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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Storming Party at Ohaeawai

page 31

The Storming Party at Ohaeawai.

“The siege it has lasted long enough,
And a breach it has been made,
And this night we must take the town
By assault or escalade.

Brave boys, by assault or escalade.
Our gen'ral he must have the place
Before to-morrow's dawn;
And our captain dear does volunteer
To lead the hope forlorn,
Brave boys, to lead the hope forlorn.

ALONGSIDE the main road from Kaikohe township to Ohaeawai and the Hokianga head-waters, in North Auckland, is the puriri-dotted battlefield where Colonel Despard and six hundred British soldiers met the warriors of the Ngapuhi tribe in a memorable test of arms which seems a chivalrous tournament by comparison with the horrors of modern warfare. This scene of peace and beauty, five miles from Kaikohe, in the heart of the North, was the site of Péné Taui's great palisaded fort in 1845, when the troops, under instructions from Governor Fitzroy, marched inland from the Bay of Islands to attack Hone Heke and the old warrior Kawiti and their followers, who had captured and burned Kororareka town and later fought the soldiers at Lake Omapere.

On June 24th, 1845, Despard, after reconnoitring the Maoris' position, prepared for a regular siege and opened fire with his four small cannon. Ohaeawai page 32 stockade consisted of a tall and strong double line of heavy puriri timbers; in some parts there were three rows of timber, and there was a trench inside from which the defenders fired through apertures on the ground level. The outer wall, ten to fifteen feet high, was masked with a padding of green flax leaves, which deadened the impact of bullets. The Maoris had some artillery, too—four old ship's guns gathered from one quarter and another; the largest were two 9-pounders. These were mounted in bastions and angles; one was loaded with a long bullock-chain of iron.

The garrison numbered considerably fewer than the British force, probably not quite half. Hone Heke, who had been wounded in the previous fighting at Omapere, was not in the pa; he had been carried to a safe place of retreat, at Tautoro, in rear of Kaikohe, until he recovered.

A third of a mile from the pa on the north-west side was a wooded hill, Puketapu, on which Despard planted two of the small guns, and later a fifth piece, a 32-pounder gun from the frigate Hazard, lying in the Bay of Islands. This gun opened fire on the stockade on the morning of July 1st. The British guns made little impression on the strong stockade; what little damage was suffered by the flax-masked timbers was repaired by the garrison each night.

Soon after the 32-pounder opened fire there was a daring sortie from the pa, which resulted in the capture of a British flag from Despard's Maori allies on Puketapu hill. Colonel Despard, greatly irritated by this incident, resolved to storm the stronghold. Protests page 33 were made by the sage old warrior Tamati Waka Nene, that staunch friend of the English, and by a naval officer (Lieut. Phillpotts) and two free-lance allies, John Webster and F. E. Maning, afterwards Judge and author of “Old New Zealand.” But to no purpose. The stubborn colonel was determined to launch a frontal attack. He ordered a storming party to parade, on the afternoon of that day, July 1st.

At three o'clock the bugles sounded the assembly. Volunteers were called upon for the forlorn hope, the party which was to lead the attack on the stockade. The whole of the men of the 58th Regiment—the famous old “Black Cuffs”—stepped forward. So did the men of the 99th Regiment. A selection was then made by ordering the right-hand men, front and rear rank, of each section to the front. When the various parties were chosen and formed up, the forlorn hope was composed of twenty-two men under Lieut. Beattie (99th) with two assaulting columns under Major McPherson (99th), Major Cyprian Bridge (58th), and Captain Grant, with some Hazard seamen and Auckland militia Pioneers. The whole numbered about 250 officers and men.

The storming parties stood ready in their places, while the guns in rear of them threw solid shot and some shells into the stockade. The lines of bayonets glinted in the occasional 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. Many a uniform was torn and roughly patched; some of the men were barefooted, some had their battered boots tied on their feet with strips of page 34 flax-leaves, for the campaign had been rough and hard. The men wore their full packs, even for that duty, like King George the Third's troops in the first assault on Bunker's Hill.

A nerve-trying half-hour of standing-to, then out blared the bugle, the “Advance.” There was a quick fire of orders from the commanders of columns—“Prepare to Charge,” “Charge,” and with a cheer the advance party dashed up the fern slope towards the north-west angle of the pa. Major McPherson's column quickly followed; then up came Major Bridge's bearded campaigners. As the stormers neared the great war-fence the Maoris fired those of their guns which bore on them. The piece loaded with a bullock-chain was fired when the troops were close up to the bastion. The chain flew through the air like a fiery serpent, and killed or wounded several men.

