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The War in New Zealand.

Chapter VI

page 71

Chapter VI.

Description of Waikato Country—Causes of long Delay before Meri-Meri—Defective Transport—Neglect of River Transport.

The geographical relation of Waikato to Auckland, the seat of Government at the commencement of the war, will be comprehended by a glance at the map. The Waikato district may be said to commence at the point where the river takes its rectangular bend to the sea, and to embrace all the country on or about the river, and its two affluents, the Horutiu and Waipa, for 100 miles south from that point. Starting from Auckland, there is a wide metalled road for forty miles to the river; the first twenty-five running between fences and through cultivated farms; twelve of the remaining fifteen through a dense forest, through broken country, over hills and gullies of an eleva-page 72tion of from 300 to 400 feet high. The river once reached, becomes the natural highway, being navigable for light-draught steamers and boats to almost the southern extremity of the district; and the land being practically level along the proper right bank, there is also, with few and trifling impediments, chiefly creeks, a good summer road all the way, either at the river side or at a little distance from it.

The great Waikato plain between the two affluents, Horutiu and Waipa, is practically level, open, and without "bush." I remember no gradient too steep to gallop a horse upon, and there are only a few clumps of forest here and there. It is pretty nearly an equilateral triangle with sides of from forty to fifty miles each in length. In the lower and central portion there are large and intricate swamps; but they are all penetrated by good horse and dray tracks, well known to the friendly natives and the few European settlers who resided in the district. On my return to England, I visited the interior of Ceylon, and crossed the great Kaduganava pass, over a mountain some 1,500 feet high, between page 73Colombo and Kandy, now penetrated by a noble road, but formerly only traversed by the rude tracks of the mountaineers. A few weeks later, I surmounted, by a wonderful railroad, the celebrated Bhore Ghât pass, between Bombay and Poonah, where the locomotive now ascends a height of over 1,800 feet in little more than sixteen miles; but where formerly there was no other road than a mere track. These two great passes present almost every conceivable impediment, from the perpendicular wall of rock to the entanglements of the densest jungle in the world. During the Mahratta and Kandyan wars, small British divisions repeatedly forced their way through them, in the face of overwhelming bodies of wellarmed and well-disciplined enemies. Now compared with these passes, and the country on either side, I do not hesitate to say that the access to Waikato, and the great plain when reached, do not present a single difficulty which ought to have stopped a force like ours for a moment; they are, in fact, by comparison, as level as a bowling-green and as smooth as a drawing-room floor.

It was, however, not the physical impediments page 74of the country which kept General Cameron four months before Meri-Meri. It was rather the physical requirements of his men. It is a commissariat maxim, "that great armies march on their bellies;" and whoever has seen a commissariat transport train, with its long line of waggons, its casks of bread, its barrels of beef and pork, its hogsheads of rum, its bags of sugar, and boxes of tea, will admit the truth of the maxim. The British soldier is well cared for both at home and abroad, and right it is he should be. It may, however, be carried a little too far. One of the generals who commanded in New Zealand is said, on sending out a detachment to fight one afternoon, to have given orders to the commanding officer "to be sure and have his men back to tea, for the evenings were getting cool." No doubt it was partly owing to this excessive care of soldiers the manufacture of each of whom has cost the nation 100l., that it was declared "useless" to take them into the bush. The rule seems to have been, "where the rations can't be taken, the men can't be taken." The colonial forces and the friendly natives, as we shall see by and page 75by, when they asked, at the end of a long day in the bush, where their suppers were, were pointed to the enemy's pah, and told that they would find them there—and there, accordingly, they did find them.

It was the necessity then of piling up an ample supply of provisions and military stores "at the front" that detained General Cameron so long. Some 1,500 horses toiled incessantly at the task of hauling waggon-loads of stores from Auckland along the forty miles of road to the river, running the gauntlet through the flanking column of marauding natives who had got to the rear of the General's main force, and being continually assailed by ambuscade parties as the transport corps dragged its slow length along. Yet all this might have been avoided by a little foresight. The natural key of the Waikato country was the Waikato river, and there was no difficulty in sending supplies round by sea from Manakau, the western harbour of Auckland, and so up that river, thus avoiding the tedious and exposed land transport. The reason the river was neglected was, that no steamers and barges page 76suitable for its navigation had been provided. One would have imagined that any one watching the course of events in Waikato for two years previously would have arrived at the conclusion that war in that district was almost inevitable. To any one arriving at that conclusion, the necessity of a steam flotilla was obvious. Yet, when the army had to be advanced into it, no provision of the sort had been made. Nor did the representatives of the Imperial Government ever provide the means of sea and river transport, except one sea steamer purchased in December 1864, and one small tug. The Colonial Government built and bought no less than eight steamers, each of which, as fast as provided, was demanded by officers of the Imperial Government, and placed with great readiness at their disposal; but too late to avoid the serious delay referred to. Had the Governor or General provided beforehand the necessary and obvious means of transport for the Queen's troops, the Waikato campaign might have been over in less time than General Cameron took to advance upon Meri-Meri.