The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 2 (June 1, 1928)
Rangiriri and the Forlorn Hope
Rangiriri and the Forlorn Hope.
The river fleet enabled Cameron to turn the Maoris flank and gave him command of the Waikato. The Maoris evacuated their defence lines at Meremere and retreated in canoes up the Whan-gamarino and across the flooded swamps where the rail-line now runs to the wide stretches of Lake Waikare and contiguous lagoons on our left as we go southward. Then they garrisoned Rangiriri, and there the heaviest fighting of the Lower Waikato campaign occurred.
Fifty-five miles south of Auckland we can see from our railway carriage windows the grassy and pine-wooded ridge of Rangiriri, with a raupo reed fringed shallow lagoon in the foreground on our right. This swampy lake, Kopuwera, is a sanctuary for native wild fowl. A little farther on is Rangiriri railway station, from which a road a mile in length leads to the willow-fringed river at a small township on the right bank of the Waikato. The battlefield of the 20th November, 1863, is half a mile or so north of the settlement. On the riverside is the military cemetery where the British sailors and soldiers who fell in the battle were buried. The Government tends the sacred page 35 ground carefully, and the memorials and the general well-kept appearance of the burying-place attest a fine reverence for the Empire's warriors of old time.
When General Cameron with nearly a thousand men attacked the Rangiriri fortifications on the 20th November, 1863, his infantry captured the outer lines of defence at the point of the bayonet. These entrenchments extended from water to water — from the lagoon on the east to the Waikato River on the west. They completely barred the way along this ridge until the soldiers turned them. But the strong central redoubt, the tihi, or citadel, of the earthworks, resisted all efforts to take it by assault or escalade. It was a rectangular work with steep escarpments 17ft. high, and it was defended by 200 Maoris, the most determined of the Kingite warriors. The others retreated across the lagoons when the outer trenches were carried.
With extraordinary recklessness for so experienced a general—a veteran of the Crimea War—Cameron launched three successive frontal attacks against this impregnable work, after shelling the place with his Armstrong guns. One attack after another was beaten back. The soldiers’ ladders were too short to reach the top of the parapet. A detachment of the Royal Artillery, armed with revolvers and swords, was ordered, late in the afternoon, to storm the fort. Captain Mercer led thirty-six of his men in the assault, but they were hurled back, and Mercer fell mortally wounded, shot through the mouth. Then the Royal Navy men—detachments from H.M. ships “Eclipse,” “Pioneer,” and “Miranda”—numbering ninety, charged the earthworks, but were repulsed with heavy loss. Darkness compelled the General to cease the waste of brave men's lives. Forty-two officers and men were killed or died of wounds and seventy-one were wounded.
Next day the Maori garrison surrendered. They had lost nearly fifty, including several women. To the number of 183 they were sent to Auckland and imprisoned on a harbour hulk. Later they were sent to Kawau Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, at the suggestion of the Governor, Sir George Grey, who owned the island. One calm night they all escaped to the mainland in boats and canoes sent by their sympathisers, the Ngapuhi tribe, and gradually they found their way back to the Waikato, but by that time the war was over.
The bang of the double-barrel gun is still a familiar sound around Rangiriri, but nowadays it is the wild duck and not the pakeha that makes the target.
The low clay hills of these parts of the Waikato are not inviting to the settler, but they grow fruit exceedingly well, and there are Government tree-plantations and vineyards. This clay country continues till we pass the coal-mining town of Huntly (65 miles) and approach the grand gorge of the Waikato at Taupiri.
It is at Huntly, a busy scene of industry with its pitheads, its great stores of coal, and its mingled mining and rural life, that the railway passenger has opportunity of viewing the splendid Waikato River free of obstructive hills.