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The Adventures of Kimble Bent

Chapter XII — The Attack on Turuturu-Mokai Redoubt

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Chapter XII
The Attack on Turuturu-Mokai Redoubt

Hauwhenua's war-party—A night march—Attack on Turuturu-Mokai Redoubt—A heroic defence—The heart of the captain—Touch-and-go—Relief at last.

One biting cold evening in July, 1868, the whole population of the “Bird's-Beak” pa gathered on the marae to watch the departure of a fighting-column launched by Titokowaru against the whites. It was a night fitter for the snug wharé than for the war-path, but the omens were propitious for the expedition, and the war-god's sacred breeze, the whakarua, breathed of Uenuku, blew across the forest.

The sixty warriors of the Tekau-ma-rua took the trail with the lilt of the dance-girls' poi-chant in their ears, and the war-choruses yelled by their comrades in the village gritted their battle-spirit. They were fittingly and thickly tapu'd for the night's work, karakia'd over with many hardening and bullet-averting karakias, and thoroughly Hauhau-bedevilled for the fight.

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Some of the warriors, belted and painted, carried long Enfield muzzle-loaders, some double-barrelled guns, some stolen or captured carbines, and a variety of other fire-arms. Each rifleman's equipment included a short tomahawk thrust through his flax girdle; a few—the storming-party—were armed with long-handled tomahawks, murderously effective weapons in a hand-to-hand combat. Though a winter's night, most of them were scantily clad, as befitted a war-party. Some wore shirts and other part-European dress; some only flax mats and waist-shawls.

Up and down the village square, as the Hauhau captain, Hauwhenua, led his band out into the forest, strode Titokowaru, in a blaze of fanatic exaltation, crying his commands to the warriors. Waving his plumed taiaha, he shouted, “Kill them! Eat them! Let them not escape you!” And as they disappeared in the darkness he returned to his place in the great council-house, where on his sacred mat he spent the night in commune with his ancestral spirits and in reciting incantations for the success of his men-at-arms.

In single file the Hauhau soldiers struck into the black woods. As they entered the deeper thicknesses of the forest, where not a star could be seen for the density and unbroken continuity of the roof of foliage above them, they chanted this brief karakia, a charm invoking supernatural aid to clear page 121 their forest-path of obstructions and smooth their way:

Wahi taratara e—i,
Me tuku ki te Ariki
Kia taoro atu e—i,
Nga pukepuke i noa.

Away through the bush they tramped, lightening the march with Hauhau chants, until their objective was neared—the little redoubt of Turuturu-Mokai.

One word of warning Titokowaru had given the Tekau-ma-rua when he chose them for this expedition. Kimble Bent, squatting with his fellows in the big house, had watched the divination-by-taiaha and the demon-like red tongue of the high priest's sacred weapon turning now to one silent warrior, now to another. He heard Titokowaru's injunction to the chosen of the war-god:

Kaua e haere ki te kuwaha o te pa; kei reira te raiana e tu ana! Ka pokanoa koutou, ka ngaua te raiana ia koutou!” (“Do not charge at the gate way of the fort; there stands the lion! Should you disregard this command, the lion will devour you!”)

This caution was designed to restrain the more impetuous of the young warriors, for Titokowaru was a crafty general, and did not believe in wasting good fighting-men. He had learned by dear experience at Sentry Hill in 1864 that to dash straight and blindly at the foe, though valiant enough, was not always sound tactics.

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The leader of the taua, old Hauwhenua, must have been nearly seventy, but he was as active and agile and keen-witted as any young man of his fighting band. He was a product of the ferocious old cannibal times when every tribe's hand was against its neighbour's, and when year after year Waikato armies besieged the stockaded holds of Taranaki. In person he was not the ideal of a Maori warrior, for he was short of stature, a stoutly built man, with short grey beard and no tattoo-marks on his face. But he had fought against Maoris and against whites for many years of his life, and no war-captain surpassed him in the many stratagems of bush-warfare, and particularly in the artful laying of ambuscades.

