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Hero Stories of New Zealand

How Sergeant Mckenna Won the Victoria Cross — A Night in the Maori Bush

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How Sergeant Mckenna Won the Victoria Cross
A Night in the Maori Bush

STANDING sentry over the broad reach of the Lower Waikato at Tuakau, the massive fern-hung bluff on which the Alexandra Redoubt was built in 1863 dominates river and plain and bush, a castle hill of the oldtime Maori, a tower of strength for British troops in the early part of the war. The broad parapets and deep trenches of this fort, enclosing a large area of camp ground, are well preserved to-day; it is the only large earthwork which remains as a memorial of the Waikato campaign. In one of the angles is a monument to the soldiers of the 65th Regiment who fell in the engagement described in this story.

In September, 1863, the Alexandra Redoubt—newly built, and named in honour of the young Princess Alexandra, whose marriage to the then Prince of Wales (King Edward) had just been celebrated with Empirewide rejoicings—was garrisoned by 150 men of the 65th, under Captain Swift. Maori and pakeha water transport corps were busy taking munitions up the river to the British Army in the field, and an attack made on one of these canoe transport flotillas led to a punitive expedition from the Redoubt. The work of this party is memorable as an example of the fine courage, devotion to officers and perfect discipline of the Regular soldier. It won for a cool and plucky N.C.O., Colour-Sergeant E. McKenna, an ensign's commission and the Victoria Cross.

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Down the river, near Waikato Heads, was the military depot called Cameron Town, after the General commanding the field forces. Here, on September 7th, a canoe party conveying munitions and stores from the barque City of Melbourne, lying inside the Heads, was ambuscaded by a war-band of Kingites, who shot down several of the canoe-men in the canoes and killed also a Government officer, Mr. Armitage, magistrate on the Lower Waikato, who was in charge of the transport arrangements, forwarding cargoes to the Mangatawhiri River, for the Queen's Redoubt at Pokeno. Fugitives from the party of friendly natives took the news of the tragedy to the Alexandra Redoubt, and reported that after killing Mr. Armitage and some of his companions the King Maoris had looted the depot and set fire to the buildings.

In half an hour after the news reached the Redoubt a party was ready, consisting of Lieut. Butler, Colour-Sergt. McKenna, two sergeants, a bugler and fifty rank and file, the whole under command of Captain Swift. The objective was nine or ten miles away, a difficult and dangerous march through bush, swamps and streams. It was late in the afternoon when the force approached the foot of the wooded spur on which the pa of the friendly natives stood, above the Cameron Town depot. Nothing could yet be seen but the jungly forest.

I now take up Colour-Sergeant McKenna's narrative given by him at Te Awamutu in 1864. He was a man of Irish family, born in England; he had been in the Army for seventeen years, and was an excellent type of the British N.C.O., intelligent, experienced in bush warfare, well qualified to command.

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“I asked and obtained leave from Captain Swift,” said McKenna, “to advance forty or fifty yards in front of the men, as scout. I took a direct course through the bush towards the spot where the natives were supposed to be. About 5 o'clock I reached a large opening, where I could see the Maoris' encampment in the bush about four hundred yards in advance. Crossing the clearing in a stooping position and at a smart pace, I again made for the bush, followed by the whole detachment. The Maoris were laughing and chattering, which led me to think they had been making free with the rum they had seized in the canoes. I returned and reported this to Captain Swift. The order was at once given to fix bayonets and charge. Our men advanced, led by Captain Swift, Lieutenant Butler, and myself, three abreast, the path not admitting more. When we had stolen up to within a few yards of the rebels, our leader gave the word ‘Charge!’

“The word had scarcely passed his lips when the whole bush was lighted up with a terrific volley. It seemed as if one of the extinct volcanos had suddenly opened its crater. The enemy were so close when they fired that some of their coarse powder was actually found sticking to the faces of our soldiers. For a moment our men staggered beneath this heavy fire, but, immediately recovering themselves, they closed up in a line of skirmishers in the bush, and opened fire. I had taken cover behind a tree close to Lieutenant Butler, to reload my rifle. Butler stood at the left front, a little in advance, cheering on the men by voice and example. He discharged his revolver right and left. Three Maoris fell beneath his fire, and were dragged page 72 into the bush. I was still admiring his heroic courage and gallant bearing when I saw him sink slowly to the ground, as if his spirit were struggling against some mortal blow. I sprang forward with two others to his assistance. On raising him in my arms he said, ‘Lead on the men, McKenna.’

