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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 5 (August 1, 1934)

Heroes Of The Maori Wars — How Fifteen Victoria Crosses Were Won in New Zealand

page 28

Heroes Of The Maori Wars
How Fifteen Victoria Crosses Were Won in New Zealand

“Odgers was the first man over.”

“Odgers was the first man over.”

Few of the present generation realise that no fewer than fifteen Victoria Crosses have been won in New Zealand. All the awards of this “Most Enviable Order of Chivalry,” as the Prince of Wales has called it, were earned within six years, 18601865.

The story of how each was won is related in the “London Gazette” notices of the period, but the citations are incomplete in their detail and are confined to the merest facts. The names of the actions are not often given and are sometimes wrongly spelt, and in fact, the records read strangely to minds that are accustomed to think of warfare in terms of machine guns, torpedoes and aeroplanes.

The first V.C. was won by Leading Seaman William Odgers of H.M.S. “Niger,” who, says the “Gazette,” displayed conspicuous gallantry at the storming of a pa during operations against the rebel natives of New Zealand; having been the first to enter it, under a heavy fire, and having assisted in hauling down the enemy's colours.

Odgers, who was Captain's coxswain on the “Niger,” a barquerigged screw corvette, commanded by Captain Peter Cracroft, R.N., won his cross at the storming of the Kaiapopo pa on 28th March, 1860, during the first Taranaki War.

In the afternoon, Captain Cracroft had landed a party of about sixty officers, sailors and marines, and in the falling dusk, about 5.30 p.m., he led his men against the pa, first turning the right flank and then storming it. Taking little heed of the firing from the rifle-pits, the men dashed at the stockade, armed with cutlasses. It was then that Captain Cracroft caught sight of a trio of flags waving from the palisades.

“Ten pounds to the man who pulls down those flags,” he yelled, and slashing their way, the storming party were over the stockade in a few minutes. Odgers was the first man over and once inside he charged for the flagstaff and hauled down the ensigns which, on the following day, were flown at the mainmast-head of his ship.

The second Cross was won a year later, on 18th March, 1861, by Colour Sergeant John Lucas of the 40th Regiment, who was acting as sergeant of a party of skirmishers to the right of the No. 7 redoubt during the advance on Te Arei. They were close to the Huirangi Bush, facing the left of the positions occupied by the natives, and at about 4 p.m. a very heavy and well-directed fire was suddenly opened upon them from the bush and high ground on the left. Three men were wounded simultaneously, two of them mortally, and assistance was called for to have them carried to the rear. A file was immediately sent, but had scarcely arrived when one of them fell and Lieutenant Rees was wounded at the same time.

Under a heavy fire from the rebels who were not more than thirty yards away, Colour Sergeant Lucas immediately went up to the assistance of this officer and sent a man with him to the rear. He then took charge of the arms belonging to the dead and wounded and maintained his position until the arrival of supports under Lieutenants Gibson and Whelan.

The Waikato War was still young when the engagement at Camerontown, which resulted in two Crosses being won, was fought. It was nearly two-and-a-half years since the last V.C. had been awarded, and was the first occasion in the history of the struggle between the Maoris and the British forces that two Crosses were won in the same action. The recipients were Colour Sergeant Edward McKenna, 65th Regiment, and Lance-Corporal John Ryan, 67th Regiment.

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Camerontown was an army depot which had been established on the north bank of the Lower Waikato River between the Tuakau Redoubt and the Heads, as a half-way station for stores shipped up the river to the British Field Headquarters. It was named after Lieutenant General Sir Duncan Cameron, Commander-inChief. Mr. James Armitage, the resident magistrate in the district, superintended the work of transhipping the stores for the journey up the river, and he was shot down in his canoe by a party of natives on 7th September, 1863, after which a skirmish was fought between the Friendly natives and the Kingites.

After receiving reports of the death of Mr. Armitage and the burning of the stores, Captain Swift of the 65th Regiment, the officer in charge of the detachment at Alexandra redoubt, Tuakau, set off for Camerontown with Lieutenant Butler and fifty men, and an engagement was fought in the bush during the afternoon. Captain Swift was shot and Lieutenant Butler disabled. Colour Sergeant McKenna, the senior N.C.O., was ordered by the dying Captain Swift to lead on the men and he thereupon conducted the skirmish with both skill and judgment. McKenna and his party were subjected to a heavy fire from the natives, but he managed to inflict losses amounting to between twenty and thirty killed or wounded.

