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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Defence of Turuturu-Mokai Redoubt — The “Rorke's Drift” of New Zealand

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The Defence of Turuturu-Mokai Redoubt
The “Rorke's Drift” of New Zealand

“HALT! Who goes there?”

The sentry's sharp challenge was followed by a rifle shot. He had seen the fern moving and fired at what he felt sure was a crouching Maori.

The instant reply was a thundering volley from the darkness. The gun flashes stabbed the night and by their sudden light the sentry saw for a moment wild figures leap from the cover of the bushes and rush towards him.

“Stand to your arms, men!” the sentinel yelled, as he ran for the Redoubt, with a crowd of Hauhaus racing behind him. He had been wounded in the shoulder by one of the first Maori bullets. But the foremost swift runners of the war-party cut him off from the entrance and he turned and ran down hill towards the foggy stream that curved about the base of the redoubt hill.

There were two sentries on duty that gloomy bleak morning of July 12th, 1868, outside the little Turuturumokai Redoubt. They had come on watch a few minutes before, when the posts were relieved at five o'clock. Garrett Lacey, an ex-private in the 57th Regiment, was the Armed Constabulary sentry who had challenged and fired. The other was a young Military Settler, Cosslett Johnston. His post was just outside the south wall of the Redoubt, near the open gateway, where the surrounding trench was crossed by a plank. He escaped the Maoris and rushed into the page 131 Redoubt, where the little garrison, in their shirts, just as they had jumped up from their blankets, dashed to the parapet and the two bastions or flanking angles.

Yelling, shooting, flashing long-handled tomahawks, the bush warriors charged on the so suddenly roused defenders. It was a desperate surprise attack, delivered an hour before daylight. The blaze of battle lit up the ramparted post, the low earth walls—fatally low—and the bell-tents of the garrison. Shaggy-headed figures leaped like demons at the open gateway, jostled each other on the slippery plank, fired their guns into the tents and the thatched storehouse. They charged hard on the bare heels and flying shirt of the garrison commander, Captain Ross, whose raupo-thatched hut stood a chain outside the redoubt. He was up at the first shot, and snatching sword and revolver in a moment, raced for the fort entrance and reached it a moment ahead of his foes. The gateway was screened by a low parapet just inside the entrance.

“Who'll hold the gate with me?” the Captain shouted.

“I'll make one, sir,” said a tall whiskered fellow clad in grey shirt and ammunition belt. He was Michael Gill, a veteran Irish soldier, an old Die-Hard of the famous 57th. He had joined the New Zealand Armed Constabulary on taking his discharge from the regiment. Such men put a Regular-soldier stiffening into the Colonial troops.

“All right, Gill,” said Captain Ross. “Any more?”

Four men ran forward with their rifles. Soon three of them were shot down. The Maoris at first concentrated their attack on that gallantly defended entrance, desperately intent on carrying the redoubt by force of numbers.

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Captain Ross headed the defence, firing revolver shot after shot and then using his sword. But an athletic naked bushman bounded in and shot him down, and snatching a tomahawk from his belt, slashed open his breast. He thrust in his hand and tore out the still beating heart, and with a fearful yell dashed out again, holding high his dripping trophy. Another warrior charged in and tomahawked one of the riflemen. This defender, William Gaynor, was in the act of firing over the low parapet that screened the gateway when he was killed. He slid down, turning round as he fell, and remained there, and there he was found when daylight came, sitting as if asleep, his back against the parapet, his rifle resting in the hollow of his arm.

The Redoubt, only about 20 yards each way, had two rounded flanking bastions, at diagonally opposite angles. In these angles most of the defenders took post after the first few minutes of the fight. There they went at it, firing away for their lives whenever they could get a target. There were no loopholes in the badly-built parapet; and the defenders had to expose their heads whenever they fired. One after another the whites were shot down, until most of the garrison were casualties; the party numbered only twenty-two, against about seventy Maoris. The firing was at very close range; the trench was full of Maoris, and only two or three yards separated the defenders from their enemies, striving desperately to swarm in over the walls. Some of the Hauhaus plied their tomahawks on the parapet, trying to undermine it. Two or three of the defenders, firing from the north-west angle, kept the gateway clear after the first attack.