“Surprised at such an order, I looked round to see where the Captain was, and there he lay by his side, mortally wounded. If he had been my own brother I could not have felt it more.

“ ‘Are you wounded, sir?’ was my first exclamation. “‘Oh, yes, McKenna; very severely,’ he replied.

“On seeing me loading my rifle, he said: ‘Never mind loading. Take my revolver and lead on the men!’

“These were the last words this good and gallant soldier ever spoke to me. I took up the revolver, gave one last look at my dying officer, and then shouted:

“‘Men, the captain is wounded; charge!’

“I rushed on at the head of the men, and we drove the Maoris before us. We now found ourselves in a small opening on the crest of the hill. The natives found shelter in the bush to our left and front, where they opened fire on our little band of thirty-eight men. Our position was critical. One of our officers was mortally, the other severely, wounded; ten miles of swamp and bush lay between us and any succour; around us were three hundred warriors. I ordered my men to extend in skirmishing order across the clearing, and to keep up a steady fire. My object was to hold the place for a time, till the advance guard, attracted by the firing, should join Corporal Ryan and the four men left in charge of the wounded officers, so as to have them carried well on to page 73 the Redoubt before the approach of night compelled us to retire.

“The Maoris had been encamped on the spot now occupied by our party and had left a great many things, such as tents, sacks and kits of potatoes, behind. These our men formed into a sort of breastwork, and kept as well under cover as they could. Several of the Maoris climbed the trees to fire over the breastwork, and one of them was brought down by Private Smith of ours; he fell with a thud. After waiting till about six o'clock I resolved to retire by the way we came; but I had scarcely given the order when we were met with a tremendous volley from the very quarter by which we intended to retreat. Three of our men fell badly wounded. I then brought the party back to our former position, and sent for my brother sergeant to consult with him as to what should be done. His proposal was to run the gauntlet through the Maoris, and to make for Mr. Armitage's pa, which was about 150 yards further on in the bush. He thought we could establish ourselves there and hold out till we received assistance; but I knew the thing was impracticable. The pa was commanded by a hill from which the enemy could have amused themselves by shooting us at leisure.

“A poor fellow of the name of Stephen Grace, always ready to offer his advice, proposed that we should form three sides of a hollow square, and retire down the hill to our rear, which was not wooded. I could scarcely help smiling at such a foolish proposal, when all at once I heard a deep sigh at my elbow, and on turning round saw poor Grace rolling down the hill in mortal agony till his head lodged in a fern bush. I page 74 ordered the bugler to take his rifle and belt and to cover him over with fern. I had no stretcher, and it was impossible for the men to carry his body. We left him there with the green fern as his mort-cloth. Some Maoris rushed out of the bush and opened a heavy fire on our men, who as readily returned it. About eight o'clock in the evening we began to make our way through the bush, but soon discovered that we had lost the path. On this I told my men that we must remain where we were till next morning. I then formed them into a square, and ordered every man to speak his name so as to ascertain whether any were missing. Two men failed to answer; both were wounded—Private Whittle slightly, across the scalp, and Private Byrne severely, through the right hand. On enquiry, I found that, after drinking at the stream they had pushed on by themselves instead of waiting for the main body, and diverged from the path.

