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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Last of the Scouts — Tales of the Guides and Forest Rangers

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The Last of the Scouts
Tales of the Guides and Forest Rangers

THE adventurous conditions of life in early Colonial days produced two kinds of frontiersmen. There were the rough unlettered bush-fighters and scouts and borderers, many of whom lived semi-Maori lives and married native wives. There were men of gifts and culture who made capable leaders, who became perfect in their knowledge of forest warfare, and who in days of peace held official positions in the service of their country.

There were many of the former class who could be cited, hard plucky fellows who fought in the Maori way and whose wives sometimes followed them on the war-path, fit mates for their tough bushranger-like pakehas. Most of these men were colonial-born and used to rough conditions of living from their youth. Their officers were such men as Roberts, the Mair brothers, McDonnell, Northcroft, Gascoyne, Preece, Jackson, Messenger, Gudgeon, Harry Atkinson—they were some of the natural leaders who emerged from the ranks of the settlers, with here and there a surveyor and a sailor. Some came from military families; most were farmers and many of them New Zealand-born. When the gunpowder smoke cleared away from the outer lands they served their country well in the cause of peaceful settlement.

These men have all gone; the conditions of life that produced them have vanished before the now levelled out and standardised New Zealander. Their like can page 222 never be seen again, those old pakeha-Maori bushmen scouts so distinctive of the breaking-in age of the Colony. Like the vanishing birds, their life was bound up with wild forest life. Their highest development was attained through grim necessity in the frontier warfare of the ’Sixties and early ’Seventies, in bush chases, scouting expeditions, ambuscades, often lone-handed adventures, not surpassed in peril even by the episodes of the Indian border warfare in America.

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The last survivor of the old bushman-scout type was also the last survivor of the gallant little band who wore the New Zealand Cross. This decoration, the rarest of all military honours in the British Empire, was awarded to only twenty-three officers and men, and Benjamin Biddle, pakeha-Maori, was the last to go. He died in the home of his half-caste Maori family at Kopeopeo, Whakatane, in 1933. When I last talked with him there, in 1921, he lay disabled by an accident to his legs on Whakatane Wharf, but he was a cheery soul, always ready to recall the old forest days and to narrate his Hauhau-chasing days and long hard marches through the unroaded forests and mountains.

Ben Biddle was as clear-cut a character as any Leatherstocking or Quartermain of fiction. He was an Aucklander-born, the son of an old British regular soldier. He was short and stocky, very thick through the chest and shoulders, and with his jolly ruddy face and hearty downright manner, a voice fit for a deep-sea bo's'n in a gale, he reminded me of Edward Jerningham Wakefield's description of Richard Barrett, the whaler, a celebrated figure in early New Zealand page 223 history. In his crippled old age he was cheered now and again by a visit from some old friend of his bush-scouting, bush-clearing, bullocking days when one could march all day with a seventy-pound swag, camp anywhere, and be up in an instant for a skirmish with Te Kooti's or Kereopa's men.

He made a name in the Hauhau wars for his enterprise and disregard of danger. He was sometimes in trouble with military officers who had incurred his contempt by their ignorance of bush warfare or their excessive caution, but when men were needed for the fighting line the call was always for Biddle and men of his kind. In his youth he was a sailor on the coast, and he served in Captain Jones' cutters trading to the Bay of Plenty, often taking wheat to Auckland from Uretara Island, in Ohiwa Harbour, and other places along the coast. Before the war, too, he was on a Hawke's Bay station breaking in horses, with Tom MacDonnell, afterwards lieutenant-colonel in the New Zealand Forces. He was a true type of the pakeha-Maori. His wife was a native of Whakatane, and she sometimes accompanied him on the war-path.

To his abilities as tracker and scout, and his capacity for hard marching in rough bush country with a heavy swag of ammunition and provisions, Biddle added exceptional skill with rifle and revolver. He was considered the best revolver shot in the Armed Constabulary at the end of the ’Sixties. With his six-shooter he could split a thin stick set in the ground twenty-five paces away, just raising his revolver easily and scarcely pausing to take aim. On the warpath he carried two revolvers, and always had a tomahawk in his belt.

