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Soldiering in New Zealand, Being Reminiscences of a Veteran

Chapter V

page 56

Chapter V.

Major Ropata—First attack on Ngatapa—Strength of the enemy's position—Hotene—Panic of his men—Blackstock—Mohi—We abandon the attack—The New Zealand cross—I get promotion—A waiting reinforcements—Second attack on Ngatapa delayed—A dangerous bit of scouting—Captain Newland—The raupo swamp—Rescue of Ateria—Shortt nearly kills me—Second attack on Ngatapa—The siege—Te Kooti escapes—£5 a head for captives.

Next morning, in pursuance of an agreement arrived at during the night, the combined forces started in pursuit of the enemy, but by noon Ropata's Ngatiporou and Tareha's Ngatikahunga came to loggerheads over the disposal of a prisoner.

It had been decided that no quarter should be given before we attacked Ngatapa, Te Kooti's new stronghold. Unfortunately the first prisoner taken by the advance guard turned out to be a connection of Tareha's, who insisted on his life being spared. There was angry shouting between the tribes, because sparing a prisoner under the circumstances was considered certain to entail bad luck, and Lieutenant Preece and I feared that blood would be shed before the question was settled. In the end our natives, after firing a volley in the direction of the enemy, marched back to camp, and Tareha's men went several miles further towards Turanganui that evening before they halted.

Preece and I stayed with Ropata, and that night we held a council of war with him, Hotene, and several of the leading men of the tribe. Though Ropata supported us, it was with difficulty that we obtained the consent of the leaders to attack the following day.

I was very anxious to know for certain if Ngatapa was really the page 57
Major Ropata

Major Ropata

page 58 page 59 almost impregnable stronghold that vague native gossip had stated it to be. It was believed that in consequence of our success of the previous day Te Kooti had retreated to the safety of the unknown country towards Ruatahuna; correct information was, therefore, of great importance. Unfortunately we were short of ammunition, having only from 30 to 40 rounds a man, and could not risk more than a short, sharp fight.

At break of day we started in two companies of about 150 each. The right column, commanded by Ropata and Preece, was to follow up the bed of the stream that would lead them through thick bush to the foot of the bluff on the summit of which Ngatapa was built. The left column, under Hotene and myself, was to advance along a wooded spur that ended in an open crest crossed by the palisades of the Maori fort.

Before we reached this spur we had to cross a creek in the dividing gully. Here Hotene, on the plea of feeling ill, decided to stop, retaining about thirty men as a body guard. I pushed on with the rest, and when we reached the more open flax and manuka scrub that gave cover to within a hundred yards of the enemy, we formed a line across the spur. Peeping over the tops of the bushes we could see the palisading about seventy yards off, with loop-holes every six or eight feet about five feet from the ground, showing that a bullet-proof bank was behind the timber. We could not see a movement or hear a sound of life, and my men began to whisper that the fort might be empty. I passed the word to keep cover closely, and moved forward cautiously on the right till I was only twenty yards from the angle on my right, where I was in full view of any watching defender. I then walked across the front of the pa nearly to the middle, when a slight noise made me throw myself down behind a flax bush, barely in time to page 60 escape a heavy volley from the palisade. For a minute or two the bullets kept flicking the leaves of my flax bush in a way that warned me to move to a safer spot: so I slid down the slight slope on my stomach back to our alignment. Then to my disgust I found myself alone, with two recently killed men crumpled up near me; the only sign of my men was a very distant sound of the breaking of a passage through the bush. Presently one man came back towards me. He was a white named Blackstock, who had fought with me at Waiapu. When he found that I had not gone with the retreating natives, he supposed that I must have been wounded or killed, and was looking for me.

“Every wan of auld Hotene's Maoris is running like hell,” he exclaimed, “and won't stop for anyone.”

Hastening on I overtook Mohi, a staunch old fighting man. I tried to persuade him to stop the men, as Ropata was firing and might want help. He pushed me aside, saying contemptuously, “Don't you know that it is a whati (panic), and the result of the bad omens that you and Preece would not listen to?” Then I went on to Hotene and asked him to get some of his men to go back and join Ropata. He also refused, so Blackstock and I started to go round to Ropata, but we met one of his men who said that the chief was also retiring and would soon join us. This turned out to be true, and shortly after we marched back to camp, unmolested by the enemy who were deterred from following us by their knowledge of Ropata's closeness to their flank.

Our party had lost six killed. When the men saw me walking across the front of the pa without being fired at they raised their heads above the cover and presented too tempting a mark for the enemy to resist.

