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Soldiering in New Zealand, Being Reminiscences of a Veteran

Chapter IV

page 34

Chapter IV.

Te Kooti vows vengeance—Our precautions against a raid—The old native's warning—Signs of danger—The Poverty Bay massacre—Murder of Major and Mrs. Biggs—Death of the Wilsons—Terror and confusion at Turanganui—Reinforcements arrive—Te Kooti pursued and defeated—Major Westrupp's friendlies—Fight with the Hau-haus—Attacked by fire—Dr. Murray Gibbs—Through the fire—We hold the ridge—Gallantry of Renata KawepoTe Kooti wounded—Ropata arrives—We attack the enemy and rout them—Tom Lake's wound.

Shortly after the escape of Te Kooti, it became known that he was threatening to exact a bloody revenge from the Poverty Bay settlers who had fought against him. It was decided, therefore, to keep nine men on duty as scouts, to watch for the approach of armed natives along the tracks from the Urewera country. I was placed in charge of these men under the authority of Major Biggs, commanding the district, my pay being that of my rank as lieutenant in the militia.

With the concurrence of Major Biggs, I fixed my chief camp about twenty miles from Gisborne, where the main track to Wairoa descends to the Hungaroa stream. Thick patches of manuka and korimiko surrounding half an acre of grass formed a convenient place of concealment for our horses at night. We did not use a tent, as we preferred the shelter of the thick scrub and plenty of blankets and waterproof sheets. Six men were on guard every night, two being posted at the head of the gully leading down to the river, and I always kept awake from midnight till daylight. We kept our horses saddled all night, and lay or sat fully dressed and armed. In the daytime I kept a look-out with binoculars on the top of a hill rising at the rear of our position, from which a very extended view could be obtained, and page 35 often saw the smoke of fires in the Urewera country, indicating a camp or cultivation of the rebels. Daily I sent a patrol out to our left front, and often rode right or ten miles to my right, looking for some sign of movement on the part of the enemy, and reporting frequently to Major Biggs.

This went on for some months, and then a very old native whom I met told me that, in his opinion, if Te Kooti made a raid on the Bay, he would use a very ancient track a long way to the right of our post. On the following day I took two of my men, and after careful search we found a deeply-worn track heavily overgrown with big manuka in a valley some eight or ten miles to our right, and leading towards a saddle overlooking a stream called Manga-Karetu. On the track we found no sign of anything but wild pigs; but from the top of the hill I noted smoke ascending out of timber over six miles away, which my Maori companion thought was probably a fire lighted by pig hunters, as he knew of no settlement in that direction.

On my way back to camp I left my two comrades and rode in to Makaraka at dusk, and reported to Major Biggs what I had seen. I asked his leave to keep three of my men watching the valley where we found the old overgrown track; but Biggs did not approve of my proposal, and told me he knew that Te Kooti was restless, and that he was kept well informed by spies of the rebel's doings. He believed that Te Kooti would advance shortly, but he felt sure that he would use the track that I was watching, and would try to surprise us by the sudden attack of an advance guard. “As long,” he added, “as one or two of you get away and give me the alarm you will have served the purpose for which you are placed there. Now get right back to your post, and be sure not to leave it yourself till you hear from me. Keep a sharp watch every night and scout toward Wairoa daily. page 36 If you see armed men or are fired at, all of you are to gallop in at once and give the alarm by scattering your scouts; but come yourself to me as quickly as possible.”

Those were, in as nearly as possible his own words, the last instructions that I received from Major Biggs. He was killed about 48 hours later.

I now come to the sad episode of the Poverty Bay massacre, which I will narrate in the words of the notes that I wrote while the affair was fresh in my memory.

“Late in the evening of 9th June, 1868, a band of Hau-haus entered Poverty Bay district by a long unused and little known track from the Urewera country that came out near Patutahi. It was the only point that the care and foresight of Major Biggs had left unguarded. The officer in charge of the small party of scouts (Lieut. Gascoyne) had in vain requested leave to place a couple of men to watch this track, but the men could not well be spared; the track was overgrown and was supposed to be impassable; and the information (obtained from false spies) of Te Kooti's intended attack by the Te Reinga track was relied on as correct.