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Both sides were yelling madly at each other, cursing. “Come on! Come on, you bloody Hauhaus!” some of the Constabulary men shouted. “Come out! Come out!” the young Hauhaus replied, in English. Then were heard through the smoke and fury of the fight the high exhortations of their chiefs Haowhenua and Nuku: “Puhia, puhia! Patua, patua!” (“Fire away, fire away! Kill them, kill them!”)

The smoky battle scene was lit up now by the flames of the thatched buildings outside, set on fire by the attackers.

The war rites of old Maoridom were revived. The canteen-keeper, a man named Lennon, was the first pakeha killed. He was tomahawked while running from his canteen, a raupo-reed hut, to the Redoubt. In the midst of the fighting, the yelling and shooting and the crackling of the burning huts, the ancient ceremony of the whangai-hau was performed, the offering of a foeman's heart to the gods of battle. Tihirua, a young warrior, was the war-priest. The chief priest of all, the Hauhau general, Titokowaru, had remained behind in the forest stockade at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, pacing up and down reciting incantations for the success of his soldiers launched against the white men's fort. Tihirua, with his short tomahawk, chopped open the body of the canteen-keeper and plucked forth the heart. It was the pagan custom; Tu and Uenuku, the deities of war and blood, must have their sacrifice.

Taking a match from his leather pouch, Tihirua struck it and held the small flame under the heart until the flesh was slightly singed and began to smoke. Then crying loudly, “Kei au a Tu!” (meaning that the war-god page 134 was with him or on his side), he threw down the heart, and snatching forth his tomahawk dashed into the fight again.

So went on the combat, rifle and carbine against double-barrel gun and tomahawk. The defenders cast many a quick anxious glance towards Waihi, the military headquarters only three miles away. Surely the firing had been heard there, and the gun-flashes and the burning whares must have been seen. Would relief never come? The Maoris could be heard chopping and digging away in the ditch. Once the parapet gave way anywhere, the enemy would be in and the slaughter of all and the capture of the Redoubt and the arms and ammunition would be certain. It was inexplicably long in coming, that help from Waihi; it was long after daylight before Von Tempsky came panting up with his company of Constabulary.

Meanwhile, in the two hours' battle, man after man went down. Out of twenty-two, ten were dead or mortally wounded. Only six men remained unwounded; all the rest were casualties. (Garrett Lacey, the veteran Irish soldier who was wounded on sentry, is included in the defenders; he did his duty although he had to escape to Waihi.)

Every survivor of such a fray has a different story to tell, for every man fights for his own hand. I heard the narrative of Turuturu-mokai from three survivors, many years after that red morning of 1868, and each one had his own bloody experience branded on his memory. Two of those were men who had suffered wounds. One, George Tuffin, of the Armed Constabulary, received five wounds; he was out of action early page 135 in the fight, and he lay there helpless, waiting for the tomahawk.

From another, John G. Beamish, of Patea, I heard on the scene of the battle—we explored the grassy site of the old Redoubt and traced out the lines in the uneven turf—a description of the defence dramatic and thrilling in the picture it brought before me, yet quietly, soberly told by that good old settler from far-away County Cork. There were two Beamish brothers, who had only joined the A.C. Force a few months before the fight. John was severely wounded; Alexander, his younger brother, was mortally wounded, and before he died he told his brother that he believed it was a white man who shot him as he looked over the parapet to take aim. This pakeha would have been a fellow named Charles Kane, a deserter from the 57th Regiment, who had run away to the Hauhaus. His fellow renegade, Kimble Bent, who lived fifty years with the Maoris, told me that Kane marched from Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu with Titokowaru's war-party, and used a gun in the fight. Kane had a short life of it; less prudent than Bent, he fell under the suspicion of treachery to his Hauhau companions, and they tomahawked him.