Marching with the savages of the Tekau-ma-rua was the white man—Charles Kane, or King, called by the Maoris “Kingi,” the deserter from the 18th Royal Irish. He was armed with a gun, intending to assist his Hauhau friends in their attack on his fellow-whites. Kimble Bent, it was reported afterwards in the pakeha camps, also accompanied the warriors, but he denies this, asserting that he did not stir from the pa all night; this is confirmed by the Maoris. “Kingi,” he says, was a fiercely vindictive man, and swore to have a shot at the white men from whom he had cut himself off for ever.

Emerging from the forest, the warriors stole page 123 quietly down over the fern-slopes, and crossing the Tawhiti creek, which wound down through a valley close to the present town of Hawera, they worked round to the front of the little parapeted fort that stood in a singularly unstrategic position on a gently rising hillside, close to the celebrated ancient pa, Turuturu-Mokai. Hauwhenua passed round the word to hide in the fern and remain in cover there as close up to the redoubt as possible, until he yelled the “Kokiri!” cry—the signal for the charge.

The Turuturu-Mokai redoubt was but a tiny work, so small that the officer in charge, Captain Ross, had to live in a raupo hut built outside the walls. The entrenchment, consisting of earth-parapet and a surrounding trench, was being strengthened by its garrison of twenty-five Armed Constabulary, and the work was not quite finished when the Maori attack was delivered.

The night dragged on too slowly for the impatient and shivering warriors. Some wished to rush the white men's pa at once, but Hauwhenua and his sub-chiefs forbade it till there was a little more light. Several of the younger men began to crawl up through the fern towards the wall of the little fort. The form of a solitary sentry was seen, pacing up and down outside the walls. He could easily have been shot, but the Hauhaus waited.

The sentry was relieved at five o'clock in the morning. The new sentinel was not left in peace very page 124 long. Five minutes after he went on duty, while he was walking smartly up and down to keep warm, he heard a suspicious rustle in the fern. He stopped and peered into the dimness. Yes, he couldn't be wrong; those dark forms crawling towards him through the fern were Maoris! He raised his carbine and fired, then turned and raced for the redoubt, shouting out, “Stand to your arms, boys!”

The darkness—it was not yet dawn—was instantly lit up by the blaze of a return volley, and, with a fearful yell, the host of half-naked Maoris leaped from the fern and rushed for the redoubt.

The white soldiers, roused by the firing, rushed from their tents and manned the parapets and angles of the work, so furiously assailed by the swarming forest-men.

Captain Ross had leaped from his sleeping-place at the first alarm. He ran out from his wharé, armed with his sword and revolver, and clothed only in his shirt. He just managed to cross the ditch by the narrow plank-bridge ahead of the enemy, who missed the plank in the darkness.

The captain quickly called for volunteers to defend the gate.

“I'll make one, sir!” cried Michael Gill, an old Imperial soldier.

“All right, Gill,” said the captain; it was pitch dark, but he knew Gill's voice. “Any more?”

Yes; they rushed for the gate—Henry McLean, page 125 George Tuffin, Swords, Gaynor, and Gill. The others manned the two flanking angles.

Private George Tuffin, one of the garrison—who is still alive, in Wanganui—was up with the others at the first alarm. He fired his revolver into the mass of Maoris outside the gateway; then, dropping the revolver, he got to work with his carbine. He had fired one shot out of his carbine, and stooped under the shelter of the parapet to slip in another cartridge. Just as he was rising to fire again he was struck in the head by a Maori bullet, and fell to the ground unconscious. He could not have been in that condition very long, for when he came to, Captain Ross was still alive and fighting to keep the Maoris out of the gateway.

“Hello, old man!” cried the captain; “are you hit?”

Young Tuffin lay there, unable to reply.

“Where's your rifle?” asked the captain; he was reloading his revolver while he spoke.

Tuffin pointed to where his gun was lying on the muddy ground beside him.

“Come on, boys!” yelled the captain;” they're coming in at the gate!”

Those were the last words Tuffin heard his commanding officer utter. A few moments later, in that fearful confusion of attack and defence in the darkness, the gallant Ross was struck down, defending the gateway to the end with his sword.