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Our old warrior served on both the East and West Coasts in the campaigns of 1868–70. At the siege of the hill-fort Ngatapa, in the Poverty Bay hinterland, in 1869, Major Ropata and Biddle were the first two men into the Hauhaus' outwork. For their plucky deeds in this siege both received the New Zealand Cross. Biddle's most conspicuously gallant work was holding a narrow ridge in the rear of the skytop fortress, thus preventing the Hauhaus' escape. In this greatly difficult and perilous duty he had one comrade, Solomon Black; he, too, received the New Zealand Cross.

Biddle was a member of Colonel Lambert's force despatched to Mohaka, Hawke's Bay, immediately after the massacre there by Te Kooti in 1869. Colonel Lambert was extraordinarily cautious; he declined to attack Te Kooti, although Biddle, on a lone scout, discovered that the Hauhaus were only a few miles away, at Arakanihi. They were enjoying the liquor looted from the two hotels at Mohaka, and in their drunken condition could have been cut up had a vigorous attack been made. Ben went out again, alone, and at Te Putere, near Lake Waikaremoana, he found the enclosure where the raiders kept about a hundred horses looted from Mohaka. He broke open the fence to let the stolen horses out and nearly all of them returned to Mohaka. Still the Colonel waved off Biddle's report and his advice to attack, and the disgusted scout gave up the endeavour. The only method of “squaring the yards,” as he expressed it sailor-fashion, with the cautious officer, came after the war, when he named his most troublesome working-bullock “Lambert,” in disrespectful memory.

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Long after the wars, when Biddle was squatting in one of the Urewera villages at Ruatoki—his wife was partly Urewera—some disagreement arose with the tribe. His Maori neighbours threatened to send him out of the place and put him across the confiscation boundary line which divided the Maori land from the European-owned Opouriao run. A meeting was held, and six strong young Maoris were told off to remove him. Ben was forewarned, and when the eviction party entered the garden plot in front of his whare and marched toward him, he went out to meet them with his loaded revolver in his hand.

“What do you want here?” he asked sternly.

“We have come to shift you, Ben,” the leader of the party replied.

Ben levelled his old six-shooter and roared: “Haere atu! Get out, or I'll shoot!”

It was enough. “They could not get out of Ben's garden quick enough,” said a neighbour of the old scout.

The veteran was not molested again. He was not a man to be bullied. But he presently left Ruatoki, and lived with his half-caste family at Kopeopeo until his death at ninety.

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There were three stalwart brothers who joined the Wanganui Cavalry Volunteers in 1865, three young frontier giants, all well over six feet in height, big-framed, erect as a pine-tree of their native forests; men of bush-bred strength and hardihood. All three of them were good horsemen and were equally capable on the march in the bush, carrying heavy swags, and often going barefoot on long forest expeditions in the fighting page 226 days. Tom Adamson, N.Z.C., was the eldest, then came W. B. Adamson (“Big Bill”) and Stephen Adamson. Steve was the youngest brother; he was one-armed. He lost his right arm by an accident in a threshing machine when he was a youth, nevertheless he served as a scout and cavalryman through the Hauhau wars. He was a tall and spare man, square-shouldered like his brother William. Thorough scouts and bushmen those brothers—straight-dealing, straight-spoken, hard-handed, tough colonials, a type of native-born fitted for the downright work of the frontier in the Hauhau wars.

Tom Adamson won the New Zealand Cross for his daring scouting work in the bush between the Waitotara and the back country of Wairoa (now Waverley), in 1869. His comrade in that mission of peril, in search of Titokowaru and his Hauhaus who had evacuated Tauranga-ika Pa, was Christopher Maling, afterwards Captain Maling. This well-tried scout was Nelson-born; he was the son of a pioneer surveyor who was killed in the Wairau massacre in 1843. There was a good deal of Captain Mayne Reid's romantic riflemen of the Indian war-trail in Tom Adamson's character. He was a rough-and-ready direct-action frontiersman, who would have made an excellent Highland fighting chieftain of the claymore days, or a doughty battleaxewielder; or, to take another sphere, a successful privateer captain. But his lot set him in the Maori bush, and there he made some history after his fashion. Stories were told by the old hands of ‘Tom Adamson's “short way with dissenters,” particularly those of the Hauhau faith. There were many rough-cut white adventurers on page 227 the West Coast frontier, and of these plucky foreloopers of the settler and the surveyor and road-maker Adamson stood foremost.

