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A Sketch of the New Zealand War

Attack on a Stockade VI

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Attack on a Stockadepage 52page 53 VI

Soon we were ordered to destroy our fortification and retire for the protection of New Plymouth, which was never for a moment in danger. All settlers were ordered within the fortified lines of the town. The women and children were sent to Nelson. Our soldiers were harassed during the long winter nights patrolling a circuit within which a hostile Maori was never seen. My own experience was that I, in company with three other officers, slept every night about a quarter of a mile outside our farthest pickets in a house belonging to Major Atkinson, and we were never disturbed; but within the fortified area the alarms and precautions were equally great.

As soon as everything was made snug against the surprises of an enemy who was not such a fool as to trust himself miles away from his native forests and ravines, a great expedition was organized against the Maori camped near the Tataramika block on European land.

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The Maori, when he goes on a warlike expedition, casts off all his European clothing. The object is to keep it safe from brambles, when crawling through the forest. Bare-footed by a band which crosses his chest. He carries his double-barrelled gun in one hand, his ammunition in a pouch across his shoulders. His tomahawk he uses as a walking stick. He either carries no food, or, if any, a little fermented maize in a pocket of the mat. Thus accoutred, he can do, marching with a loose leg, about five miles an hour, and keep it up on occasion for a long time. The soldier on the Tataramika expedition carried three days'provisions, a water-bottle in a country where streams were our chief impediment, an overcoat or blanket, or both, 120 rounds of ammunition, a rifle and bayonet. As soon as any expedition was over, the N.C. officers checked off all these accoutrements, and if any were missing surcharged the soldier even down to a pair of worn-out socks if lost.

The weapon carried was a muzzle-loader, the bullet a tight fit, so that much ramming was often necessary. On the march the bayonet when fixed, or when hanging on the hip, was caught in everything. If the rifle was brought page 55to the shoulder, the trajectory of the bullet was too high, failing accurate sighting and steady aim. If fired from the hip, the bullet generally ploughed up the ground about fifteen or twenty yards ahead. The soldier felt he was in a strait waistcoat put up to be fired at by the Maori. The great expedition appeared miles long. Twenty-four bullocks dragging each a sixty-eight pounder. We had two with us, and were inordinately proud of them. In addition we had three or four twenty-four pounders and a couple of large mortars. We were quite sure of teaching the Maori a lesson. Could we only get to the Tataramika, the war would be over in a month or two.

Well, we did get there. We covered each flank of the advancing column with clouds of skirmishers, and they did skirmish, too. I was with them. I wore no impediment but a small Colt's revolver, and I often skirmished on my head and back and hands and knees. As for the progress of the soldier, it was what the Scotch call "just redeeculous."

"Spread yourselves out, men, spread yourselves out," was the cheery order of the officers, as they tumbled about like the rest. It sounded well, and was heard occasionally by the staff-officers; but there was often no page 56room on the cliffs and the breaks to spread in. Thirty Maori could have surprised in many places any portion of the line, shot the bullocks, crumpled up our arrangements, and laughed at us. The Maori were, I think, in the neighbouring scrub, smoking their pipes and laughing at us. I do not in the least wonder they did not fire. First, our men were like a lot of children out blackberrying; second, the Maori had built three lovely pas, and wanted us to have a look at them. They knew how easily we were turned back, and in my opinion, had our guns stuck, would have joyously lent a hand under the protection of a flag of truce to extricate our artillery.

They were just as anxious to see the big guns in action as we were. The only difference was: we believed in the arms, the Maori laughed at them.

Arrived at our goal, we found a lovely plateau, with a fringe of forest lining its inland margin. We pitched our tents with their backs to the sea, hauled our guns to our front, and despatched a large fatigue party to run up light earthworks on our right and left. The staff-officers galloped about, took hurried sketches, measured distances, and consulted together. It was much more interesting than page 57any review I had ever seen. There were three stockades on the edge, as it were, of a large oval dish. The only curious feature was that from our position we could only see the tops of forest trees. There were no bowls or stems of trees visible. The foliage just rocked and played in the light sea breeze.