“I now ordered the wounded to be taken down the hill to the rear by a path that led across the valley to the dense bush on the other side. I felt sure that a native path in that direction would lead to the Mauku or Pukekohe East, both military posts. I told the front rank of skirmishers to fire a volley and retire down the hill, giving at the same time a cheer as if about to charge. As soon as they were established below I ordered the rear rank to do the same thing. Nothing could be better than the conduct of the men at this trying moment; the movement was executed with as much steadiness as if they had been on parade. On reaching the foot of the hill we found, to our delight, a beautiful stream of clear water, I then gave my orders for the night: every man had to put on his great-coat (all had brought them page 75 with them folded across their right shoulders),* to sit with his rifle ready in his hand; no pipes to be lit; not a word to be spoken. About four o'clock in the morning I placed myself at the head of my men, and we resumed our march through the bush. We pushed our way with difficulty through the dense masses of supplejack and creepers; we crossed over hills thickly covered with wood; we descended ravines that were almost perpendicular. All struggled on for their lives. At length, at eight o'clock a.m., our gallant little band emerged from the bush and found themselves in the open country about seven miles from the Alexandra Redoubt. Soon we met Colonel Murray with a hundred men of the 65th Regiment coming to our assistance, and a hearty English cheer burst forth from both parties.

“Our joy was mingled with sorrow on learning that Captain Swift had died at seven o'clock the previous night. Corporal Ryan and Privates Talbot and Bulford remained with him to the last. They carried him in their arms for some distance after he received his death-wound, but the agony he suffered was so intense that he requested them to lay him down on the ground. They placed him behind a fallen tree and concealed him as well as they could, and crept down beside him. On hearing the heavy firing, he said to Corporal Ryan, ‘I am sure McKenna has gained the pa.' Soon after they heard the natives coming through the bush; the shots told them that the Maoris had attacked the advanced guard hastening to their assistance.

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“After a short skirmish the advanced guard had to retire to make for the Redoubt, which they reached about nine o'clock the same night. In this affair the natives, in firing, actually came behind the tree under which Captain Swift was lying with Ryan, Bulford and Talbot. He begged of them not to leave him. They assured him that they would stay by him till the last. But his moaning, they said, might attract the notice of the enemy. On hearing this, the poor fellow placed his hand on his mouth to restrain his agony till the Maoris retired. His last words to Ryan were, ‘Give me your hand!’ He pressed it, and then died as quietly as if he had been falling asleep. They covered the body with fern, and started for the Redoubt at break of day. On their way they met the party sent to their relief.

“I must now return to Lieutenant Butler. Privates Thomas and Cole remained with him all the night in the bush. He suffered much from his wound, and complained bitterly of the cold, though the men had thrown their two greatcoats over him. Private Thomas took off his blue serge shirt and put it over him, remaining all night in his cotton shirt and trousers.

“I sent back a guide with Colonel Murray's party to take them to the scene of action, and pushed on for the Redoubt, which we reached at eleven o'clock a.m., worn out. In the evening Colonel Murray's party returned; they brought in Captain Swift's body, but could find no traces of the two men who were missing. They gave up the search as hopeless, and, embarking on board the steamer Avon, returned to headquarters. About ten o'clock next morning a hundred men of the 70th Regiment marched in; they had been guided through the page 77 bush from the Queen's Redoubt by Captain Greaves, of the 40th. We left the Alexandra Redoubt under their charge, while a hundred of our men, under the command of Lieutenant Warren, started in search of their missing comrades. The missing wounded man Whittle was found, after many adventures; as for Byrne, the Maoris got him.”

At the Queen's Redoubt Sergeant McKenna was sent for by General Cameron and warmly complimented for his conduct. In his despatch to Governor Grey, the General expressed his admiration and approval of the detachment's conduct; and it was on his recommendation that McKenna received his commission as ensign and the Victoria Cross. Corporal Ryan was also gazetted for the Victoria Cross, but never lived to wear it. He was accidentally drowned near Tuakau while trying to save a drunken comrade. Three months after their gallant conduct Privates Bulford, Talbot, Cole and Thomas received the medal for distinguished conduct in the field, the first two for remaining with the body of Captain Swift, and the two latter for waiting on Lieutenant Butler and conveying him towards the redoubt. Another good soldier whose behaviour was of the bravest was Corporal Bracegirdle.

When the 65th Regiment left Auckland for England, after about twenty years' service in New Zealand, Ensign McKenna took his discharge and remained in the Colony. He entered the Government Railway Service and for many years was stationmaster at Wanganui and also at Palmerston North.

* *This order is an indication of the difference between the Regular soldier and the colonial. No Ranger or other New Zealand soldier would have needed such a command.