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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Bugler of Boulcott's Farm

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The Bugler of Boulcott's Farm

THE fog of early morning enveloped the bush and the rough farm clearings along the banks of the Hutt River, which the Maoris called the Heretaunga. Dimly revealed through the slowly rising mists were the tents and buildings of a military camp, on a pioneer settler's section hemmed in by the tall gloomy forest. The clearing was on the left, or east, bank of the river; on the opposite side were the wooded steep hills in which the Maoris had camped, awaiting an opportunity of delivering a blow at the white troops. A rough and narrow road wound through the bush to the camp from the Lower Hutt bridge and the stockade, called Fort Richmond, two miles away.

The farm was the homestead of Mr. James Boulcott, in whose house and barn and in various small buildings and tents a detachment of the 58th Regiment was stationed, under Lieutenant Page. It was an outpost of the British forces in the little war waged for the possession of the Hutt Valley. There were forty-two soldiers. One of the number was a young private named William Allen. He was bugler to his company. His name will be remembered as long as the story of the wars between Maori and Pakeha is told.

It was the morning of May 16th, 1846. A sentry paced his beat, in front of the inlying picket's tent near the low banks of the river. He shivered at the chilly touch of the hour that precedes daybreak. As he turned, with musket and fixed bayonet at the slope, his glance fell upon some low bushes seen dimly through the curling mist. They seemed nearer, he thought, than page 41 they had been a few moments before. Next instant he caught a glimpse of a shaggy black head and a gunbarrel above one of those bushes. The Maoris were creeping up on the camp with bushes and branches held before them as screens.

“Maoris!” the sentry shouted, and he levelled his Brown Bess musket and fired. He snatched another cartridge from his pouch and ran to the picket tent, trying to reload as he ran, but he was overtaken and tomahawked.

A volley was delivered from fifty Maori guns. The assailants fired low, to rake the floor of the tent. A second volley, then on came the Maoris with the tomahawk. At the first shot Bugler Allen leaped up from his blanket. He was not a boy of thirteen or fourteen, as some writers have stated. He was about twenty years of age, a tall, well-drilled young soldier. He seized his bugle, and, rushing out of the tent, he put it to his lips to blow the alarm. In the act of sounding the call, he was attacked by a Maori, who leaped at him like a demon, tomahawk in hand. The sharp blade sank into his right shoulder, nearly severing his arm. The shock felled him to the ground.

Struggling to rise, the brave young fellow seized the bugle in his left hand and again attempted to blow the call, but a second terrible blow fell, cutting deeply into his neck. It silenced him for ever.

The heroic bugler's alarm, however, was not needed, for the sentry's shot and the answering volleys had aroused the camp. Not a soldier of the picket escaped. Those who were not killed by the first two volleys fell to the tomahawk.

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The garrison of Boulcott's, reduced to fewer than forty men, so rudely roused from sleep, was now fighting desperately against about two hundred well-skilled warriors, Te Rangihaeata's savage band and Te Mamaku's men from the Upper Wanganui.

The British commander, Lieutenant Page, rushed out of the farm-house, on the first alarm, with his sword and loaded pistol. He and a few others fought their way to the large barn, where most of the soldiers were quartered.

The place had been surrounded with a light stockade of posts and slabs. (This was strengthened after the battle, as shown in Lieutenant Page's drawing of the palisaded position.) The Maoris had calculated on completely surprising and slaughtering the troops, but what they did not accurately estimate was the steadiness of disciplined Regular soldiers.

Page, having hacked and shot his way to the shelter of the fence, assembled his men and, leaving a small party to hold the fort, came out into the open again and boldly attacked his foe. Extending the men in skirmishing order, with fixed bayonets, he advanced. In the height of the battle a party of seven of the Hutt Militia came gallantly to the assistance of the hard-pressed redcoats and fought side by side with them. Their arrival was the turning point in the fight. Other reinforcements arrived; the rebels fell back, and at last were driven across the Hutt River, after an engagement lasting about an hour and a half. They formed up on the bank and danced a war-dance of triumph, and one of them blew discordant calls on the bugle which he had captured page 43 when young Allen fell. Then they disappeared into the woods that clothed the western hills.

Six soldiers lay dead when the fight was over, and four were severely wounded; one of these, Sergeant Ingram, died from his wounds. A farm labourer employed by Mr. Boulcott was also mortally wounded; so the total death roll was eight. The losses of the Maori war party were never accurately known, for all their dead and wounded were carried off the field, as was the usual way in native warfare wherever possible.

The bugler was not the only youthful hero of that morning in the bush. Soon after daylight John Cudby, a lad of seventeen, who was engaged in carting commissariat from Wellington to the troops at the farm, harnessed up in the yard of the “Aglionby Arms,” Burcham's Hotel, near Fort Richmond and the Hutt Bridge, and drove out for the front, unaware of the fight which was just ending two miles away. Cudby had previously had the protection of an escort of fifteen men under a non-commissioned officer, but, to use his own words, “the poor fellows at the stockade were worked to death, and so I said I'd do without them in the future.” His sole companion henceforth was a clerk, the military issuer. A double-barrel gun, loaded with slugs, was carried in the two-horse cart. The driver and his companion were in the middle of the bush, jolting over the boggy, corduroy patches of road overarched by the branches in places, when they were met by two men in a cart driving furiously toward the bridge stockade. One of them—Johnny Martin, who afterwards was a wealthy settler and a member of the Legislature—shouted excitedly to Cudby:

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“Be Jasus, boy, go back, go back! The Maoris have attacked the camp!”

But Cudby did not turn his team. “I dursen't go back,” he cried in his broad English tongue. “I dursen't go back! I've got the rations to deliver!”

The carters whipped up their horse and pounded on, while Cudby, fearing every moment a volley from the dark forest that walled him in, but resolved to carry out his duty, drove along to Boulcott's. When he reached the camp the Maoris had been driven across the river and the fight was over, but that did not diminish the merit of his share in the morning's work.

That scene of bloodshed and of gallant deeds, in Wellington City's infancy, is now completely transformed. The olden battleground is now the golfers' links; a golfclub house stands near the site of Boulcott's farmhouse, but the repeated changes of the river's course have altered the original contour of the country.

A stone memorial stands on the side of the main Hutt road, at the corner of the road leading to the storied field, and inscriptions on tablets tell the wayfarer of the battle of Boulcott's Farm stockade. As for William Allen's bugle, it was recovered before many weeks had passed. When the British troops were advancing up the Horokiwi Valley, after the Maoris had been driven northward, it was found in a thatched hut in an abandoned camp, where the main road from Wellington begins the ascent to Paekakariki hill. It was returned to the 58th, a relic sacred to the memory of a soldier's devotion to duty.