moment we were in the one-sided fight—gun-flashes from the foot of the stockade and from loopholes higher up, smoke half-hiding the pa from us, yells and cheers, and men falling all round.

“Not a single Maori could we see. They were all safely hidden in their trenches and pits, poking the muzzles of their guns under the foot of the outer palisade. What could we do? page 66 We tore at the fence, but it was a hopeless business. The Pioneer party left all the axes and tomahawks behind; the sailors had their cutlasses, but they could do little more than slash at the lashings of the fence. Only one scaling-ladder was carried up. The man who brought it stood it against the outer stockade. ‘Here it is,’ he said, ‘for any one who'll go up it.’ But who'd climb the ladder? It would be certain death. If any one did try it he didn't live many moments.

“We were in front of the stockade, firing through it, thrusting our bayonets in, or trying to pull a part of it down, for, I suppose, not more than two minutes and a half. From the time we got the order to charge until we got back to the hollow again it was only five to seven minutes.

“In our Light Company alone we had twenty-one men shot in the charge. As we rushed at the pa a man was shot in front of me, and another was hit behind me. When the bugle sounded the retreat I picked up a wounded man, and was carrying him off on my back when he was shot dead. Then I picked up a second wounded comrade, a soldier named Smith, and carried him out safely. Our captain, Grant, an officer for whom we had a great liking, was shot dead close to the stockade. Nothing was explained to us before we charged. We just brought our bayonets to the charge when we got the word, and went at it hell-for-leather.”

Free narrated that he and his comrades of the 58th carried their full packs even in the charge—like King George the Third's troops in the first assault on Bunker's Hill.

Some of the garrison, appalled by the valour of the redcoats rushing with their front of steel upon the palisades, took fright and made for the rear of the pa, but the greater number stood fast in their trenches, reserving their fire until the stormers were within 25 or 20 yards. When the few faint-hearts among the Maoris saw that the stockade was impregnable they returned to their posts, and assisted in the final repulse. There were probably not more than a hundred natives in the pa when the assault was delivered.

The Maori enfilading fire completely commanded the angle which was the centre of attack, and many men fell on the western flank, where bullets were poured into them from a small bastion. Those on the northern face became targets for the Maori gun-men in the rectangular salient midway on that flank. In one of these bastions there was a carronade which the Maoris had loaded with a bullock-chain, and this projectile, fired at close quarters, killed or wounded several soldiers. Captain W. E. Grant (58th) fell shot through the head in one of the first volleys. Lieutenant Edward Beattie (96th) was mortally wounded. The page 67
Hare Puataata (Puhikura), of Kaikohe One of the defenders of Ohaeawai.

Hare Puataata (Puhikura), of Kaikohe
One of the defenders of Ohaeawai.

impulsive naval lieutenant, Phillpotts, ran along the stockade to the right (the west flank), seeking a place to enter; the outer fence had suffered most damage there. He actually climbed the pekerangi, a small portion of which had been loosened by sword-cuts delivered against the torotoro lashings and partly pulled down. There he fell, shot through the body. A young sailor who ran up the solitary ladder which Lieutenant Free mentioned was shot dead and fell inside the stockade. Brevet-Major Macpherson was wounded severely; as he was a very heavy man it was only with difficulty that he was carried off the field. Ensign O'Reilly (99th) received a bullet which shattered his right arm at the elbow. “The soldiers fell on this side and on that,” said the venerable Rihara Kou—the whitebeard made an expressive page 68 gesture with his hands—“they fell right and left like that, like so many sticks thrown down.”

Through the din of musketry and yelling the notes of a bugle were heard. It was the “Retire.” Major Bridge and many of his men thought the call had been sounded in mistake. However, the retreat was repeated, and the summons was obeyed. The Maoris' independent firing increased, and more were killed and wounded in the withdrawal. In that five minutes nearly forty men had been killed and seventy wounded, some mortally.

One-third of the troops engaged fell before the Maori fire. The large-calibre bullets inflicted smashing wounds; in many cases the combat was at such close quarters that the clothing of the soldiers was scorched by the gunpowder-flash. Not all the wounded were carried off; all the dead were left where they fell.

Many a deed of gallantry and devotion illumined the tragedy of that retreat. Several men returned again and again through a hot fire to carry off wounded comrades. One private of the 58th, Whitethread, rescued in this way at least five men of his own regiment and the 99th; he and another man, J. Pallett, carried Major Macpherson into camp. Two Scots of the 58th lay dead together on the field; the one, McKinnon, was carrying off his dying or dead corporal, Stewart, on his back when he was shot. Corporal Free was another of those who brought away wounded comrades from the bullet-spitting pekerangi.