“At the risk of their lives they crossed the Maori keep… to tend the wounded.”

“At the risk of their lives they crossed the Maori keep… to tend the wounded.”

The official record of the deed of valour refers to his “gallant conduct, in charging through the position of an enemy heavily outnumbering him and drawing off his small force consisting of two sergeants, one bugler and thirty-five men through a broken and rugged country with the loss of but one man killed and another missing.

“Lieutenant-General Cameron, C.B., commanding Her Majesty's forces in the colony reports that in ColourSergeant McKenna, the detachment found a commander whose coolness, intrepidity and judgment justified the confidence placed in him by the soldiers brought so suddenly under his command.”

The citation of Lance-Corporal Ryan states that he, with privates Bulford and Talbot of the same regiment, who had been recommended for the medal for distinguished conduct in the field, removed the body of Captain Swift from the field of action after he had been mortally wounded and remained with it all night in a bush surrounded by the enemy.

Further information is given by. Mr. James Cowan in Volume I. of his “New Zealand Wars,” in which he says (page 256): “McKenna was awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour and was also given a commission as ensign in his regiment. He settled in New Zealand and was for many years a stationmaster in the Government Railway Service. Lance-Corporal Ryan was also awarded the V.C., but before he received it, he was drowned in the Waikato in an attempt to save a comrade. Four of the privates engaged —Bulford, Talbot, Cole and Thomas—were each decorated with the medal for distinguished conduct in the field.”

The next award also, was a double one, the winners on this occasion being Ensign John Thornton Down and Drummer Dudley Stagpoole, of the 57th Regiment “for their conduct at Poutohio (Poutoko?) on 2nd October, 1863, in rescuing a wounded comrade from the rebel Maoris.”

The engagement, which was a part of the second Taranaki Campaign, was fought at Allan's Hill, or Hurford Road, about five-and-a-half miles south of New Plymouth, where there was some brisk fighting, the pakeha forces being a strong band of soldier-settlers and of the 57th Regiment, under Colonel Warre.

A wounded man was lying about fifty yards from the bush from which the Maoris kept up a very heavy fire, and other natives were shooting from behind fallen logs close at hand. Colonel Warre called for volunteers to go out and bring the man in. Down and Stagpoole volunteered and accomplished their mission successfully.

Drummer Stagpoole is one of the very few who earned two decorations in the campaign, having been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal “for the energy and devotion which he displayed on 25th September, 1863—a week previously— at the affair near Kaipopako, in having, though wounded in the head, twice volunteered and brought in wounded men.”

A mile north of Rangiriri railway station and half a mile before the township is reached, coming from Auckland on the Great South Road, is the hill on which the tragic battle of Rangiriri was fought on 20th November, 1863; where 128 out of 850 men in the British forces were slain and where two Victoria Crosses were won.

The outer works had been taken, but the central redoubt of the Kingite stronghold in which the Maoris had congregated, had defied all attempts to capture it. It was then the late afternoon, and General Cameron, full of stubborn determination and annoyed at the prolonged resistance, issued a ridiculous order, sending a detachment of the Royal Artillery, thirty-seven strong, and armed only with revolvers and swords, to storm the redoubt at which the main body of the 65th Regiment and the 14th Regiment had failed. Led by Captain Mercer, the party attempted to climb the parapet, but only one or two succeeded. Captain Mercer fell back, shot through the mouth and mortally wounded, and the attack had failed.

It was then that Assistant Surgeon W. Temple and Lieutenant Arthur Frederick Pickard, both of the Royal Artillery, came into the scene. At the risk of their lives, they crossed the Maori keep at the point upon which the enemy had concentrated their fire, to tend the wounded and more especially Captain Mercer.

Lieutenant Pickard, it is stated, crossed and recrossed the parapet to procure water for the wounded, when none of the men could be page 30 page 31 induced to perform the service, the space which he traversed being exposed to a cross fire.

Both men received their crosses “for gallant conduct, in exposing their lives in imminent danger…. Testimony is borne to the calmness displayed by Lieutenant Pickard and Assistant Surgeon Temple under the trying circumstances in which they were placed,” says the official citation.