Ropata had not lost any men. Preece and he, followed by a dozen men, crawled up the precipice over a hundred feet by the aid of page 61 shrubs, to the end of the ditch behind the front wall. Ropata fired along the ditch and cleared the enemy out of it for some distance, Preece handing on loaded rifles to him and passing back those discharged. But the enemy was so well posted inside that it was impossible to get further, and to remain clinging in single file to the face of the cliff was simply to invite slaughter. So orders were passed down for the party to retire the way they had come, and, followed by Ropata and Preece and a rearguard of good shots, they rejoined Hotene's men, and all returned to our last night's camp.

Our small residue of ammunition and the encumbrance of our wounded made it necessary to make a very early retirement to Turanganui next morning, and we were extremely fortunate not to have to fight our way back.

I had directed that all wounded who had to be carried were to be sent off at daylight. Thinking that all were well on the track, with my mounted orderly and a bugler lad I was busy setting fire to provisions that we had no means of carrying back with us, when Dr. Murray Gibbs reported that Lake, the wounded white man, had been abandoned by the natives who were told off to carry him.

The only thing to be done was to carry him ourselves, so Gibbs and I picked up the stretcher and doubled along as fast as we could, the orderly relieving one of us in turn, and the bugler keeping a sharp look-out for any sign of pursuit. At last we reached a dense patch of high manuka scrub, and being quite exhausted by the labour of running with such a heavy weight as this fellow Lake (who cursed at us all the time), we carried him deep into the scrub. Leaving the three others to watch for the Hau-hau scouts who would be sure to follow us for some miles, I galloped to overtake a dozen or so of our natives and force them to return and act as bearers. I had to threaten that they page 62 would lose the whole of their pay for the expedition if they refused the duty, and finally got twenty men to return with me to where I had left the doctor, and very glad we were to get going again away from a very dangerous position. If we had been noticed by any of the enemy's scouts, we should have had but a slight chance of getting away safely.

Both Ropata and Preece, on my recommendation, were awarded the New Zealand cross for their plucky attempt on Ngatapa. Later I recommended Doctor Gibbs for the cross for his action in assisting to carry the wounded man, Lake, at great risk of being overtaken by the enemy.

We pushed on with the wounded for Turanganui, and in the afternoon struck a camp of armed constabulary and reported to Colonel Whitmore. We met a lot of old comrades and were very glad of a good meal, and the chance of a wash and change of underclothing after a fortnight of most strenuous marching, fighting, night watching, and short commons.

I was here notified that I was gazetted captain and sub-inspector in the armed constabulary, and attached to Colonel Fraser's No. 1 division.

Colonel Whitmore's intention was to attack Ngatapa forthwith, but Ropata refused to co-operate until he had recruited a fresh lot of his tribe, as most of his men were footsore and tired. Whitmore was very angry and wished to attack without waiting for Ropata's men and the 6th and 7th divisions of A.C. who were on their way to join him. However, my description of Te Kooti's strength at Ngatapa helped towards the more prudent course of awaiting reinforcements, and two days later we moved camp back to Makaraka, four miles from Gisborne.

About this time a foolish rumour got abroad to the effect that page 63 Te Kooti had burned Ngatapa and retired to the Urewera country. He was, however, so well informed in regard to Whitmore's plans and strength, that the Hau-haus grew very daring, making several incursions into the Bay at night, stealing horses and doing other mischief. Early in December they actually murdered some members of the Wylie family at the Big Bush, only five miles from our camp.

One night I was on duty with the outlying picket under Captain Newland, and hearing dogs barking far away on our right front, where I knew no friendly natives would venture after dark, I left the picket and went by myself in the direction of the sound. Advancing cautiously, I heard Maori voices quite distinctly, but as the natives were on the opposite side of the river, I could not ascertain their number. However, I judged there were a good many, and knowing that they must be enemies, reported accordingly.

When he received the picket report next morning the commanding officer declared that my ears had deceived me; he could not believe that the Hau-haus would venture within ten miles of his camp. However, by way of testing the truth of my report, he ordered me to go as guide to Captain Newland and nine or ten mounted men, who were to patrol to a point in our front about ten miles off, where the track from Ngatapa forked on the bank of a creek. We were to examine the crossing of the creek for signs of Hau-haus having passed down on the previous day.

Newland and I were well aware of the useless risk that our party ran. We knew that the enemy was in force somewhere near, and that we might be caught in an ambush or cut off from the open country by a force that we could not tackle. However, we had to carry out our orders and depend on a sharp look-out.