“The Hau-haus were aided by the majority of the (supposed) friendly natives of the district, and that night a party of them were guided to the house occupied by Major Biggs. They reached it about two o'clock on the morning of the 10th. Major Biggs was busy writing out orders for all the settlers to assemble at Gisborne on the following day to insure their safety against a sudden attack. He heard a knock at the front door, no unusual thing even at that hour, for messengers reached him at all hours of the day and night. He opened the door and a glance told him what had happened. He called to his wife, ‘Emily! We are attacked: escape by the back!’ when a volley of page 37 page 38
Captain James Wilson.

Captain James Wilson.

page 39 bullets through the door made him fall back into the arms of his wife. The next minute the door was burst open and half-a-dozen bayonet stabs stretched both husband and wife dead on the floor, and a blow from a rifle butt or tomahawk knocked out the brains of the poor little baby. Two of their servants, a married couple, were killed as they rushed out of their room in the back part of the house, and another, a half-caste girl of 17 or 18, had reached a clump of flax bushes about 50 yards from the house when she was overtaken, and a couple of bayonet wounds in her back showed how she had been slain. A servant lad escaped by slipping under the house and hiding between the piles till the departure of the Maoris enabled him to run away unobserved. The murderers then went on to Captain Wilson's house, about a mile and a half away. Wilson had probably heard the firing, as he kept the wretches at bay by firing on them through a window. Soon, however, the Hau-haus contrived to set fire to the house; then the treacherous natives belonging to the place, whom he knew well and thought to be most friendly to him and his wife, called out that they had come to conduct him and his family to a place of safety. Probably believing them, and seeing no better chance, he left the house with one of the children on his back, a servant man carrying another, and Mrs. Wilson leading two little girls.

“The natives escorted them a quarter of a mile in the direction of the bush, and then suddenly fell on them and despatched them with numerous bayonet stabs. The little boy James alone escaped death by crawling unnoticed into a scrubby bush. He was afterwards rescued by a scout, who saw the poor little fellow hiding in some low fern a couple of miles from the place where his family had been murdered. Mrs. Wilson, though she had received nine bayonet wounds, was alive when found three days after the massacre, but in spite of every care page 40 she died of her terrible wounds shortly afterwards.

“Meanwhile the bloody work went on, and other parties of the Hau-haus, after dragging the bodies of the victims out in front of their dwellings and securing everything they considered valuable, set fire to the houses. The flames of some of these, the shouts of the murderers, together with the sound of the firing at Major Biggs' house, warned some of the more distant settlers to escape. Women and children, many half naked and barefoot, hurried along in the grey dawn to reach Turanganui, before the human tigers could overtake them. Some ran along the beach, and, aided by husband or brother, struggled through brambles and ‘lawyers’ as they escaped by cattle tracks through the bush. One young girl saved herself and her little brother, whom she had to carry on her back, by running a distance of nine miles. She also was the means of saving a family to whom she gave the alarm as she passed.

“Two of the native scouts were in Poverty Bay on leave on the night of the 9th, and these men, having a brother in the camp of the scouts, hurried off to warn their comrades of what had happened. At grey dawn they reached camp, and the officer and men immediately galloped back to the bay. They found themselves cut off by the enemy and surrounded by hostile natives. They had to abandon their horses, seize a boat, and pull across the bay to Turanganui. On reaching the township, Lieutenant Gascoyne beheld a scene of terror and confusion beyond description. Men and women were eagerly inquiring of every new-comer for information of their missing friends: mothers were weeping aloud for their children, wives for their husbands, and husbands for their wives. All the people had crossed to the left bank of the river to seek safety in the old redoubt, and to place the river between them and the Hau-haus, who could be seen in page 41 the distance running about collecting plunder and burning the houses at Makaraka.

“Biggs and Wilson being dead, Lieutenant Gascoyne was the only officer left in the Bay, and he at once took steps to restore order and secure the safety of the women and children. A boat was despatched to recall two small schooners that were beating out to sea. All the men were armed with rifles, and sentries were posted along the river bank, the women and children being sent down to the beach to be shipped on board the two vessels and taken to Napier. None of the men were allowed to leave, and a sentry was posted at the landing place to stop anyone trying to get away, though none seemed to be cowardly enough to wish to do so, save the saddler, who having volunteered as sentry over the landing place, threw down his rifle and belts, and contrived to sneak off in one of the boats among the women, several of whom had implored the officer with tears to allow their husbands to go with them, but without success.