Particular interest attaches to the award of the V.C. to Major Charles Heaphy, of the Auckland Militia, because the statutes governing the award of the decoration had to be especially amended to allow of his receiving it.

Heaphy won his cross at the fight in the scrub at Waiari, on the Mangapiko River. A party of the 40th Regiment were bathing in the creek when a force of Maoris, hidden in the bushes, fired on them. The soldiers were reinforced by a force of about 200 men under Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Marshment Havelock, Bt., V.C., C.B., with whom was Captain Heaphy, and the Maoris were driven downstream, where they took cover, and fought it out, hand to hand with the forest rangers, until evening.

Early in the skirmish, Captain Heaphy became the target for a volley from a distance of a few feet while he was engaged in assisting a wounded soldier of the 40th Regiment, who had fallen into a hollow among the thickest of the concealed Maoris. Five balls pierced Heaphy's clothes and cap, and he was wounded in three places. A soldier of the same regiment came to his assistance and he directed others to where the natives were, and then, despite his wounds, he continued to attend to the injured for the remainder of the day.

Under the original conditions, the Victoria Cross could only be awarded to officers and men of the Imperial Forces, but by a Royal Warrant issued on New Year's Day, 1867, it was made available to the Colonial Forces in the following terms:—

“Whereas during the progress of the operations which We have undertaken against the insurgent native tribes in Our Colony of New Zealand, it has happened that persons serving in the local forces of Our said Colony have performed feats of gallantry in consideration of which they are not according to the strict provisions of Our said recited Warrant, eligible for this high distinction.

“Now know ye that We of Our especial grace, certain knowledge and mere motion, had thought fit hereby to signify Our Royal Will and Pleasure that the said decoration may be conferred on such persons aforesaid who may be qualified to receive the same in accordance with the rules and ordinances made, ordained and established by Us for the government thereof …”

In view of the special circumstances, three years elapsed between the deed and the gazetting of the award, and Heaphy also received promotion to the rank of major. He came to New Zealand in 1839 as draughtsman to the New Zealand Company and distinguished himself as an explorer in the South Island. Three years after his arrival in this country he published a book in London dealing with his life in the colony and the state of the company's settlements. He executed some of the earliest and most beautiful views of New Zealand which were afterwards published in England, and on the occasion on which he won his V.C. he was serving in the role of staff surveyor.

The man whose life he saved was the means by which LieutenantColonel John Carstairs McNeill, of the 107th Regiment, gained the Cross, the award being made “for the bravery and presence of mind which he displayed on 30th March, 1864, which is described by Private Vosper of the Colonial Defence Force.”

Vosper, with another private named Gibson, of the same force, was acting as escort to Major, later LieutenantColonel McNeill, aide-de-camp to Sir Duncan Cameron, who was proceeding to Te Awamutu. When about a mile from Ohaupo (“Ohanpu” says the “Gazette”), Major McNeill sighted a body of enemy in front and after sending Private Gibson back to Ohaupo for infantry reinforcements, went on leisurely, with Vosper, to the top of a rise, to watch the enemy.

(Photo, A. W. Jones.) The Department's Workshops at Otahuhu, Auckland, as seen from the air.

(Photo, A. W. Jones.)
The Department's Workshops at Otahuhu, Auckland, as seen from the air.

Suddenly the pair were attacked by about fifty natives who had been concealed in the fern close at hand. Their only chance of escape was by riding for their lives, but as they turned to gallop away, Vosper's horse fell and threw him. The natives rushed forward to seize him, but Major McNeill, on finding that Vosper was not following, returned to the scene of the ambush, caught the horse and then helped Vosper to mount.

The Gazette relates that “the natives were firing sharply at them and were so near, that according to Vosper's statement, it was only by galloping as hard as they could that they escaped. He says he owes his life entirely to Lieutenant Colonel McNeill's assistance, for he could not have caught his horse alone, and in a few minutes, must have been killed.”

With the battle of Orakau, which began the following day, the Waikato War faded out, and the scene shifts to the East Coast and the attack on the Gate Pa at Tauranga on 29th April where Commander Hay's gallant assault earned V.C.s for two of the participants.