It was a mere cattle track up a long narrow valley that we were page 64 on, between a deep creek and a steep hillside, leading in places through bush where we had to jump our horses over logs and push our way through vines and supplejacks. This was the most dangerous part of the track, for we could only move slowly in single file; if attacked there, we could neither form line to charge, nor move quickly enough to make running away of much use.

At length we got through and were within a mile and a half of the fork. Here to save time and risk we halted the party. I galloped on by myself to the fork and examined the track, and returned to tell Newland that there were scores of fresh marks of foot and hoof, pointing both up and down, but too much mixed to tell more than that many men had passed within the preceding twenty-four hours.

Having obeyed orders we thought that the sooner we got back to the open country the better; but the men were tired, having been on duty all the previous night, and they begged leave to stop for some biscuit and tea. Newland gave them half an hour, and this delay was the cause of our being very nearly trapped by the Hau-haus. After the hurried meal we continued our march down the valley, Newland leading and I bringing up the rear. We had nearly got through the biggest bit of bush, when, looking ahead, I could see the leading men suddenly stop as they reached the more open fern-land. Fifty yards beyond them, where the track went over a spur of the hill on our left running our across the main valley, I could see a line of black faces looking at us over the top of the fern. Where the track came out of the bush we had the impassable creek on the right and a raupo swamp on the left filling the mouth of a little glen that branched off the main valley at this point. In the morning I had noticed that cattle had made a track through this swamp. The bottom, therefore, was hard and could be ridden on; once over this and the ridge beyond, the page 65 page 66 page 67 descent into the flat country on the other side was fairly easy.

As soon as I caught sight of the line of dark faces, I knew that we were in a tight corner, and that our best chance was to get round the flank of the Hau-haus. I had just time to shout to Newland, “Through the swamp to your left,” when we received a tremendous volley from the enemy. How we escaped annihilation at such a short range I do not know, but I only saw one of our men fall from his horse. The others dashed into the raupo to our left, while the Hau-haus rushed forward, reloading as fast as they could. The man who fell was a young native scout named Ateria. He was unhurt, and as his horse plunged after the others, the brave fellow faced the Hau-haus with his carbine at the “present,” determined, as he afterwards told me, to get one life as utu for his own. Meanwhile, just as his horse, which was only slightly wounded, reached the edge of the swamp, I caught the brute by the bridle and called to Ateria to run for it. He lost no time in jumping on his horse's back, and dived into the raupo just as some of the Hau-haus had reloaded their muzzle-loaders. Those nearest to us made a rush to seize us, but we were too quick for them.

The bullets flew thick as we made off, but we were not touched. As we cleared the swamp and made for the ridge, I noticed that some of the enemy had run up the hill behind their first position and were firing at us from the higher ground, while others had followed us through the swamp. We soon caught up with the rear men of our party, who were spurring their horses through the fern to gain the top of the ridge, and I called to those who had reached it to halt and fire over our heads at our pursuers. Newland repeated the order and fired himself, upon which the Hau-haus gave up the chase, greatly to my relief, for if they had followed us up in the bad ground we were in, they would probably have got some of us. But an over-excited page 68 man, named Shortt, just in front of me fired his carbine so close to my head that he scorched my face. Years after I was having my hair cut in a saloon at Auckland when I heard the proprietor telling a customer how he had nearly shot his officer when he was soldiering in Poverty Bay. I remarked that his yarn was quite true, and that I was the officer he spoke of. He seemed delighted to meet me again, and wanted me to sample all the whiskey in Queen Street.

When we reached camp at dusk we learned that the first division had had a skirmish with the mob that fired on us and had lost Sergeant Read, a very fine young fellow. We were also told that shortly after we started in the morning it was known that a force of Hau-haus were in the Bay, and No. 1 division had been sent to reconnoitre them, but that no steps had been taken to cover our patrol or to bring us out of the muddle. So tired, hungry and sulky, we fed our horses and ourselves, and blessed the C.O.'s eyes.

Next day we moved camp to Patutahi on the Ngatapa track, and the following day the whole force marched some ten miles up the Big River, but we saw nothing of the enemy and returned to camp. The following day Ropata with a fresh contingent of Ngatiporou, and Colonel Roberts with the 6th division joined us, and the day after the force marched to the siege of Ngatapa.

This promised to be a tough job, as the Maori fort had been much strngthened since my visit to it. A high sod wall, loop-holed, was built right across the front, and a third palisade had been added on the inner side. The flanks could not be scaled, and the rear approach was a steep, knife-like edge commanded by loop-holed rifle pits that could only be reached by climbing in single file. It was decided to keep a strong division watching the rear, with a few of our men clinging to the ladder-like path wherever they could get foothold and keep page 69 page 70 page 71 the enemy's marksmen busy. More than one New Zealand cross was won at this point.