“A despatch was written to the authorities at Napier, begging for reinforcements of men, arms and ammunition, and pending the arrival of these the settlers determined to defend the old redoubt against any fresh attack of the enemy. Meanwhile several fugitives reached the township who had been given up as lost by their friends; some arriving next day in a starving condition, having fled to the bush without taking food with them. All were footsore, weary and ragged, and it became known that the settlers on the south side of the bay had made good their escape along the coast to Wairoa.

“The few friendly natives who joined the whites at the redoubt set to work to strengthen and fortify their pa a little nearer the mouth of the river, and this with the redoubt formed a very strong position for the defence. All the men who could be spared from guard duty page 42 were employed in securing the valuables left in the township across the river; but no one took the trouble to save the saddler's things. When he came back to the Bay he found that his shop had been thoroughly looted, and he had the pleasure of seeing that many among the friendly natives were riding about with brand new saddles and bridles. ‘Serve you right!’ was all the sympathy he got. “In a few days Major Westrupp and Captain Tuke arrived with a large force of friendly natives from Napier and some of the volunteers of Captain Tanner's troop. The next day, under cover of a strong picket, the scouts went to collect and bury the remains of all the victims that could be found. This melancholy duty was performed by Lieutenant Gascoyne, who, being able to identify the bodies, placed the members of the same family in one grave, and made arrangements so that surviving relatives could find and remove the remains should they subsequently wish to re-inter them elsewhere. “Very many of the Poverty Bay natives joined Te Kooti, so that he had a large force at his command. Having collected a vast quantity of plunder in the shape of store goods and horses, and some firearms and ammunition, he started to retire by the same track that he had used in his attack on the Bay. He was, however, followed up immediately by the friendly natives from Hawkes Bay led by their chiefs, Renata Kawepo, Karauria and Karaitiana, under the command of Lieutenant Gascoyne, and they overtook and defeated him at Manga-Karetu, killing about sixty of his followers.”

The foregoing gives the bulk of the particulars I wrote shortly after the massacre at Poverty Bay; but I have omitted some horrible details out of consideration for the feelings of some of my friends who had relatives among those killed. I must, however, add a few words in defence of the memory of Major Biggs, whom I know to have been page 43 page 44
Major Charles Westrupp.

Major Charles Westrupp.

page 45 the equal for courage, prudence and energy of any officer who has served in the colony. He was mistaken in supposing that Te Kooti would advance by the Reinga road, but the information at his command made him feel certain that he would do so. Blame for the surprise must lie on the niggard policy which only gave him, in spite of his strong representation of the danger, one small party of men to watch an extent of country that required six such parties to watch it efficiently.

Major Westrupp, as I have already mentioned, arrived from Napier with several hundred friendly natives a few days after the massacre, and news being brought that Te Kooti had withdrawn most of his men into the hills behind Patutahi and was fortifying a position there, it was decided that the Napier natives should follow him up and force a fight if possible. I was sent in nominal command of this body of friendlies, who started in pursuit about the 27th November. I use the term “nominal command” because I was powerless to enforce obedience from the chiefs, and had to depend entirely on my powers of persuasion to make my dusky army do their duty should they be called on to face any unusual danger or privation. I knew, moreover, that the greater number of these fat and well-to-do Maoris from Hawkes Bay would rather run than fight; only two of the many big chiefs were really keen to fight at all.

So I had to keep my eyes open to avoid mischance, and endeavoured to keep my men up to the mark by extolling their courage and superiority to the enemy.

On our first day's march we surprised a party of Hau-haus and shot two of them, but the rest being mounted made good their escape. This affair put my army of about 450 men in very good spirits. Next day they went on with great determination, but did not see any more page 46 of the enemy. In the evening the chiefs wanted to return, because they thought they had done enough for glory, and found marching very fatiguing work, but I persuaded them to go on for one more day on the condition that if we could not find the enemy then I would consent to return.

About two o'clock next afternoon I had almost given up hope of overtaking the Hau-haus, and sitting down to rest by the side of the track, allowed 40 or 50 of the men to pass me. We were marching as usual in single file, and as we did not keep very close order, our column of march was over a mile long. Where I stopped to rest, the track led up the side of a hill that crossed the valley from right to left. Our leading men had just reached the top of the rise and I was watching the long zig-zag line creeping up the valley through the high fern below me, when a yell and half-a-dozen rifle shots on the top of the spur told me that we had at last stumbled unexpectedly on the enemy.