Yet another survivor, Cosslett Johnston, of Keteonetea, told me his story of the surprise attack and the heroic defence. He was one of the two sentries on outside the Redoubt when the Maoris delivered their attack. When he rushed into the earthwork he took station in the north-west angle with another man of the Military Settlers, Larry Milmoe. Johnston was a man of experience; he had served in the Royal Irish Constabulary and he was a sergeant in the Military Settlers page 136 in the first Hauhau fighting of 1864, the surprise at Te Ahuahu. In 1868 he settled on his grant of 80 acres at Keteonetea, within sight of Turuturu-mokai—he lived there all the rest of his days.

“The Turuturu-mokai Redoubt, which had been built in 1866 by a company of the 18th Royal Irish, was in bad repair when we began to occupy it in 1868,” he said. “It had been used by a settler, Captain Morrison, as a yard for his sheep. The parapets were not high, not more than four or five feet on the inside, and then there were no loopholes. The ditch which surrounded it was about six feet deep, quite enough to stop a war party temporarily. We set to work to put it in order, but had not properly repaired it when we were attacked. We improved it after the fight; the Constabulary had learned their lesson. We made a drawbridge we could haul up, and also made loopholes in the parapet with timber; these loopholes we plugged up with fern in the daytime to make the rampart look like a solid wall. Fern was generally used between the layers of earth in the building up of these defensive works. We could pull out these plugs from the inside at night. There was a plank walk running along the inner side of the parapet, a fire-step or banquette, but it was not quite finished when we were attacked, and it was so wet and slippery that I had asked the captain to let us do sentry duty outside.

“I was armed that morning of the fight with a long Enfield rifle and fixed bayonet, and carried 80 rounds of ball cartridge in the big pouch at my hip, besides 20 rounds loose in a pouch in front. The Enfield was a good straight-shooter; it would kill a man at a mile. page 137 The Armed Constabulary were armed with carbines; only the Military Settlers carried the Enfield. Milmoe and I were the only two who had Enfield rifles and bayonets, and I think it must have been the glint of our fixed bayonets as much as anything else that kept the Maoris from rushing us. Our weapons were unhandy —it took a long time to load and cap them. At it we went, firing away for our lives, whenever we could see anything at which to shoot.

“I was wearing a Glengarry cap—I had no uniform, as I was a volunteer settler then. A man fired at me over the parapet at such close range that the explosion blew my cap off, and sent me down half-stunned in a sitting position. Now we heard some of the Maoris in the ditch cutting away at the parapet with their long-handled tomahawks, in an attempt to undermine it. We shouted out from time to time, ‘The troopers are coming!’ but the Maoris only laughed fiendishly, and continued their chopping and digging. It was well after daylight before help arrived, from Waihi Redoubt, just in time to save the remnant of the garrison from the tomahawk.”

There were deeds of desperate valour there, and there was a shameful flight. Three men jumped the rear parapet soon after the attack began and ran down the slope into the darkness, making for the opposite side of the stream that flowed in a broad curve around the battle-hill, and for Waihi Redoubt. Their names were Wilkie, Burrowes and Cobb. When they first cried out that they were going to “make a bolt for it,” Michael Gill, the veteran, said: “No—there are wounded and we must protect them.” But they thought the place was doomed; and they ran.

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By contrast to these recreants there was the pluck of John Beamish, who was severely wounded, as I have narrated. The Maori bullet struck him with a tremendous shock; it went through his left shoulder and came out at the back. Nevertheless he tried manfully to continue firing; his wound incapacitated him from taking accurate aim, but he tried to level his carbine with his right hand whenever he saw a black head appear above the parapet. Michael Gill said to him: “You open the ammunition and I'll do the firing”; and in spite of his bad wound the plucky young Irishman handed up cartridges for the Terry carbine until the fight was over.

