Soldiering in New Zealand, Being Reminiscences of a Veteran
Taurangaika—The fight in the peach orchard—March to Otautu—The Arawas break—Battle in the fog—We are severely handled—Crossing Te Ngaere swamp—Colonel Lyon—The enemy warned—Galatea—Opepe—Matata camp—“Aua”—I am placed under arrest—End of a farcical trial.
A few days after we reached Gisborne, a Government steamer carried my division round to Wanganui, and directly we landed we marched off to Woodall's redoubt, near which we camped. We were fired at during the night, but did not turn out, and the next day, 2nd February, our force under Colonel Whitmore invested a very strong pa called Taurangaika, a stronghold belonging to Titokowaru. We had two field guns, and we shelled the place and kept up a hot rifle fire all day; but we could not surround it, and next morning found that the enemy had left during the night and had crossed over the river, on which it was situated, into bush country.
Taurangaika was very well built with flanking angles at each corner and two look-out towers, strong double palisading well loop-holed, with solid inner bank and earthworks, the ditch carefully traversed, and all inside quarters bomb-proof, sunken chambers.
After its evacuation we camped on the bank of the river (Weraroa, I think, was the name), and as soon as the tents were pitched (we East Coast fellows had nearly forgotten what tents were like), a dozen or two of our men got hold of a canoe and crossed over to a peach orchard two or three hundred yards off. On their reaching the grove sudden firing broke out and we knew what that meant Calling for men to arm and follow, I ran down to the river page 89 and got a man to swim across to get the canoe. Then 20 or 30 men followed me to the peach grove, but we saw nothing of the enemy through the orchard and along a track leading into the bush for half a mile further. Hearing more firing behind us we raced back only to find that one of our men was sitting in the bottom of an old pit firing in the air. I disarmed and made a prisoner of him, as he seemed to be half-witted. If I remember rightly, we must have lost eleven men in this most regrettable affair.
For many weeks after this our force moved slowly through very rough country in the vain attempt to surprise the enemy. Almost daily our scouts exchanged shots with them, and a few men were killed on both sides, but our hard night marches were productive only of disappointment and fatigue. Titokowaru's men moved too quickly through the bush for our main body to catch them, and, in my opinion, our commander-in-chief was not good enough in strategy or tactics for warfare of this sort.
At last we camped for three weeks close to the little township of Patea, to rest the men and wait for news of Titoko's whereabouts. Then, hearing that he was camped at a place called Otautu, about ten miles up the Patea river, our whole force marched at midnight on March 13th in two columns, the left under Colonel St. John going up the right bank of the Patea river, and the right column under Colonel Whitmore following a track up the left bank to Otautu.
This was the most dismal march that I remember. The night was dark and a thick wet fog rolled over us from the river. We marched in single file, and had to halt every fifteen or twenty minutes to allow the rear end of the column to close up, and I had the greatest trouble to keep awake. At last as daylight appeared through the dense fog, the 8th division, Captain Gundry's Arawas, who were leading, formed page 90 up in open order and crept forward, with my division, No. 1, in support. I ordered my men to open out well and to lie down and let the Arawas run through them if the latter broke. The Arawas suddenly received a volley, and, as I expected, ran back through us, whereupon I, with Sub-Inspector Tom Withers, crawled forward leading our division through the still dense fog till we reached the edge of what seemed to be a low cliff. Immediately several of our men were knocked over by bullets from the foe hidden by the fog. I guessed that the Hau-haus were on lower ground at the foot of the cliff, and that we should be in good cover so long as we lay on the edge of the cliff. We could see nothing, and could only fire at where the sound of their guns seemed to come from; anyone getting up on his knees was quickly hit.
Just then Colonel Whitmore and several orderlies rushed forward, the colonel shouting to me, “Why don't you go on, sir? Charge instantly!” I called, “Down with you, Colonel, or you will be shot.” He seemed furious and began to talk, when one of his orderlies, a man named Savage, got shot through both sides of his jaw and fell against the colonel with blood pouring down his chest; another orderly fell across the colonel's feet; at the same moment another of my men who stood up was hit. I had pulled Whitmore down by this time, and he changed his tune to “Oh, my poor men—my poor men—retire: retire your company, sir.” I replied, “Somebody must hold this point, and we are all right here. Only the fools who stand up can be hit. The fog is lifting and we can ‘give them fits’ directly.” I added, “I wish, sir, that you would advance No. 6 on to the low ground to the right: that would flank our friends just below us.”
A somewhat laughable incident occurred before we started. A string of men was observed moving on the hills on the far side of the Patea river, and our commander, thinking that they were foes, hurriedly gave orders to meet the supposed danger. It took a good field glass to convince him that the men were part of Colonel St. John's column trying to attract our attention.
Our next move was to beat up Titokowaru's rumoured refuge at the back of Te Ngaere swamp. We marched through bush country at the back of Mount Egmont, and reaching the swamp set to work to make hundreds of hurdles out of long saplings laid parallel and laced together with supple-jack. When these were ready we waited for a dark night and proceeded to lay half a mile of them across the swamp, which was a deep, quaking bog, with a deep, sluggish stream in the middle. Then crawling slowly over the hurdles in single file, we got all the men safely across before daylight without opposition from the enemy.