“Down with your swags!” was the cry, and “Kokiri kokiri! Kia kaha, kia kaha!” I shouted, as I flung aside my swag and scrambled up the hill at the top of my speed. A glance back showed me the swags flying off to the right and left of the track as far as I could see. This meant quick support from the rear, so urging on those near me, in a few seconds we reached the top in time to prevent our leading men from being doubled up by the Hau-haus' picket posted just over the crest of the hill. They had already shot three of our men and were driving back the others. A volley from twenty fresh rifles drove the Hau-haus back in their turn, leaving two of them dead in the track.

From the ridge we could see that the main body of the enemy were entrenched on the bank of a stream at the foot of the long slope, and that their camp was commanded, at long rifle range, by the ridge on which we were. The firing had brought out a crowd of the enemy page 47 who could be seen hastening to the support of their pickets with the evident intention of dislodging us from the ridge we had just seized. As our men came up I made them extend to right and left, and keep up a heavy fire on the advancing Hau-haus.

Unfortunately the fern on the ridge was high and dry and the wind was blowing in our faces. To our disgust the enemy fired the fern with the intention of burning us off the hill. A few of our men continued to fire through the smoke, while the rest pulled up the fern along the ridge, and cleared a space twenty feet wide on our front. This only took a few minutes to do, the men working for their lives. The position was very critical. If we had retreated before the fire we should have given the enemy a fearful advantage, and if my men once began to retreat nothing would have stopped them, and the Hau-haus would probably have punished us all the way back to Poverty Bay.

Seeing that the fire would reach the left of our line first, we drew off to the right, and as the flames came roaring up, we kept up a heavy fire to our left front to prevent the enemy following in their wake. When the flames, reaching our cleared lines, began to die down, we rapidly took ground to our left, and digging in the hot ashes with our few bayonets, sticks, ramrods, and even our naked hands (for the lazy beggars had left behind all our spades and most of our stretchers), we soon dug a wide, shallow shelter-trench all along the ridge, from which we managed to hold the enemy in check very well.

It was now getting dark and the enemy drew off to their entrenchments, only sending us a few bullets every now and then to let us know that they were on the watch against a night attack. My men fired away a lot of ammunition in reply, in spite of my efforts to check them.

By this time we had a dozen men wounded, besides four or five page 48 killed. We sent the wounded down to a little gully in our rear, where Dr. Murray Gibbs was kept busy patching them up. When it was quite dark I sent off a mounted scout to hurry up a supply of ammunition that I knew to be on the way from Poverty Bay, and to report to the officer commanding there that we had come upon the enemy. I added a request that a supply of biscuit and bacon might be sent as soon as possible, as we had only rations for one day left.

All night we worked hard improving our shelter, and by morning had a good three hundred yards of our ridge very fairly entrenched, considering that we had no spades or shovels for the work. Our position was fairly strong. It could not easily be turned, and the top of the ridge formed a half circle with the convex side to the enemy. If the Hau-haus had held the ridge and entrenched the top, they would have had a stronger position than that which they had taken up by the stream, but they would have been further from water.

The enemy also had been busy during the night. They had dug a rifle pit on each of two hills that flanked our ridge about 800 yards away; but we did not worry much about them, though fire was opened from both pits as soon as it was daylight. We suffered a good deal from thirst, because the nearest water was 300 yards away in the gully where the wounded were, a long way to carry a supply of water up a steep hill.

All the rations had been lost or eaten during the night, and this was our first day of starvation. Worse still, our ammunition began to fail. In spite of all I could do, our natives wasted a fearful amount. So about 9 a.m., the firing on both sides having nearly ceased, I took a strong party and went to meet and escort the pack-horses bringing up ammunition from the Bay. To my great relief I met them only a few miles down the track, and learned at the same time that the orderly page 49 page 50 page 51 whom I had sent for provisions had passed them safely early in the morning on his way to headquarters.

