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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 7 (October 1, 1937.)

The Surprise of Opepe Camp — A Race for Life — Trooper Crosswell's Wonderful Escape Across the Kaingaroa Plain

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The Surprise of Opepe Camp
A Race for Life
Trooper Crosswell's Wonderful Escape Across the Kaingaroa Plain

Mr. George Crosswell, of Opotiki, whose marvellous escape from the Hauhaus at Opepe is narrated in this story.

Mr. George Crosswell, of Opotiki, whose marvellous escape from the Hauhaus at Opepe is narrated in this story.

On that desolation of scrubgrown pumice land between Taupo and the eastern ranges, where the motorist speeds up to get over the uninteresting plain as quickly as possible, there is a place about which a book could be written, the site of Opepe stockade. At the beginning of the Seventies this Armed. Constabulary post was the advanced field post on the Kaingaroa Plain, a strategic position guarding the tracks to Napier and along the Rangitaiki valley. Later Taupo became the headquarters of the frontier patrol. But before the stockade was built by the bushmen and carbineers of the Constabulary tragic history was made at Opepe, June 7th, 1869.

The story of the surprise attack on a party of cavalrymen encamped there has often been described as a “massacre.” That error has been corrected, at any rate in the official and authoritative descriptions. It was really a skilful little military operation on the part of the Hauhaus, the advance party of Te Kooti's force marching from the Urewera Country to Taupo and Waikato. They cut off a careless detachment of the Bay of Plenty Cavalry, killed nine out of the fourteen, and captured all the arms and horses. Had the Government forces scored such a success it certainly would not have been described as a massacre. “Brilliant Action at Opepe” would have made a newspaper thriller of the moment. It was really a minor war incident in itself, but the moral effect was considerable, for it greatly heartened the sturdy rebels.

Pakeha and Maori Narratives.

I have heard the story of Opepe from men on both sides in this incident of our civil wars, and that is the only satisfactory way in which such history can be written. All have gone now, it can never be done again. I was fortunate in hearing from ex-trooper George Crosswell the story of his marvellous escape, and in gathering from the grim old Hauhau warriors Te Rangi-Tahau, of Taupo, and Peita Kotuku, of the King Country, the narratives of their share in an exploit that greatly increased the mana of their leader, Te Kooti, in the heart of the Island.

St. John's Cavalry Party.

The Government had decided, after the invasion of the Urewera Country in 1869, to establish military outposts in the Taupo Country, and Lieut-Colonel St. John left the redoubt called Fort Galatea on June 4, with an escort of about twenty officers and men. Opepe was indicated as a likely place for a kind of watch-post of the Plains. For a graphic account of the events that followed on the departure of the detachment of jingling cavalrymen, in high spirits for the new adventure, read George Crosswell's story as he told it to me in 1921. He was small-built, wiry and active; his powers of endurance must have been great, otherwise he could not have survived the midwinter ordeal of a naked flight across the galeswept Kaingaroa.

Suspicious Camp Fires.

“Leaving the Galatea redoubt on Friday, June 4th, we were taken by a Maori guide across the Rangitaiki River at a ford above the old primitive footbridge called the Arawhata—manuka poles set from bank to bank at a very narrow place. We camped there that night on the eastern side of the river, close under the Heruiwi hills, on the western border of the Urewera County, Te Kooti was encamped somewhere there. After dark our guide lit several large fires, and I remember well that I had some suspicions of him at the time. I remarked to my comrade, George Stephenson, that it was very queer that the Maori should be allowed to light the fires, which were not needed, for we noticed that he did not stay to warm himself at them. They were quite apart from our cooking fires. I have no doubt that the fires were intended as signals to Te Kooti's scouts on the range above, and that our guide was in collusion with the Hauhaus. He was a ‘friendly,’ from a tribe near Rotorua. Our Commander seemed quite unsuspicious.

The Camp at Opepe.

“We continued our march next morning up the eastern side of the Rangitaiki, until we reached a place well up towards Runanga. Here we re-crossed the river and that night we reached the Opepe Bush, which extended for about a mile on the northern side of the Runanga-Taupo track, a short distance from the main trail. We turned off from the track there and by a side-path reached a little plateau, with a pumice gully on two sides and the bush immediately in the rear. There were four or five deserted Maori whares there, roughly built huts of saplings and fern-tree trunks, roofed with totara bark.

