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The Old Frontier : Te Awamutu, the story of the Waipa Valley : the missionary, the soldier, the pioneer farmer, early colonization, the war in Waikato, life on the Maori border and later-day settlement

The Engagement at Hairini

The Engagement at Hairini.

On the afternoon of 22nd February, 1864—the day following the capture of Rangiaowhia—the British and Colonial forces were involved in a much sharper affair, a heavy engagement in which all three arms—horse, foot, and artillery—were used. This was the battle of Hairini Hill, a steep elevation about half way between Te Awamutu and Rangiaowhia; the name has since been transferred mistakenly to Rangiaowhia village. The present road follows exactly the military route of 1864.

Here the Maoris who came pouring out of Paterangi immediately they discovered that their works had been outflanked had hastily fortified themselves, burning to avenge the surprise capture of Rangiaowhia and the killing of their comrades. An incident of the day's work was a sabre charge by the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry; this was one of the very few occasions on which cavalry charges were practicable in the Maori Wars.

Von Tempsky wrote the following narrative of his Rangers' share in the afternoon's fighting:

“At last about 1 o'clock orders came (to Te Awamutu camp), and away went the Rangers. I had received no order relative to my position or further operations; so, calculating to commit any errors on the safe side, I hurried my men past as many detachments as I could, and got them well in front by the time we had reached a commanding fern ridge, on which line of battle was formed. The firing had been going on already for some time between our skirmishers and the Maoris. I could now see their position plainly. There is a considerable rise just at the entrance to Rangiaowhia proper; the first considerable whares are on that hill; the brow of the same was crowned with a long stake fence, ditch, and low parapet, having been the common enclosure of a large field. It had been strengthened during the night and morning, and a very respectable length of line of black heads was bobbing up and down behind it. A swamp was at the foot of this hill, the main road avoiding it and turning more to our right flank. The right flank of the Maoris was covered by a still more impassable swamp [Peka- page break
Officers of the 50th Regiment (The 50th Regiment, 819 strong, arrived in Auckland from Colombo on 14th November, 1863. Colonel Waddy in the centre of the front row.)

Officers of the 50th Regiment
(The 50th Regiment, 819 strong, arrived in Auckland from Colombo on 14th November, 1863. Colonel Waddy in the centre of the front row.)

page break page 49 peka-rau], so that their left flank was the only point needing much defence, a dense forest on that side giving them also contingent advantages.

“The 50th, under their brave old Colonel Waddy, and the Defence Cavalry Corps, under Captain Walmsley, as staunch an officer as ever put spurs to a horse, were on our extreme right; and were destined to do the work of that day, General Cameron and Staff personally superintending this particular work.

“We saw the 50th fix bayonets, and as they advanced on the main road the Maoris commenced a perfect feu d'enfer, and I, looking in vain for directions, led my men against the right flank of the Maoris.

“We had to cross several little gullies and rises; at each place affording the least shelter I breathed my men for a moment, and then dashed them again over the next exposed space. Three severe instalments of a lead shower rattled, thumped, and whistled round us; each time I put the men under shelter till the shower passed, and then rushed on again. As yet I had seen only one of my men hit.

“As we got into the swamp we just saw the gleam of the bayonets of the 50th close upon the left flank of the Maoris. We heard the British cheer, echoed it, and rushed on to the right of the position, where I also saw a peach-grove that might be of use to us.

“Of a sudden, while panting up the hillside, with an upper stratum of lead travelling over our heads towards our friends we had left behind us, I saw that long black line of heads waver. I heard confused cries and shouts presaging disorder—and lo!—it broke and fled—some to the right, where I saw the Defence Corps after them; and some to the left; to these we lent our company. Maoris have a natural affinity to swamp; there is a strong amphibious tendency in the brown man. Ducks are no more at home in the swamps than Maoris. Only in this instance the ‘being at home’ was extended perhaps beyond the wish of many by our carbines. So soon as we had reached the peach-grove which commanded the swamp to our left, we had a fine play upon the greater part of the Maoris who were trying to make their escape. I had some soldiers of the 70th with me who, seduced by the example of my men, had followed my fortunes faithfully that day. They were, however, despatched back to their regiment by the arrival of Colonel Carey of the Staff.

page 50

“Some skirmishers still lurked between us and that part of Rangiaowhia where the two churches stood; so we took our way in that direction, getting now and then a sight of a Maori and a hearing of their bullets. I was just directing one of my foremost skirmishers to aim at a figure of a man which I could see behind a bush, when something struck me in the attitude as being nerveless like that of a wounded man. I gave the word to stop firing, and, surrounding the Maori carefully, as some sham being dead and then blaze into you, then approached him. Resting on his right elbow, his back against a stump, the left leg stretched from him with a large pool of blood around it, the Maori surveyed our approach without a start or a movement of a muscle in his face, even. Now, let me tell you that my men in the day of battle are not very confidence-inspiring objects to look at. What with dust, smoke, their wild dress, their armament, and faces wild with excitement of the hour, a man would be quite justified in hesitating to trust his life altogether to their keeping, not being able to see the golden sub-stratum of that desperado exterior. A calm, steady, almost indifferent look was fixed on me by the dark eye of the Maori. I made to him a gesture of friendship, and proceeded to examine his wound. An Enfield bullet had shattered his left leg below the calf, and he was rapidly bleeding to death. A boot-lace twisted under the knee had to do duty as a tourniquet, and the Maori's shirt had to supply the bandages. One of our men who spoke a little Maori told him we would come back for him, and left him with water and some rum; the latter he refused taking.