During the crossing our fine old one-armed soldier, Colonel Lyon, slipped off the long, springy hurdle into the stream. I happened to be just ahead of him, and hearing the splash turned quickly, and leaning over a toi-toi stump, reached out my carbine for him to lay hold of the muzzle, and drawing him to the side of the creek with the help of a couple of men, got him safely out. As soon as we reached solid ground I wrapped him in blankets, and setting him on a fallen tree page 94 with my flask in his one hand, told him to stay there till the hospital orderlies I would send arrived to look after him. I had to hurry on to my division, and joined our line waiting for orders to open fire on the huts now visible in the increasing light.
This native village was located on a clearing between the big swamp and a stretch of heavy bush about a hundred yards from the houses. As we got ready for a rush at the place, to our disgust and astonishment a voice from the group surrounding our commanding officer shouted a summons to the people of the village. Next minute we could see many men running into the big timber, while a voice answered from the houses that Titokowar's people had left on the previous day, and were then many miles away in safety in the bush.
We were ordered to advance, and two divisions went in pursuit of the men seen running from the settlement, but, of course, with little chance of bagging any of them. We were told next day that the scouts had overtaken and killed a few—old cripples probably, if there was any truth in the story.
It was common “gup” that the Civil Commissioner with the headquarters was responsible for the warning cry which let the rebels know that we were close to them.
The next day we re-crossed the swamp at a point some miles to the north, and continued our march along the same line of country that had been followed by General Chute in his famous march round the back of Mount Egmont to New Plymouth. We struck the coast at Waitara, and then marched to New Plymouth, news being received that trouble had broken out afresh on the east coast. The Government decided to send a strong column into the Urewera country, and my division was sent from New Plymouth to Auckland, and thence to Whakatane, from which place our column marched up the gorge of the page 95 Whakatane river into the heart of the Urewera country. It was here that Lieutenant White was killed while leading the advance. From Ahikereru the column debouched into the open country on the Taupo side of the Tuhua ranges, and camped on the left bank of the Rangitaeki river at a spot which we named Galatea.
Owing to defective commissariat arrangements our food supply was very bad at this camp for a week or two, and one day, at any rate, the lucky owners of spare tucker could get 2s. 6d. for one ration biscuit from extra hungry comrades.
It was while we were camped here that Te Kooti, passing Opepe on his way to the Kaimanawa hills, surprised a small party of Bay of Plenty mounted volunteers, and killed eleven out of fourteen of them, three men only escaping into the thick bush alongside their camp. One of them, the officer in charge of the party, was wounded in the foot as he ran into the scrub; when picked up by one of the parties which we sent to search for survivors, he seemed to be demented from his sufferings and fright. He was decorated for this affair.
Nearly all the young men who were killed at Opepe belonged to Tauranga families, and their death cast a sad gloom over the district. The party were surprised without their arms and belts and had no sentry out!
The field force was now ordered to move from Galatea to Matata, and at our first camp on that march a curious incident nearly cost me my commission. We had just got our tents pitched, and after our evening meal I spread a bundle of fern inside the tent, and three of my brother officers came in to share a bottle of brandy that a friend had sent to me. We had a pannikin of water and another pannikin to drink out of, and lying on the clean fern felt cosy and cheerful after the fatigues of the day. A passing senior officer poked page 96 his head into my tent to ask what the “joke” was. Of course I asked him to come in and passed the pannikin and bottle over to him, and he was very glad to have a good nip and join our gossip, lying on the fern and smoking a peaceful pipe. Then in a pause of the conversation he asked, “Does anyone know what has delayed those pack-horses?” As he addressed no one in particular and nobody spoke, I from a sense of the politeness due from a host replied, “Aua,” that being Maori for “I do not know”: most of us had got into the habit of frequently using Maori words in ordinary conversation.
I had nothing to do officially with the pack-horses, and under the circumstances did not think that the question referring to them could be meant officially; but to my surprise the senior officer was offended at my using a Maori term and placed me under arrest “for insubordination and want of respect to a senior officer,” refusing to listen to any explanation or apology.
Next day we continued our march to Matata, where I wrote to the officer commanding the field force, respectfully stating exactly what had occurred and that no want of respect had been intended by me, as could be attested by the other officers who were in my tent at the time I was placed under arrest.
After I had been under arrest for six weeks, Lieutenant-Colonel Harrington took over the command of the East Coast field force, and a board of officers assembled by his order to try me on the charge of gross misconduct and insolence to a superior officer.
Next day I appeared before the board under escort and pleaded “not guilty,” though I admitted having used the Maori expression to which my accuser, in ignorance of its meaning, had taken exception. The board having found the charges proved, Colonel Harrington proceeded to inform me that he had hoped that a severe reprimand would page 97 meet my case, but that the late commandant had sent him a memorandum to the effect that I had written a letter to headquarters on the subject of my arrest, in which I had aggravated my offence by referring most improperly to the officer who had placed me under arrest. He added that in order to maintain proper discipline he felt it his painful duty to dismiss me from the service with the loss of my commission.
At this stage I remembered that the rough copy of the letter he referred to was probably in my swag, and I requested to be allowed to fetch it that he might form his own judgment as to its supposed impropriety. After some hesitation the board allowed me to produce the copy. Having read it, Colonel Harrington passed it on to the officer who had placed me under arrest. When he had read it he walked over to me and shook my hand, and then the new commandant told me, with his hearty congratulations, to return to my duty.
As all the officers who took part in this farcical trial, with the exception of myself and perhaps one other, are dead, I will abstain from further comment.