Heavy artillery fire had made a breach in the left angle of the main redoubt and a storming party moved in, four abreast, after which there was a terrible hand-to-hand combat. The soldiers tried to storm one wing of the pa, while the naval party, 150 strong, under Commander Hay of page 32 H.M.S. “Harrier,” made for the central redoubt. The attackers were repulsed, however. Nearly every naval officer was killed and Commander Hay was mortally wounded in the abdomen.

The Victoria Crosses were awarded on the testimony of Commodore Sir William Wiseman, Bt., C.B., to Captain of the Foretop Samuel Mitchell, of H.M.S. “Harrier,” and AssistantSurgeon William George Manley, of the Royal Artillery.

Mitchell, it transpires, received his V.C. for disobeying an order. He was doing duty as Captain's coxswain at the time, and entered the pa with Commander Hay. When the Commander was wounded, Mitchell tried to bring him out, but the Commander ordered him to leave him and seek his own safety. Mitchell, however, picked him up and carried him away, where he was attended by Manley who had volunteered to enter the pa with the storming party.

After he had attended to Commander Hay, Manley re-entered the pa to see if he could find any more wounded. When the tide of battle turned and the storming party were driven out, Manley was one of the last officers to leave.

One 21st June, Colonel Greer found the Maoris entrenching for a formidable pa at Te Ranga and he attacked at once. The natives made a desperately gallant stand, but they wilted before a successful bayonet charge, and the few survivors broke and fled. The Tauranga campaign was over.

The winners of the awards were Sergeant John Murray of the 68th Regiment and Captain Frederick Augustus Smith of the 43rd Regiment. Sergeant Murray received his “for his distinguished conduct when the enemy's rifle position was being stormed.” He ran up to a rifle-pit containing eight or ten Maoris and without any assistance, killed or wounded every one of them, and afterwards “proceeded up the works, fighting desperately and still continuing to bayonet the enemy.”

Paeroa Junction, on the Thames Line, North Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

Paeroa Junction, on the Thames Line, North Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

Captain Smith is stated to have led on his company in the most gallant manner. Although wounded before he had reached the rifle-pits, he jumped down into them where he began a hand-to-hand encounter with the enemy, thereby giving his men great encouragement and setting them a fine example.

Although it is not mentioned in the official citation, there is the authority of Mr. Cowan for saying that Captain Smith led the right of the advance and received two wounds, and that Sergeant Murray killed a Maori about to tomahawk a corporal who had just run him through with his bayonet.

We return again to the West Coast of the North Island to Cameron's campaign in which the last Victoria Cross won in New Zealand was gained by Captain Hugh Shaw of the 18th Regiment.

Cameron and two hundred men were encamped on a toe-toe and flaxcovered plain on which were numerous small lakes, with the bush on the right flank, on 24th January, 1865, when the camp was attacked from the cover of the vegetation by a party of Maoris which had the support of a larger force hidden in the bush. The natives had surprised the camp in broad daylight, but they were driven out again and Shaw was ordered to occupy a position about half a mile from the camp. He advanced in skirmishing order, but when about thirty yards from the bush deemed it prudent to retire to a palisade thirty yards further back, as two of his men had been wounded. Finding that one of them was unable to move, he called for volunteers to advance to the front and carry the man to the rear. Four privates volunteered and accompanied him under heavy fire to the place where the wounded man lay. They were successful in getting their burden back to safety.

Smoking in tram-cars has given rise to quite an animated correspondence in a Melbourne paper. “I think men are abominably selfish,” runs one letter, “smoking their horrible pipes and cigarettes they will enter a car perhaps half full of ladies, many of whom (even in this ‘advanced’ day) find tobacco smoke most offensive. Surely these men might refrain from smoking for the little while they are travelling by tram? But the courtesy formerly paid to my sex is dead.” Now isn't that about the limit? Special cars are provided for the use of smokers, and yet ladies (who don't smoke in public conveyances) will persist in rushing them, with the result that smokers are “crowded out.” Happily complaints about tobacco-smoke are rare in N.Z.— because most men here smoke “Toasted,” and its pure, sweet fragrance disarms criticism. All four brands— Cavendish, Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Riverhead Gold, and Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead)—are practically without nicotine (being toasted), and perfectly harmless.*