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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Bugle in the Mountains — An Episode of the First Urewera Campaign

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The Bugle in the Mountains
An Episode of the First Urewera Campaign

The echoes—still the echoes!
The bugles of the dead
Blowing from spectral ranks an answering cry!
The ghostly roll of immaterial drums
Beating reveille in the camp of dreams!

FROM peak to peak echoed the bellowings of the sulky war-shell and the wooden trumpet, blown by strong mountain lungs, and from the ridges on the flanks of the bush-girt glen blue columns of signal smoke rose to mingle with the mists of the ranges. They were the note and slogan of battle, those bull-like roarings, for they warned the scattered villages of the Urewera highlanders of an invader's approach. The pukaea and the pu-tatara, those were the mountaineers' war-horns; one was a long trumpet-trombone bound with aka bush-vine; the other was a Triton conch-shell. Down in the narrows of the lower Ruatahuna Valley an armed enemy toiled through the defile, and from all the hill camps of the Urewera the tribesmen gathered to defend their so-far inviolate sanctuary, the heart of the mountain land.

The roarings of the signal-horns were soon succeeded by the crack of advance skirmishers' rifle shots, then frequent heavy volleys, and rapid independent firing that sent continuous reverberations from range to range. The crack and thunder of war increased in volume as page 175 the morning went on, and now from the hill-posts of Ruatahuna the watchers could see the blue-uniformed figures of the invaders, as they advanced steadily in skirmishing order, the defenders of the valley retreating before them, fighting a rearguard action.

It was the left wing of Colonel Whitmore's little army of invasion, fighting its way from ford to ford and hill to hill through the upper valley of the Whakatane River. That column of four hundred men—Armed Constabulary and a native contingent—short-kilted like Highlanders, heavily beswagged, had toiled up from the Ruatoki Plain, to unite with the right wing, Whitmore's own, advancing simultaneously from the Rangitaiki Valley and Te Whaiti, traversing country where no white military force had ever marched before. Dangerous land, where ambuscades could be laid in every defile and at every ford.

Constabulary, young veterans whiskered like gold diggers or bushrangers, came steadily on, carrying one position after another—the river crossing at Te Pari-pari (where gallant young Lieutenant White was shot), the steep wooded range of Hukanui, Te Whenuanui's earthwork fort at the Tahora. Now by mid-day this 8th of May, 1869, the column was in front of its last objective, the parapeted and stockaded pa Orangikawa, at Tatahoata, the centre of the Ruatahuna clearing. Below, in a narrow valley, flowed the Mangaorongo stream, to join the Whakatane. Within rifle range was the village of Mataatua, the ancient capital of this Urewera tribal territory.

The attacking force, in open order, came skirmishing up through Mataatua and worked up to the pa, and the page 176 deciding fight of the day began. The rifle fire, magnified by the surrounding steep ridges, rang from hill to hill, and now and then a volley thundered far down the forest gorges and set the kaka parrots screeching for miles around. Running, crawling, dodging from tree to tree, the Government men worked round two flanks of the pa. High up, on the opposite side of the creek that rushed along below the lower end of the fort, a Maori watcher shouted instructions and warnings to his friends below. Like a hawk he watched every movement of the A.C. men.

For four hours the fighting went on. Puffs of smoke rose from behind every fern clump and flax bush, every tree and every log, and now and again a Government man dropped to the bullet of an invisible foe.

Captain Travers wore a bright silver badge on the front of his uniform cap. “You'd better take off that badge, old man; it's too good a target for the Maoris,” said a brother officer. Travers thought such a precaution would be unsoldierly. Foolishly he would not accept advice to take shelter like the old campaigners. “A British officer does not take cover,” he said. A few minutes later he fell with a bullet through his brain.

The late afternoon sun flooded the glen of Ruatahuna as the last scattering shots of the Maori defenders were fired, and the Constabulary, with fixed bayonets, rushed the redoubt. They dashed in, only to find it empty. The active Urewera were all clear away in the safe shelter of the bush.