Physically, Tom Adamson suited well the wild, rough part he often played in the bush. He was as straight and hard as a lancewood of his own native forests, and extremely powerful. In the bush and on the march he dressed like his companions the Maoris. He very seldom wore boots in the field, and he was almost as barbaric a figure as any Maori warrior, with his rapaki or waist shawl in place of trousers, his big sheath-knife, his tomahawk stuck through his belt, and a flax kit containing his rations and Maori loot strapped across his shoulders with green flax leaves. Carbine in hand, carried easily at the trail but ready for instant use, sharp eyes searching every thicket, and ears alert to the slightest suspicious sound that might indicate ambush by the trackside, big bare feet hard as nails, padding noiselessly as a wild cat's on the ground—that was Tom Adamson, bushman-scout, on the warpath. In the West Coast campaigns he marched often with the Wanganui Maori Contingent. He was Major Kepa's pakeha-Maori; he had married into the tribe.

Big Bill Adamson was a bullock-team driver in the transport corps of General Cameron's West Coast army in 1864. He was then a lad of sixteen. He was in that lively affair at Nukumaru, when the Maoris rushed the British camp in broad daylight. He used to narrate that as he was an unarmed transport-driver, he thought the best place for him was in his cart, so he jumped into it and lay down while the bullets zipped all about. After that march up the coast, in which Cameron kept well page 228 clear of the bush, he enlisted in the Wanganui Cavalry and saw some hard service under General Chute and the Colonial officers.

But the youngest brother of the three Adamsons was the stalwart frontiersman I admired most. Like his brothers he was living a hard, strenuous life at an age when most lads are at school or college. He served under Chute and Whitmore, and he carried carbine and tomahawk with his brother Tom in the great bush chase of Titokowaru's desperate men after the fighting on the Patea River in 1869. After the Taranaki campaign he went North with Whitmore's Constabulary for the East Coast and the Urewera campaign. Many a talk I had with lean, rather grim-visaged old Steve about that mountain and forest expedition. He was then one of Whitmore's Corps of Guides. “In that Urewera march through the ranges from Fort Galatea,” he said, “I marched barefooted like my brother Tom. I went right through the expedition in a blue jumper and a pair of trousers cut short to the knees—that was all the uniform I needed, though it was winter time. Each of us was armed with a carbine and two revolvers. Although I had only one whole arm, I could use this carbine quite well with my left arm; I contrived to hold and level it with the help of the stump of my right. There were thirteen of us in the little Corps of Guides, or Scouts, marching usually a long way in advance of the column. Captain Swindley (Whitmore's A.D.C.) was in command, and my brother Tom was next in authority. Christopher Maling was with us. There were two foreigners in the corps, who were, I think, countrymen of Major Von Tempsky; there was also Percy Bayley, page 229 from Taranaki, and a big Scotchman, and another big man, Bill Ryan. Our Maori scout, Hemi te Waka, usually called “Taranaki Jim” or “Big Jim,” was a fine fellow—a tall athletic, curly-headed man who wore a 43rd Regiment cap. He lost the number of his mess in an ambuscade, the affair at Ngaputahi, after we had taken Harema Stockade. He fell to a volley from the bush just as he had stooped to examine the prints of bare feet at a little stream that crossed our trail and had pointed them out to Captain Swindley. Big Bill Ryan was wounded, so was my brother Tom. We had a lively few minutes of it, Maori guns banging and our carbines cracking and revolvers popping. We buried Big Jim close to where he fell, and we made a fire over his grave when we camped there, so that the enemy would not discover our comrade and dig his body up. Jim had been a Kingite in Taranaki, and had turned to the Government side; he served the Imperial troops well as guide on the Waitara. He had two wives, who remained behind at Galatea. Both of them were called Martha. After he was killed at the Ngaputahi ambuscade I took his presentation revolver—it had been given to him by the officers of the 43rd in Taranaki—back to his widows, and there was a sorrowful tangi. Hemi had had a presentiment of his approaching fate, and had asked me to take his revolver back to his wahines.”