“There the fourteen of us were left, Cornet Angus Smith in command. There were, two N.C.O.'s, Sergt-Major Slattery, an old soldier of the British Army, and Sergeant C. F. Dette. Four of the party were from Tauranga—Troopers Harry Gill (son of Judge Gill, of the Native Land Court), Johnson, Bidois and Poictier or Potie; the last three were half-castes. The rest of us were from Opotiki: Troopers George Stephenson, Ross, Lawson, Harry Cook, Lockwood, McKillop (trumpeter), and myself. I had enlisted under the name of Leary, which was my stepfather's name; I resumed later my proper name of Crosswell. Cornet Angus Smith was also from Opotiki; he had been a storekeeper there.

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“I believe someone asked Colonel St. John if the camp was a safe place, and he replied that we were as safe there as we would be in London. With two other officers he rode on to Tapu-wae-haruru, on the north end of Lake Taupo. We made ourselves fairly comfortable in the huts, after turning out our horses on a grass clearing at the edge of the bush. On Sunday the 6th, some of us rambling about, got three sheep, probably strays from one of the out-stations on the ranges to the east, and we killed them and hung them up in the camp. (We never had the pleasure of eating that mutton).

“On the following morning I went to search for my horse, which had strayed in the direction of Fort Galatea; after an unsuccessful search I returned to camp. It was raining, and I was wet through by the time I got back to the whares, so I took off all my clothes and hung them to dry at a big fire which we lit in one of the smallest huts, built of ponga fern-tree trunks. In the largest whare—the door of which faced north, towards the bush—there were seven men; in another were the three half-caste troopers from Tauranga, and I and the others were in the small whare. I had returned to the hut about an hour, it now was about four o'clock in the afternoon.

Surprised by the Maoris.

“I was lying on my blanket reading a paper, when I heard voices outside, and looking out saw a Maori, a stranger, who had come up from one of the gullies on our flanks. Some of our men called to him and the troopers came out of the big hut to talk to him; they took him for a friendly native. I heard more voices, and getting up was confronted at the door of the whare by two Maoris in fighting trim, with Enfield rifles capped and cocked.

A Panic-stricken Flight.

“They shook hands with me, and let me pass outside; I had just got up from my blanket, and had not a stitch of clothing on as my uniform was not yet dry. I had a suspicion now that something was wrong. I did not attempt to take my arms. Passing the armed natives I walked towards my comrades, most of whom were now outside the huts. Then all with one accord realising that the Maoris were enemies, made a rush for the shelter of the bush, which was perhaps a chain away. Not a single one of us had any arms; our carbines, revolvers and swords were all in the huts.

“When we made the dash for the bush the Maoris did not fire immediately, as they were on both sides of us, and they could not fire without endangering their own party. The instant, however, that the troopers ran the gauntlet, a heavy volley was fired after us; the bullets knocked up the earth about me. The shooting continued as long as any of us were in sight; a great many shots were fired. I had only time for a hasty glance about me when I realised that we were trapped, but long enough to see that the place was full of Maoris; there must have been quite a hundred of them. Immediately the first volley was fired into us I took a different direction from that of the others, and dashed by myself for the bush, making to my left; they ran to the right.

Te Rangi-Tahau, of Taupo, who led the attack on the troopers at Opepe.

Te Rangi-Tahau, of Taupo, who led the attack on the troopers at Opepe.

The Friendly Forest.

“As I was racing over the short distance between my hut and the belt of bush, I received a skin wound; a bullet grazed my left arm, but I scarcely felt it. I plunged into the bush and made my way through it as fast as I could struggle. When I had gone four or five chains I met Trooper George Stephenson, of Opotiki.

“We kept together, and just at dark—it would then be about five o'clock—we got out of the bush, which was a belt of high trees and thick undergrowth about a mile in length and half a mile in width. Stephenson was fully dressed, but had no arms, not even a revolver, and I don&t think any of the others had had an opportunity to get their weapons. Our one impulse was to get into the cover of the bush.

Across the Open Plain.

“After we got out of the bush into the tussock country, we lay down and rested for a few minutes. We could hear nothing, either of the Hauhaus or of our comrades. We rose and continued our flight, making for Fort Galatea, forty miles away to the north. We travelled on all night and after a time found a beaten horse track under foot, leading in the direction of Galatea. We hurried on all the next day, along the left bank of the Rangitaiki. We kept off the open track in the daytime.