I pushed on the pack-horses with all speed for our ridge, but on our way back we met with an ugly obstacle. The fire that the Hau-haus had lighted on the previous evening had burned its way round to the rear of our position and was now flaming furiously for a hundred yards on both sides of the track between us and the ridge. It was impossible to drive the pack-horses at a gallop up the fiery lane, yet going fast was the only way of getting safely through. Accordingly the horses were unloaded, and a man mounted each horse with a keg held in front of him wrapped in a sack, and with his coat or shawl tied over his head. Then in close, single file we galloped through the fire. I led on a fine old pack-horse, which was more afraid of my spur than he was of the fire.

When I got back to the ridge it was decided that we could do nothing but hold our position till we got the supply of food which we expected to arrive next day. Meanwhile all who could be spared from the trenches set to work to dig fern root and gather sow-thistle for supper. I found that I could not swallow fern-root, though I extracted some juice by chewing it. The sow-thistle was eatable, but would have been better with salt; however, that and a couple of biscuits that Dr. Gibbs shared with me was the only food I had for four days and a half. The couple of pack-horses left in camp would have given us a good meal, but the native owner would not allow them to be killed.

The reason that we were so long without food was that the enemy sent a strong party ten miles to our rear and attacked the convoy, who all bolted and allowed the Hau-haus to collar everything, including, unfortunately, 12,000 rounds of ammunition, but of this we afterwards recovered 8,000 rounds. Meanwhile we sent one hundred men back page 52 for twenty miles to act as escort for the next supply, and some of our wounded went with them bound for the hospital.

All this time we exchanged shots with the Hau-haus pretty constantly by day and night. On the third day of the fighting they attacked our ridge in force, but we beat them back at all points, though not without considerable loss. Old Renata Kawepo charged a strong party of the enemy that had advanced up the gully on our right, but his men fell back before the heavy fire they received. Renata was nearly surrounded by the Hau-haus, when Karauria from our right and I from the centre rushed forward with a few men each and drove them back from within a few yards of the plucky old fellow, who had been too proud to retreat with his men. Poor Karauria was severely wounded, and I had my forage cap split across by a bullet. Karauria being a chief of note, his men insisted on carrying him down to Poverty Bay two days after he was hit, though the doctor told them he could not survive the journey, which indeed killed him. My servant, a powerful young fellow named Eruera, was shot through the body, but I would not allow him to be carried down for a week. Though his kidneys had been injured and his lower limbs were paralysed, to the surprise of the doctor he eventually got quite well again.

When the rations arrived, news came that a body of the Ngatiporou tribe under the leadership of Ropata-waha-waha, Lieut. G. A. Preece and Hotene, would reinforce us in a couple of days. As the Ngatikahunga (Renata and Tareha's people) were disheartened by their losses, we determined to await their arrival before attacking the Hau-hau entrenchments. Meanwhile both sides kept up their rifle practice, and I had a careful shot at a fellow in a black frock coat whom we supposed to be Te Kooti. When I fired he jumped out of sight as if he were frightened or hurt, and as Te Kooti was wounded page 53
Renata Kawepo

Renata Kawepo

page 54 page 55 in the foot about that time, it is possible that mine may have been the lucky shot.

On the afternoon of 23rd December, 1868, Ropata and his men arrived. We had arranged that he should come up on our right, and that as soon as his men were in line our whole force would advance to the attack. It was a beautiful sight, a line of fire and smoke half a mile long, with both flanks thrown forward rapidly descending the hill: the men closing to the centre as they got close to the enemy's entrenchments on both sides of the stream. Our concentrated fire must have been terrible. But the Hau-haus fought until we were within forty yards of them, when our advance became a rush. Nevertheless when we leaped over the banks into their trenches there were none but dead and dying to be seen. A stream of water ran at the back of their position, and a dense bush covered the opposite bank. Into this the enemy rushed, and the sun having set, darkness put an end to our pursuit. However, they left over sixty dead in the trenches, and in the short pursuit one of my scouts, named Henare Kakapango, killed one of their chief fighting men, called Nama, a man noted for his courage and ferocity.

Just as we rushed the trenches, two of my half-dozen white volunteers, Bill Howard and Tom Lake, were hit. Howard was shot through the shoulder. Lake got a bullet clean through his head; it entered just below his left eye and came out close behind his right ear. Strange to say he eventually recovered from the wound, though he was slightly paralyzed in one arm and leg.