Now out upon the heels of the rescuers who are heroically bearing off the wounded there charge the victorious Maoris, naked, powder-grimed, yelling, shaking their guns and their long-handled tomahawks. A white-headed tattooed warrior, astonishingly agile in spite of his age, dashes along the palisade front; he is seeking the body of the sailor-chief “Topi.” He bends over Phillpotts's body; with his tomahawk he cuts off a portion of the scalp, and bursts into a pagan chant. It is the incantation of the whangaihau offering the first of the battle-trophies to the supreme war-god of the Maori, Tu-of-the-Angry-Face. And there, amid the bodies of dead and dying whites strewn about the field, the warriors throw themselves into the movements of the tutu-ngarahu. This is the song they shout, with uptossed guns and tomahawks:—

E tama te uaua e,
E tama te uaua e,
E tama te maroro,
Inahoki ra te tohu a te uaua na,
Kei taku rin ga e mau ana,
Te upoko o te kawau tataki


O sons of strenuous might,
O sons of warrior strength,
Behold the trophy in my hand,
Fruit of the battle strife—
The head of the greedy cormorant
That haunts the ocean shore!

A moment's breathing space, and then the warriors chant all together this song that reverberates among the hills, the words are those of a mata, or prophecy:—

Ka whawhai, ka whawhai!
E he!
Ka whawhai, ka whawhai!
E ha!
Ka whawhai, ki roto ki te awa
Puare katoa ake nei.
E ka whawhai, ka whawhai!
Kihai koe i mau atu ki te kainga ki Oropi,
E te ainga mai a Wharewhare.


To battle, to battle!
E he!
To battle, to battle!
E ha!
We shall fight in the valley
Spread open before us;
We shall fight, we shall fight!
Ah! You did not remain
In your home-land in Europe
There you lie overwhelmed
By the swift driving wave of the battle.

And late into the wintry night, while the surgeons in the British camp are dressing wounds and amputating shattered limbs, the choruses of battle-songs and the cries of a tohunga in an ecstatic fit of prophesying are borne across the battlefield. The dispirited soldiers, hearing that eerie sorcerer-voice, imagine it, in their ignorance of the Maori, to be screams of one of their captured comrades under torture by fire.

For the defeat Colonel Despard blamed the seamen from H.M.S. “Hazard” under Lieutenant Phillpotts, and the party of Auckland Militia who accompanied the force as a Pioneer detachment. “The forlorn hope,” he wrote, “had been provided with well-sharpened axes and hatchets for cutting away the torotoro vines which fastened the stockade, as well as with several scaling- page 70 ladders and ropes with grappling-irons for the purpose of pulling down the stockade.” All these articles, except one scaling-ladder, were left behind by the Pioneers as unnecessary encumbrances.

In spite of Despard's excuses for his failure, it is extremely doubtful whether even scaling-ladders, grappling-irons, axes, and other apparatus of attack would have enabled the storming-parties to carry the stockade. Indeed, it was fortunate that the pekerangi so stoutly resisted the assault except at one point, for had the troops succeeded in demolishing it they would have been faced by the inner fence of deeply set puriri timbers, which could not be hauled down. And had they carried this main line of defence there would still have been the trenches and pitted interior of the stockade, subdivided by barriers and thick with underground shelters, from which every white could have been shot down.

Colonel Despard contemplated an immediate retreat upon Waimate, and orders to that end were issued on the morning of the 2nd July, but were countermanded as the result of remonstrances by the friendly chiefs, who condemned the Colonel's proposal to abandon the field leaving the dead unburied, and to destroy surplus stores. The wounded were sent off in carts and litters to Waimate, and the force remained encamped before the pa for another ten days. Additional ammunition had been brought up for the guns, and the 32-pounder and the smaller pieces kept up an intermittent bombardment.

The dead were not buried until the afternoon of the 3rd July, when, through the efforts of Archdeacon Henry Williams and the Rev. R. Burrows—who had been eye-witnesses of the battle—the natives permitted the bodies of the fallen soldiers to be collected. Thirty-two bodies were placed in one grave and eight in another. Several bodies were found later lying among the fern, and were buried near the others.

It was the Maori custom to abandon a fighting pa after blood had been spilt within it, and it was not surprising therefore, to the missionaries and other spectators, and to the friendly natives that the stockade was found early on the morning of the 11th July to have been evacuated during the night. Two dead bodies were found; the total Ngapuhi loss was never exactly known, but, so far as can be ascertained, it did not exceed ten killed.