The unlucky thirteen scouts having been reduced in numbers by the Hauhau bullets at Ngaputahi—the wounded were sent out to Galatea—Steve scouted on barefoot with his comrades in advance of Whitmore's column to Ruatahuna. After all the skirmishing and the long, hard marching, the brothers met again out at page 230 the base on the plains. Before long they landed from a Government steamer at Napier, and there each of them drew over £90 in pay. The wage of a Scout was ten shillings a day. Now, being in civilised parts again, they put boots on their feet for the first time for months and set out for their mother's home. They tramped all the way from Napier to Wanganui, by way of Rangitikei. The hardy old-timers!

Steve Adamson's service in that Urewera campaign was indeed a wonderful feat of hardihood and endurance. And the tough old son of the bush died with his boots on, at the age of eighty. His end came suddenly in 1932 while he was sitting watching a football match in Auckland; a cheerful old sportsman to the last.

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There were the Forest Rangers, whose very name carries a flavour of adventure in the Dangerous Lands, suggests tales of scouting and skirmish and ambuscade, and bush marching and camping in wary silence. There were several corps of Rangers in this period 1860–70. The first were picked men of the Taranaki Rifles, whom Atkinson and Messenger led on many a scouting and fighting excursion in the rear of New Plymouth town. Later on in Taranaki there were the Patea Rangers, and there were corps of Bush Rangers on guard in North Taranaki. But the most celebrated of all were the companies of Jackson's and Von Tempsky's Forest Rangers in the Waikato War. Fortunate were the recruits of 1863 who were found fit for the rough service of the Rangers. They escaped the routine and fatigue duty, redoubt-building and convoy work on the Great South Road that fell to the Colonial Militia, the page 231 half-a-crown-a-day men. They had a free-roving commission; they were the eyes of the army; there was no bother with drill once they had learned their work; they were armed with better and handier weapons than either the Militia or the Imperial soldiers, and their pay was higher than that of any British or Colonial corps in the field. Moreover, there was a double ration of rum for the Ranger on the warpath—and it was needed.

Service in the Forest Rangers was the ideal kind of campaigning for the young adventurer, but not every man fitted the job. The process of selection was severe and effective, and in practice it was found that the town-bred man was more at home in the sentry-go and tent life of the Militia. The Rangers did not trouble about tents, except when they rigged up their blue blankets against rain; a bundle of fern was their bed and the forest foliage was their roof. Young colonial farmer-bushmen, gold-diggers, and sailors were the best material for the force. They had learned to look after themselves, to carry heavy loads, and to act swiftly in emergencies. When the Waikato War ended many of the men settled down to pioneer farming, but for others the warpath had attractions irresistible, and long after Waiari and Orakau the veterans strapped on their fighting equipment again and followed “old Von” to Wanganui and Taranaki to do battle against the Hauhaus. And when Von Tempsky fell to a Hauhau bullet before the palisades of Te Ngutu-o-te-manu and the Government force drew off from that death-trap it was a young officer who had been his subaltern in 1863–64, J. M. Roberts, later Colonel, and holder of the New page 232 Zealand Cross for valour (he died in 1928, last officer of the Rangers), who kept his head and competently extracted the rearguard, carrying many wounded, from the forest of death. He had learned his work well in Von Tempsky's practical school on many a scout and in many a skirmish in a country where the name of the Forest Rangers is already the dimmest of legends, so quickly has the work of nation-making marched in New Zealand.

A bowie-knife, made on the pattern of the famous American blade named after Colonel Bowie, of Arkansas, was part of the fighting equipment of Von Tempsky's Company (No. 2) of Forest Rangers, formed towards the end of 1863. Like the first bowie-knives made in America a century ago, Von Tempsky's weapons were the handiwork of a blacksmith.