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A wintry dawn, daylight slowly spread over the dismal landscape and the scene of fire and bloodshed. Those who could shoulder rifle or carbine were still firing away in that beleaguered Redoubt. Suddenly the Maoris ceased firing at a shout from one of their look-outs. The troops were coming from Waihi. As the Hauhaus retired hastily to the edge of the bush the few unwounded men ran out of the Redoubt and gave them the last shots. And then the lads in blue, sixty of them (No. 5 Division, A.C.) came up at the double, with fixed bayonets. “Why didn't you come before?” and “Where are the troopers?” Had the thirty mounted Constabulary at Waihi been sent out the place would have been relieved earlier, and some lives would have been saved.

The interior of the work was a dreadful scene. Dead and wounded men, two of the dead mutilated with the tomahawk, lay about the place. Two dead page 139 Maoris lay in the trench, one on each side of the plank bridge, feet to feet. Another dead Hauhau lay in front of the gateway. A human heart, either that of Captain Ross or the canteen-keeper Lennon, was found lying on the ground outside the fort. The other heart, it was said by the Maoris afterwards, was carried off to the forest camp, as the mawé of the battlefield, a sacred trophy and votive offering.

But the little garrison held the fort, and prevented the Hauhaus obtaining the arms and ammunition they needed. The gallant defence has been compared with that desperate affair, the defence of the Rorke's Drift in the Zulu War. The forces engaged here were of far smaller dimensions, nevertheless Turuturu-mokai held something of the dramatic incidents and all the high valour that the defenders of Rorke's Drift displayed against enormous odds. Everyone of those survivors of Turuturu-mokai deserved a special mark of honour. It was considered that Michael Gill and Cosslett Johnston in particular were entitled to the New Zealand Cross. But their commanding officer was dead, and no one in authority took the trouble to obtain the decoration for them, although a recommendation was made on Gill's behalf. Gill was the last survivor of the little band. He died in 1934. The veteran Die-Hard was one of those soldiers of the 57th who were described once by an officer who saw them on parade in Auckland as stern, bronzed and bearded men “with faces as hard as the steel of their own bayonets.”

Most of the defenders of the Redoubt were Irishmen. Several were veterans of British regiments who had taken their discharge in the Colony and joined the page 140 Armed Constabulary; three were ex-57th men, and two or three had served in the Crimean War.

The attacking party numbered about seventy picked men, commanded by the chief Haowhenua. They had been chosen by Titokowaru the previous day in the meeting-hall called Wharekura, at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, with his customary ceremony of divination with his sacred taiaha, which was supposed to be influenced by the breath of the war-deity Uenuku, and they were farewelled with a poi dance by the women of the bush tribes gathered in the stockade. It must be remembered that the Maoris were fighting for the re-possession of their tribal lands, taken from them by force of arms and declared to be confiscated. They were justified therefore in attempting to clear the invaders out of the country. Turuturu-mokai was selected for the first surprise attack because it was an isolated post and not strongly entrenched. The garrison commander was strangely unobservant, or very trustful of the Maoris, whose spies were openly friendly with the Constabulary and military settlers, and came in frequently selling potatoes and fruit.

∗ ∗ ∗

The site of this Redoubt is now a tapu spot, a national reserve vested in the Hawera municipal body. It is near the crown of a hill above the Tawhiti stream, about a mile and a half from the town of Hawera. Near the sacred scene of the combat are the ruined earthworks of the massive ancient Maori pa, a stronghold and battleground of the cannibal era. The great entrenchment, with its high, broad parapets, was the work of the Ngati-Tupaea tribe three centuries ago. page 141 The name Turuturu-mokai given to this pa embodies a memory of the warriors of old. It means the short pointed stakes on which the dried heads of the principal men killed in a battle were set in ceremonial display. After the capture of the fortress by the enemies of Ngati-Tupaea, the bodies of the chiefs were decapitated and the tattooed heads preserved by being smoked over a fire of green wood, and were then placed on the turuturu before the conquerors, whose orators paced to and fro, addressing their victims as if they were still in life, taunting them, and proudly describing the incidents of the battle.