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A Hauhau charged right into the redoubt, and killed the captain with his long-handled tomahawk Making a clean cut in his breast, he tore out the heart, a trophy for the terrible ceremony of the mawé offering. Then he darted back as quickly as he had come, yelling a frightful cry of triumph. And another heart was torn from a white man's body even before it had ceased to beat. This was the corpse of Lennon, the keeper of the store and canteen. He had been killed alongside his little hut, just outside the redoubt, when the fight began. He was tomahawked almost to pieces and his heart cut out.

And in the very midst of that battle in the dark the pagan ceremony of the whangai-hau was performed, the oblation to the god of war. The priest of the war-party offered up one of the pakeha hearts —some Maoris say it was Captain Ross's, although Lennon's would really be the heart of the mata-ika, the “first-fish” slain, which was usually the one offered to the gods. The savage tohunga lit a match (he carried pakeha matches for this dreadful purpose), and held the bleeding heart over the flame. Immediately it began to sizzle and smoke, he cried in an exultant voice, “Kei au a Tu!” (“I have Tu!”), meaning that Tu, the supreme god of war, was with him, or on his side. Then he threw down the burnt sacrifice, and, clutching his long-handled tomahawk, rushed into the fight again. The captain's heart page 127 was discovered after the fight was over lying on the blood-stained ground outside the trench.

For two hours it was desperate work. The Hauhaus charged up to the parapets, and many of them jumped into the ditch, whence they attempted to swarm over the walls, but were beaten off again and again by the little garrison. The endeavour to rush in force through the gateway of the redoubt did not succeed. The impulsive young men, however, disregarded Titokowaru's warning about the “lion” in the path, and it was in this tomahawk charge at the fort gate that most of those who were killed fell.

After the captain's death Gill and McLean took up their posts in one of the angles, and fought there till daylight. Their Terry carbines gave them a good deal of trouble. After a few rounds had been fired the breech-blocks jammed, and were difficult to open and close.

Unfortunately, all hands did not show equal bravery. At least four—Michael Gill says five— men bolted for the redoubt, some of them jumping from the parapet, soon after the fight began. Gill called to them to stop and help to protect the wounded. But they fled and left their comrades.

One of the pluckiest men in the redoubt was Cosslett Johnston (now of Hawera), a military settler. Mr. Johnston's intrepid example put fresh courage into his despairing comrades on that terrible page 128 morning. Michael Gill was an old Imperial soldier; he had served in the 57th Regiment, the old “Diehards”—Kimble Bent's regiment—and his coolness did a lot to steady his fellow-soldiers. Gill was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his bravery, but did not get it. He, like his comrades, certainly deserved that decoration or the New Zealand Cross, but did not get either.

When the Captain fell, Tuffin crawled, more than half-dazed with his wound, to one of the angles. There he received four more bullet wounds. In the angle there were five other men; of these two were killed.

Failing in their first attempt to take the redoubt by assault, some of the Hauhaus took post on the rising ground a little distance off, where they could fire into the work, and one after another the defenders dropped, shot dead or badly wounded. The ditch was full of Maoris. Only the narrow parapet separated them from the whites, and they yelled at the defenders and shouted all the English “swear-words” in their vocabulary. The pakehas “talked back” at them, says one of the few survivors of the heroic garrison, and cried “Look out! The cavalry are coming!” but the Hauhaus only laughed and said, “Gammon, pakeha—gammon!” Then, finding that any Maori who showed his head above the parapets was quickly shot down, they started to dig away at the wall with their toma- page 129 hawks, and succeeded in undermining the parapet in several places. By this time half the garrison had been shot down. One of the first killed was Corporal Blake, who fell in one of the angles. Private Shields, the captain's orderly, was killed in one of the angles; Private George Holden was shot dead behind the parapet; Gaynor was killed at the gate. Then Sergeant McFadden fell while bravely helping to hold an angle against the swarming enemy.

Private Alexander Beamish, who fell mortally wounded while helping to defend an angle of the fort, told his brother, John Beamish (now a resident of Patea), who was fighting by his side, just before he died, that he believed it was a white man who shot him. Bent says that the deserter Kane, while taking part in the attack, was wounded in the right cheek by a pakeha bullet, and then retired from the fight. John Beamish was struck by an Enfield bullet and severely wounded about the time his brother was shot, but though then unable to shoulder his carbine, he opened packets of ammunition and passed cartridges to Gill, the only unwounded man in his angle of the redoubt, until the end of the combat.