The inventor was James Black, a blacksmith, gunsmith and cutler in the frontier town of Washington, Arkansas; he made a specially effective fighting-knife for Colonel Bowie, who shortly afterwards killed three desperadoes with it. Black's model which thus won celebrity, was thenceforth in great demand along the border. One of my old-soldier acquaintances long ago in the Waikato had been a corporal in the Forest Rangers. He had a farm near Te Awamutu. Customarily, out on the farm and in the bush, he wore a sheath-knife on his belt. The knife was a veteran like himself. It had been nine or ten inches long of blade, but the point had been broken off. and he had reground and pointed it; even then it was like “a young bayonet,” as he described it. He told me its story.

“That's one of old Von's bowie-knives,” he said. page 233 “He had a lot made at a blacksmith's in Auckland when the Forest Rangers were divided into two companies and he had command of one. I was in Capt. Jackson's Company, and he did not care for the knife; nevertheless two or three of us wore it. You know, old Von was a terror with the bowie-knife. He had learned to use it in Mexico and Central America. Certainly it came in handy in the bush, and as we had no bayonets it was comforting to know you had a sticker on your hip for a scrimmage. I've had that knife more than thirty years. See how it's worn down. I've used it for all sorts of jobs, hacking bush tracks, pig-sticking, butchering bullocks and sheep, cutting up my tobacco and often enough my loaf of bread. It'll last my day, my boy!”

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The Patea Rangers, young adventurers who settled on their miltary-grant farms after the wars, were a hard-faring corps of good bushmen and carbineers. They were about fifty strong, and only the best of guerilla fighters could last long in that little company of stalwarts. They fought in Taranaki, and at Pipiriki up the Wanganui River, and they were the first of the Government expeditionary force to land at Opotiki after the murder of Volkner and Fulloon. For a year they garrisoned Opotiki and made many bush expeditions in search of the ruffian Kereopa. That elusive cannibal warrior Tamaikowha kept them busy on the bush-edge. They prided themselves on their efficiency and on their constant readiness for emergencies. Whenever the call came, “Turn out, Rangers!” they were at the rallying point in a few moments, belted and armed. They did not wait to fall in in parade order when an alarm was given. page 234 As soon as the officer in command had a few men round him he dashed off, leaving a man to give the others the direction taken. Casualties were many, but places were quickly filled.

One of the last of these Rangers, Richard Foreman, of Hawera, told me that the Rangers often went barefooted in camp, saving their boots for rough work in the bush. On a certain famous occasion, when Colonel Haultain, the Defence Minister, brought Mrs. Haultain with him to Opotiki on a visit of inspection, the Rangers who supplied the main guard at the commissariat store and redoubt (Volkner's historic church) turned out in waist-shawls and barefooted, as was their camp fashion. The much-shocked Mrs. Haultain, addressing young Foreman, who was the right-hand man of the squad which presented arms, asked:

“Young man, why do you turn out in such a dress as this?”

“Because it's the only one we've got, Madam,” replied the Ranger.

“Do you mean to say you haven't anything else? Have you no boots?”

“Some of us have,” said Foreman, “but we keep them for rough country.”

The indignant lady thereupon demanded of her husband that the destitute Rangers should immediately be supplied with proper uniforms, and as Foreman remembered, a supply, which included trousers, presently was shipped to Opotiki. The patient Colonel probably did not venture to inform his wife that the Rangers preferred their bush-ranging costume, and would not wear trousers if they had them—on active service at any rate.

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Such rough-faring, hardy, efficient fellows were the salt of the Colonial forces. The Rangers learned to fight the shaggy, tattooed bushmen in the Maori way, and they brought to their skirmishing a fearlessness blended with caution that made them the perfect forest soldiers. They are all gone; they are but a name. Yet those corps names should not be forgotten; they embody a peculiarly heroic phase of our nation-making. One of their basic principles of forest fighting should, too, be remembered; it may be given a new “forest-conscious” application to fit the changed times. “We learned early in our service,” said a veteran officer of Rangers, “to look on a tree as a friend. If a tree sheltered an enemy it could shelter a Ranger too.”