“We were in close order, elbows touching when we crooked them,” said the last surviving veteran of the stormers, a fine old Irish soldier, Lieut. W. H. Free, of New Plymouth, in describing to me (in the last year of his life, 1919) that charge up the bullet-swept glacis of Ohaeawai. “I was a corporal in the 58th under Major Bridge. We were in four ranks, the first two ranks with their fixed bayonets at the charge, the third and fourth ranks with bayonets at the slope. Nothing was explained to us before we advanced. We just brought our bayonets to the charge when we got the order and went at it hell-for-leather. We were within a hundred yards of the pa when the advance began. When we got to within about fifty paces of the pa we page 35 gave a great ‘Hurrah!’ and went at it with a rush, our best speed and divil take the hindmost.

“The whole front of the stockade flashed fire, from the loopholes, and in a moment we were in the hopeless fight—gun flashes from the foot of the palisade and from loopholes higher up,—yells and cheers and curses and men falling all around. The forlorn hope just ahead of us were nearly all down. Not a single Maori could we see. They were all safe in their trenches and pits, poking the muzzles of their guns under the foot of the outer palisade. We tore at their fence with bayonets and hands, but it was hopeless. 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. We were in front of the stockade 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 in which we formed up was only five to seven minutes. In that brief time we had nearly forty men killed and seventy wounded, some mortally. In our Light Company alone in the 58th 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 shot 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. I picked up another wounded mate and carried him out safely. Our Captain, W. E. Grant, an officer for whom all of us had a great liking, was shot dead close to the stockade. Lieutenant Beattie, who led the forlorn hope, was mortally wounded. That plucky young naval officer, Lieutenant Phillpotts, whom the Maoris called ‘Topi,’ was shot while page 36 climbing the outer palisade. Big Major McPherson was wounded. We had one-third of our troops engaged laid out by the Maori fire that day.”

Such was the last “Black Cuff's” narrative of his share in that tragic afternoon's work. Another veteran, a warrior on the opposite side, the last survivor of the defenders of Ohaeawai, old Rihara Kou, of Ngapuhi, described the repulse from the Maori side when I talked with him at Kaikohe in 1919. He was a young boy in the pa at the time, using a musket for the first time in battle. “The soldiers fell on this side and on that,” the crippled whitebeard said, with an expressive gesture of his hands. “They fell right and left before our fire, like that, like so many sticks thrown down.”

That sorrowful failure was redeemed by many deeds of gallantry and devotion. Several men returned repeatedly through the fire to carry wounded comrades off. One private of the 58th rescued in this way at least five men of his own regiment and the 99th.

That charge against the palisades of Ohaeawai was as rash and useless and as desperately brave as the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Ohaeawai was a bitter lesson in the folly of charging blindly at the front of a position of unknown strength. British commanders were stubborn and slow to learn, impatient of advice. But, while it failed, the Maoris who repulsed that forlorn hope knew that the men who rushed with a front of steel against the stockade must be victors in the end. Tragic as it was, that encounter taught both sides something. The British troops henceforth had more respect for the tattooed Maoris' fighting capacity and military page 37 engineering; and the Maori was filled with amazement and admiration for the splendid valour of his antagonist.

∗ ∗ ∗

Now a Maori church and burying ground, surrounded by a high lava-stone wall, occupy the site of that stockade. Within the churchyard walls lie the bones of forty British soldiers who fell in the battle. Above them stands a Celtic cross, with an inscription in Maori. Governor Sir George Bowen, in a dispatch in 1870 to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, mentioned a visit he had recently made to Ohaeawai, and said that the Maoris there had just erected a pretty church on the site of the fortifications of Heke's war, “among the now decayed palisades and rifle pits,” and that they had reserved the whole of the pa as a burying ground. “When the Bishop of Auckland,” the Governor continued, “shall have consecrated this new burial ground the Maoris intend to remove into it the remains of our soldiers who now lie in unmarked graves in the neighbouring forest, and to erect a monument over them, so that, as an aged chief, formerly conspicuous among our enemies, said to me, ‘The brave warriors of both races, the white skin and the brown, now that all strife between them is forgotten, may sleep side by side until the end of the world.’

“I question,” the Governor said, “if there be a more touching episode in the annals of the warfare of even civilised nations in either ancient or modern times.”