A flying sap was dug in the front approach with the intention of blowing up a bit of the new wall, and we had two Cohorn mortars throwing shells over the wall: so for three days and nights the fight went on. Captain Brown of No. 7 division was killed, and Captain Capel of the same division was shot through the shoulder. I had to leave my own party and take Capel's place, and by this time we had many wounded and some more killed among our casualties—a busy Christmas day!

The third day of the siege was very wet and stormy, and I was ordered to be in readiness that evening to lead a forlorn hope of thirty men of No. 7 division against the fortress. I selected my men and wedged them under shelter of the top of the cliff on our right, about forty yards from the outer wall of the stronghold. The ground being open and level from the cliff to the wall and exposed to the fire of the defenders, we waited till it was nearly dusk. Then the major commanding No. 7 division ordered me to rush my party across to the foot of the wall and take some shovels and axes with me, and wait there for further orders. My two sergeants and the men heard these orders given and so knew what we had to do.

The major then squeezed himself into the shelter-hole which I had made while waiting for the order to advance, remarking, “A major was more valuable than a captain.” On his order, “Charge to the wall!” I sang out, “Follow me, lads!” and rushed across to the wall and crouched under the shelter of it; but I was alone. Through the din of the firing and the noise of the storm, I could hear the senior sergeant swearing at the men; then he rushed over and joined me under the wall. Presently two more ran over to us; then four or five; page 72 so by degrees the party got over, and keeping close to the wall we were fairly safe from the bullets of the Hau-haus.

No more orders came, so we just squatted in the wind and rain till long after midnight. Meanwhile Mr. Edward Hamlin and a body of our native allies took post further along the wall to our right.

Just before dawn I heard, through the howling of the wind, the voices of women screaming something about Te Kooti having left the pa, and I called to Hamlin to know what was the matter. He answered that the women said, “Stop shooting; there are only women and wounded here. Te Kooti and his men have got away down the cliff by flax ropes.” Hamlin said, “I am going in to find out.” I called, “Look out for a trap; I will support.” Then the “cease fire” sounded, and as the day dawned the cry of the women was found to be true. A good many badly-wounded men and some women were soon in the hands of the surgeons; the dead were very few.

The nearly perpendicular cliff down which the enemy escaped, dropped steeply into dense bush on the west side between Fraser's division and the right attack. The darkness and the noise of the wind and the rain favoured their escape.

After breakfast I was ordered to march No. 7 division back to Gisborne, but when about three miles down from Ngatapa I met the Hon. J. C. Richmond, who halted me to learn the news. He asked what steps had been taken to pursue Te Kooti. I told him that I knew of none, but that plenty of men, both whites and Ngatiporou natives, would readily volunteer for pursuit, especially if head money were offered.

Mr. Richmond ordered me to follow him back to Ngatapa and rode on with his orderlies: so we wheeled right-about and started up the track again. I halted at the edge of the timber some 200 yards page 73
Sketch of Attack of Ngatapa.

Sketch of Attack of Ngatapa.

page 74 page 75 from the pa, as I wanted a clean spot to camp on, and went on to report my return and get leave to let my men fall out and boil their billies for tea with their biscuit and cold bacon. Fresh rations had been served out that morning, and very welcome they were, for we had been without meat for several days. I was lucky, for on the previous day a native friend had given me a chunk, as big as my fist, of boiled horse that someone had shot. I found it such good eating that I saved half wrapped in paper to keep it clean in my pocket, at the risk of being shot before I had another meal of it.

Presently two excited natives came to ask me if it was true that the Government had promised £5 a head for all Hau-haus caught. On my saying that I believed the offer was genuine, one of them slapped his thigh and remarked, “My word, I get some of that money.” Sure enough next morning he produced a sack with three heads in it, and his mate another sack with two heads! However, I do not think that many of the Hau-haus were caught, though one or two noted men were captured. A few women were overtaken, but their heads were not wanted.

The following day we again marched down the track bound for Turanganui (Gisborne), and half a mile from Ngatapa I noticed between twenty and thirty prisoners drawn up near the track. They seemed a fine lot of young men and I was told that they were to be shot. Afterwards I heard that the sentence had been carried out on the spot where I had seen them, except that one of them made a dash into the bush, but was run down and tomahawked in the creek below the track by some of the Ngatiporou young men.