The weary invaders threw off their heavy packs within the parapets, tended their wounded and buried their dead, four of them. They listened to the defiant page 177 yells of the hidden Hauhaus in the wooded heights around, and the intermittent bellow of the war-horn. They talked of Travers and his fallen comrades, and they agreed that there was no glory fighting in this God-forsaken bush, where you could scarcely ever catch sight of your enemy.

The commander of the column, Lieutenant-Colonel St. John, was not at all satisfied with the position. Here he was, in the heart of the enemy country, in a position that might be attacked in the night or early dawn by a great force of Maoris, and he was almost out of ammunition. A tremendous amount had been fired away in the two days' heavy fighting. Some of the men had exhausted all their supply, many had only a single cartridge left. He ordered additional earthworks thrown up, and everything strengthened in case of an attack. This was the day fixed for the junction here with Colonel Whitmore's right wing, but where was Whitmore? ∗ ∗ ∗

The golden haze of sunset darkened and deepened; down the ranges the night mists drifted, from every creek rose the fog; already it was gloom in the deeper ravines. The Constabulary, their earthworks strengthened, smoked the pipe of brief peace on the marae of the captured pa. The shouts of the hidden bushmen had died away, though the pu-tatara's doleful moans still came at intervals from the misty forest.

It was quite dark, when suddenly, from the valley, came the thin but clear sound of a bugle. A tiny voice, that bugle—but what excitement it raised! The Government Maoris rushed yelling for their rifles and manned the parapets.

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Te Kooti is coming!” they shouted. “We know it's Te Kooti—he's got a bugler, and that's his call. That's Eru Peka's call. And he'll rush us straight away!”

The colonel rushed out to the west parapet of Orangikawa, where his Constabulary had gathered under arms. “What the devil's all this row about?” he demanded.

“A bugle sounded just now, sir, away in the bush, down yonder to the west,” said one of his officers. “The Maoris say it must be Te Kooti's bugler.”

“Silence, everyone!” shouted St. John. “Bugler, sound the Officers' Call.”

Every man, pakeha and Maori, was as quiet as death; one might have thought the redoubt bare of life instead of sheltering four hundred men within its walls. The young bugler put his instrument to his lips, then there pealed through the gloom over valley and river and forest the high, clear notes of the martial call. The wild music rang from hill to hill, thrown back from the high ridges of the Ruatahuna, and died in a whisper of melody far up in the mountain gulches.

The camp waited eagerly, scarcely daring to breathe. Was it, indeed, Te Kooti's dreaded reinforcements, with his savage lieutenant, Eru Peka (who used a bugle captured at the Chatham Islands)? Or was it Whitmore and his column from the plains, with ammunition?

A minute passed—two minutes. Then came from the dark valley of the Upper Whakatane, in the west, piping clear, the answering sound of a bugle—the Officers' Call again.

“It's Whitmore all right!” said St. John to his group of officers. “Te Kooti's bugler would scarcely know that call!”

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And it was Whitmore. Half an hour later he and his advance party came tramping into camp, led by a captured Maori whom the staff had induced, with a little forcible argument, to guide them to Orangikawa. The bugle was blown again as they crossed the creek below the pa. A great cheer went up from the whole force when the hard-fighting little colonel entered the redoubt. He shook hands heartily with St. John.

“Good work, St. John!” he said. “I knew you'd do it! I'd have been here myself this morning but we had a skirmish across the range yesterday and that delayed us.”

“We've had our share, sir,” said St. John. “Our fellows did splendidly, but we lost poor Travers and White and three men. I was getting anxious. We're very short of ammunition; in fact, some of the men hadn't a round left when we rushed the pa.

“That's all right, St. John, we've plenty. I'll have the column up in the morning.”

Whitmore had left his main body under Major Roberts in bivouac on the other side of the Whakatane River, and he had hurried on through the dark, determined to keep his promise to meet St. John's force that day at Ruatahuna. That afternoon from the lofty ridge of Tahuaroa, which rises like a green wall above the Upper Whakatane, he had seen through his field-glasses many figures moving about Ruatahuna, and he concluded correctly that the left wing had reached its destination. Good work indeed, that junction on the appointed day of two columns each fighting its independent way through the arduous ranges of an unknown country.