The garrison retired on Kaikohe and Tautoro, to the south. At those places they prepared for further resistance in the event of being followed up; but the exhausted and famished troops were in no condition to renew the campaign immediately, and it was considered advisable to withdraw to the mission station at the Waimate.

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The pa was destroyed—a task by no means easy. Some of the posts of puriri defied all efforts to pull them down. One was so large, as W. H. Free narrated, that Captain Matson, who was engaged in the demolition of the palisades, was unable to span it with his outstretched arms. “The enemy was unable to carry off his guns,” Colonel Despard reported, “and we have taken three iron ones on ship-carriages, and one more was found disabled in the fortress.” (Hohaia Tango, of Ohaeawai, stated that this fourth gun was mounted near the north-west angle of the pa; it was smashed by a shot from the British cannon, which struck it in the muzzle.) A search was made for the body of Captain Grant, who was known to have been shot close to the palisades. It was exhumed from a light covering of earth, which had been laid over it by the Maoris. W. H. Free, who saw it unearthed, stated that portions of the posterior parts, and also the calves of the legs had been cut off by the Ngapuhi; presumably the flesh was eaten as a battlefield rite, with the double object of absorbing something of the dead officer's virtue of bravery, and of weakening—as the pagan Maori believed—the arms and mana of the white troops. Ceremonial cannibalism, of which this Ohaeawai incident was the solitary instance in Heke's War, was revived as a sequel to battle in the Hauhau Wars of 1865–69; Titokowaru countenanced it in his Taranaki campaign as a means of fortifying the resolution of his followers and of terrifying his white enemies.

On the 14th July the British struck camp and marched to the Waimate, where the troops settled themselves in the quarters they had occupied on the march inland.

The site of the Ohaeawai pa is now occupied by a Maori church and burying-ground. The scene of the battle is five miles from Kaikohe and two miles from the Township of Ohaeawai. A Maori church of old-fashioned design is seen on the left as one travels from Kaikohe; it stands on a gentle rise a short distance west of the main road. The locality is usually called Ngawha, from the hot springs in the neighbourhood, but it is the true Ohaeawai; the European township which has appropriated the name should properly be known as Taiamai. The church occupies the centre of the olden fortification, and a scoria-stone wall, 7 ft. high, encloses the sacred ground. Tukaru Tango and Hohaia Tango, two elderly men of Ngapuhi, with whom I visited the place (March, 1919), said that this fence marked almost exactly the outer line of the stockade. The churchyard is entered between great posts that might well have served as palisade himus. On the east crest is a stone memorial cross bearing this Maori inscription: “Ko te Tohu Tapu tenei o nga Hoia me nga Heremana o te Kuini i hinga i te whawhai ki konei ki Ohaeawai, i te tau o to tatou Ariki 1845. Ko tenei Urupa na nga Maori i whakatakoto i muri iho o te maunga rongo.”

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The translation of this legend is: “This is a Sacred Memorial to the Soldiers and Sailors of the Queen who fell in battle here at Ohaeawai in the year of Our Lord 1845. This burying-place was laid out by the Maoris after the making of peace.”

The pa site, viewed from the east and south, is a commanding position; on the north the land is level for some distance and then slopes very gradually. The high range beyond the valley on the west is still well wooded; and in the vicinity of the stockade-site much of the ancient forest vegetation remains, the puriri predominating. About 100 yards to the west of the pa is a hollow through which runs a small stream from the slopes of Puketapu; it was here that the storming-parties formed up.

“Topi,” as the natives called Phillpotts, was the Maorified form of “Toby,” the lieutenant's nickname. On the 17th March, 1919, standing by the grave of the three officers who fell at Ohaeawai, in the churchyard of Waimate, Rawiri te Ruru, of Te Ahuahu, asked me, “Is this where Topi is buried?” When shown George Phillpotts's name on the memorial stone he told the story of the sailor's death as preserved in his family of the Ngati-Rangi Tribe. “It was my uncle Horotai who killed Topi,” he said. “Horotai was a great fighter; Topi also was a toa (a hero), and very much liked by the Maoris. He ran up to the pekerangi and got inside that outer fence. Horotai was inside the second or main stockade, the kiri-tangata. He thrust the barrel of his gun through a loophole in the kiri-tangata until it touched Topi here”—and Rawiri put his hand on his breast—“then Horotai fired and Topi fell dead.”

From a sketch. J. C., 1919] The Native Church at Ohaeawai

From a sketch. J. C., 1919]
The Native Church at Ohaeawai