“It was very cold, raw weather, but the excitement and the speed at which we were travelling kept me from feeling it as much as I would otherwise have done in my naked condition. My feet suffered most, they were terribly cut about by the fern and the pumice track. We reached Fort Galatea at last that evening and gave the news of the attack on the camp. My feet were quite poisoned by the rough journey and it was a long time before they were right again.

“The other three survivors straggled in long after us. Sergeant Dette and Trooper Lockwood reached the Fort after spending three nights and two days on the Kaingaroa Plain. Neither of them saw the other all that time. Cornet Angus Smith, our officer, did not come in until ten days after his escape form the camp. He was in a very bad way when he was found wandering about outside the redoubt by a search party.

“When we made that dash for the bush, I believe the three half-caste troopers from Tauranga were lying down in their hut and they may have been killed there. Many years afterwards I heard from a Maori in Opotiki who had been one of Te Kooti's men at Opepe that our big Sergeant-Major Slattery was the only one who made much of a fight. He picked up a stick or stone from the ground and was only killed after a struggle. George Stephenson was a very big man, too; it was a wonder that the Maoris missed him, he was so good a target when he ran for the bush.”

Spoils of War.

Fourteen Terry carbines and as many revolvers and swords, besides the horses and saddles, were the spoils of war at Opepe. The jubilant Hauhaus also stripped the fallen of their uniforms. Then there were the arms taken by the Heruiwi scouts, Peita and Makarini. With these weapons and gear Te Kooti was able to complete the equipment of his mounted men, so that by 1870 he had a small body of cavalry, armed and uniformed like the Government men.

The Maoris who captured the Camp were the advance guard of Te Kooti's force. They were led by Te Rangi-Tahau, who was a chief of East Taupo, and familiar with all the tracks.

* * *

There was an astonishing sequel to the cutting-off of the cavalry detachment. Cornet Angus Smith, who should have been court-martialled for dereliction of duty in failing to post sentries page 28 and safeguard the camp, was awarded the New Zealand Cross. This award was made long after the war, and there was much indignation among other holders of the Cross—such men as Colonel Roberts, Captain Mair, Captain Preece and others—for it was considered a gross misuse of a rare and greatly prized decoration, reserved for acts of distinguished valour. Undoubtedly Smith was deserving of censure; but Lieut-Colonel St. John was even more culpable, for he should have realised that to post a few men in an open camp close to the bush was simply inviting an enemy raid; and he knew that Te Kooti intended marching to Taupo.

A Despatch Carrier's Fate.

It was probably the intercepting of despatches from Fort Galatea that first put Te Kooti on the track of the troopers at Opepe. Very soon after Colonel St. John's party had left Galatea for Taupo, information was brought in to the redoubt by Mair's scouts that Te Kooti was at Heruiwi waiting to descend on the plains and make for Taupo, and as it was feared that St. John's small detachment would be attacked and cut up despatches were written by Mair and others and sent on to overtake him. The bearer of the letters was Trooper Donald McDonald, who was accompanied by Trooper Alexander Black. The two troopers when near the Tieke clump of bush, on the east side of the Rangitaiki (following the Runanga track) were seen from the hills by some of Te Kooti's mounted men, who hurried to intercept them.

Peita Kotuku and another Hauhau, Makarini, were the two who actually cut the troopers off. Peita shot McDonald, and the other man, coming up as he lay on the ground with a gunshot in his hip, cut off his head with a butcher's knife. Makarini was actuated by the spirit of revenge; he took utu for the killing of his brother in the retreat from Ngatapa in January, 1869. Black abandoned his horse and carbine and rushed down towards the Wheao River, and after hiding in the fern escaped to Fort Galatea. Peita took the letters which he found on McDonald to Te Kooti, who, after having them translated to him, hurried off his men on the trail of St. John's troopers.

This was narrated to me by old Peita at Taringamutu in the King Country. He, like his comrade Te Rangi-Tahau, had escaped from Chatham Island with Te Kooti in the schooner Rifleman in 1868; and for three desperate years he followed the fortunes of his great war-chief.

Rail-Road Transport.

The “Railway Age” of 22nd May, 1937, reports that in the United States 78 railways now own 5,274 passenger vehicles and 17,550 freight vehicles, operating in every State in the Union. These figures do not, in general, include the motor trucks operated by the railways in non-revenue service, such as for stores, mechanical and maintenance department.

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