Here is John Beamish's story of the fight, as he told it to me some years back:

“The Maoris surrounded the redoubt and tried again and again to swarm over the wall, and they kept it up till broad daylight. We could not see page 130 much at first but the flashing of guns all around us. Presently some of the Maoris set fire to the wharés outside the redoubt. They were armed with muzzle-loading Enfields and shot-guns, and we could now and then see the ramrods going up and down as they rammed the charges home. Then sometimes we would see the flash of a tomahawk and catch a glimpse of a black head above the parapets. One of our troubles was that there were no loopholes in the parapets, otherwise we could have shot many of the Maoris in the ditch. We were exposed to the fire of the enemy on the rising ground close by, and this was how so many of the men in our angle were hit.

“Then they started to dig and cut away at the parapets with their tomahawks. We could plainly hear them at this work, and I heard one Maori ask another for a match. I suppose he wanted to try and fire our buildings inside the walls. One after another our men dropped, shot dead or badly wounded. I had very little hope of ever getting out of the place alive. But we well knew what our fate would be if the Maoris once got over the parapets, so we just put our hearts into it and kept blazing away as fast as we could load. We had breech-loading carbines which had to be capped. One incident I remember was a black head just appearing over the parapet in the grey light, then came a body with a bare arm gripping a long-handled tomahawk. page 131 Quietly the Hauhau raised himself up, and was just in the act of aiming a blow at one of our men who did not see him when we fired and brought him down.

“My younger brother was fighting not far from me. He fell mortally wounded, and before he died he told us he believed it was a white man who shot him. I was wounded about the same time. An Enfield bullet struck me in the left shoulder. It took me with a tremendous shock, just as I was stooping down across a dead man to get some dry ammunition. The bullet slanted down past my shoulder-blade and came out at the back. This incapacitated me from firing, or, at any rate, from taking aim, so I had to content myself with passing cartridges to Michael Gill—one of the men in my angle—who kept steadily firing away, and with levelling my unloaded carbine as well as I could with my right hand whenever I saw a head bob up above the parapet. When the fight ended Gill was the only unwounded man in our angle of the redoubt; out of the six who manned it when the alarm was given, three were shot dead and two were wounded. One man, George Tuffin, was wounded in five places.

“Daylight came, and those of us who could shoulder a carbine were still firing away and wondering whether help would ever reach us. We knew they must have heard the firing and seen the flashes of the guns at Waihi redoubt, only three miles away.

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Suddenly the Maoris ceased firing and retired into the bush. Their sentries had given them warning that troops were coming. As they dropped back we rushed out of the redoubt and gave them the last shot, and then Von Tempsky and his A.C.'s arrived at the double, and the fight was over. My wound kept me in the hospital for five months. The only wonder is that any of us ever came out of that redoubt alive.”

The sun had risen before the fight was over. A few minutes more and the Hauhaus would have succeeded in undermining the parapets sufficiently to force an entrance, and the defenders would have fallen to the last man, and the whole of their arms and the post-supplies have been carried off to Titokowaru's fort in the forest.

The little redoubt was a frightful sight. Dead and wounded men were lying all over the place in pools of blood; two of them were shockingly mutilated with tomahawks. Out of the twenty-one defenders of the redoubt, ten were killed and five were wounded; only six came through the fight without a wound.

Hauwhenua withdrew his disappointed Tekauma-rua, carrying those of their wounded who were unable to walk, and marched back to Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu. The “lion” of Titoko's speech, though sore wounded, had in truth closed his mouth on some of their most daring braves. Takitaki, a page 133 bold, athletic young Hauhau, who was in the Tekau-ma-rua, was one of those who attacked Captain Ross at the gateway. The Captain shattered Takitaki's left arm with a bullet from his revolver before he fell.*

* Of this Hauhau Colonel W. E. Gudgeon wrote in the Polynesian Society's Journal, No. 59 (Sept. 1906): “Had there been but ten men of the stamp of Takitaki the redoubt must have been taken; but luckily there were not, and therefore a mere handful of men held the redoubt to the end.”