“I had an idea that as the Catholic Church had proved once an asylum to the Maori, it might be occupied the same way to-day. I was determined to be beforehand with the Staff to-day at least, and pushed on by short-cut. Everything seemed quiet about the neighbourhood. The church door was locked, but as it might have been locked from the inside I had a carbine pointed into the lock, which pass-key proved to fit our requirements. I entered the church, found it empty, turned my men out again, and re-fastened the door to the best of my ability.

Colonel Carey, of the Staff, then arrived, and gave me orders to guard the adjoining dwelling-house of the priest and permit no one to enter it. My men had by my permission gone to plunder the nearest whares. Their whole plunder was then put into the verandah of the priest's house, and, putting a sentry over it, I dispersed page 51 my men once more for ‘loot,’ as they now deserved to have a pull at Rangiaowhia. I remained to guard the priest's house myself and ruminate over the day's work.

“Colonel Weare, of the 50th, then made his appearance, and informed me that he had received orders to take charge of this house and grounds. I had no great objection to a transfer of responsibility, but when I was informed that nothing was to be removed from the ground, not even the loot my men had taken from the neighbourhood, now lying piled in the verandah, I most decidedly objected to such an unfair arrangement. A picket under a subaltern was then put over the premises, and Colonel Weare departed. I recalled my Rangers by my whistle, drew them up outside, and carried out myself every individual article belonging to them, not forgetting one or two articles of loot belonging to Colonel Weare, accidentally mixed with ours, considered already as safely acquired by right of seniority. It was to me about as interesting an interlude as could be found amongst the sad realities of higher interests around me. And I look back to my struggle with Colonel Weare for the loot of my men probably with the same amount of amusement as he does himself by this time. He put me under arrest. I took no notice of it, nor did General Cameron, who joked me the next day about it.”

The Forest Rangers' entry into Te Awamutu that evening must have been a grotesquely picturesque spectacle. Von Tempsky wrote:

“An advanced guard under myself surrounded the stretcher of the chief Paul, whom we had picked up on the way back according to promise. This was serious and respectable, but the main body of the two companies that followed, borne down with the most promiscuous loot ever gathered, were a sight fit for the pencil of Hogarth. There were men representing a walking museum of fowls strung and hung all over their persons. There were men having the carcases of pigs strapped to their bodies; one even carried a live young sow, baby-wise in his arms, restraining its desperate struggles and screams by the strength of a powerful arm. There were men mounted on Maori horses, one of them my half-caste Sergeant Southee, decorated with feathers used at the Maori war dance. The whole two companies bristled with Maori spears, tomahawks, double-barrel guns, and so forth. I myself had a magnificent long-handled tomahawk, given to me by one of my men, who picked it up on the battlefield. I gave it to General Cameron.

page 52

“I have since heard that our entry into Te Awamutu created not only admiration but envy, loot being such a scarce article in this war that even Commodore Wiseman could not help saying to a friend of mine, ‘Those rascally Rangers have got all the loot.’ In former days the Naval Brigade generally got ahead of the soldiers in that business, but now the agility of the Rangers had put the long-armed Jack Tar into the shade.

“In dismissing my men that evening, I could not but testify to their gallant conduct, particularly No. 1 Company, under Lieutenant Westrupp, who had followed me when I went a considerable pace, and when my own men, being in high fern, could not keep up with me. General Cameron, in acknowledging the good behaviour of the men, had another ration of rum served out to them that night, so that at the camp-fire our battles were fought over again with even more gusto and less risk.”

Another old-timer, an ex-Ranger in the Waikato, thus described to the present writer that triumphal march back from Rangiaowhia:

“We had found great stores of potatoes, pigs, and fowls lying ready to be carted to the big pa at Paterangi. The stuff was stacked here and there along the middle of the village between the two churches. When we marched back to Te Awamutu that night one of our fellows, Johnny Reddy, was leading, or rather driving, a pig by a rope. As we came near the mission station gate at Te Awamutu we saw General Cameron standing there with Bishop Selwyn. Reddy called out, ‘Make way for the Maori prisoner!’ The General ordered, ‘Arrest that man!’ But Johnny dropped his rope, left the pig, and bolted. All the same, he had a fair whack of that porker for his supper.”

The Royal Navy men, as a veteran recalls, did not come home from the battle quite empty-handed, for when they hauled their six-pounder field-piece in that evening it was loaded with Maori pigs and potatoes.

The day's casualties numbered two soldiers killed, one of the Defence Force Cavalry mortally wounded, and fifteen others wounded, including Ensign Doveton, of the 50th. The Maoris lost about a score killed, beside many wounded, some of whom were captured and treated in the field hospital at Te Awamutu.