The staff seemed puzzled which of the three stockades to attack. There was not a Maori to be seen. Finally it was decided to attack the central stockade, and keep the others under observation. The sixty-eights, twenty-fours, and mortars opened fire. The skirmishers on the right and left lay flat on the ground. It was magnificent; it was war at last. An occasional Maori sharpshooter picked off one of our men, otherwise there was no reply from the pa. We hammered this stockade for twenty-four hours. At length the engineers, after an examination with their binoculars, announced a practical breach. There was a hush and a stir. The storming party was told off. The distance was certainly not more than 400 yards. The word was given. Suddenly there rose up from the ground about 120 men. If you have ever seen hounds, whilst still fresh, rush at a fox near in sight, all in a cluster, straining against page 58each other for first place, such was the storming party. It was a mercy from heaven there were no Maori in the pa. Children with arms in their hands could have mown our men down by dozens. Arrived at the stockade, though unopposed, there was no one soldier could get in for some time. The Maori had rifle-pitted the earth in front of the palisade. The rifle-pits had arched roofs of green timber covered with soft earth and fern. On the level of the plateau a sort of open wicker work window, from four to six inches deep, lit up and ventilated the rifle-pits. The Maori had stood inside the rifle-pits, poked their fowling-pieces through the wicker window, and pulled the trigger without exposing themselves. That was the reason why all our wounded men were hit in the legs. From these rifle-pits covered galleries led to the rear, and were lost in the forests.

Not a single shell or roundshot had entered these rifle-pits. The whole of our fire, so far as the Maori were concerned, was merely a pyrotechnic display. The stockade was crescent-shaped, lost itself at each end in a sharp declivity. It had been built of young forest trees with the sap in them. They were fixed upright in the ground, and branches were page 59lashed across with green flax. The space between the double row of cross saplings was filled with loose earth. Our shot and shell had passed clean through. The jagged, shattered timber merely waggled about once it was broken, held in position above and below by green flax ties. Undefended, and all as it was, none of our men succeeded in getting either over or through the stockade until the sappers came along with axes and cut through the flax lashings.

The British soldier is not much of a fool. He was strictly forbidden to stray from the main body, and the storming party was recalled without being allowed to explore the pa. But the storming party had seen quite enough, and graphically detailed their observations. Forthwith the commanders, staff-officers, and engineers were looked on with profound contempt. A panic seemed to have seized the general. If the Maori have deserted their works, when and why? How shall we ever get back to New Plymouth? There are defiles on the road where a few hundred men could destroy a whole army.

On our retreat nearly the whole of the force was thrown into skirmishing order to protect our guns and baggage. We got back page 60to New Plymouth in safety, and hid ourselves behind our stockades, which, by the way, were so extended as to be nearly useless. A body of irregular horsemen could certainly have broken through them.

It was at Tataramika that I saw the following illustration of the value of our small arms. We had a handful of sailors from the Naval Brigade along with us. They were armed with Colt's naval revolvers and sabres. Sailors ashore are the jolliest fighting men imaginable. They, of course, expected to be joined in the assault when the happy moment came, and they set to work to prepare their implements of war. At that time Colt's revolvers required caps. The nipples for the caps were small and fine. The sailor's thumbs and fingers are coarse, the skin thick, and the sense of touch blunted. This was the procedure. The sailor sat on his hunkers, steadied the revolver between his two big-toes, and then, with the aid of two pins, one in each hand, put the cap on each nipple. When I saw this, and viewed the sailor's humorous contempt for the size of the revolver bullet, I quite believed what I had heard of the sailors who had helped to storm Puketekaure under Commodore Seymour.

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My informant assured me the sailors first emptied all the chambers of their revolvers, then threw them away, and, yelling out "Board!" drew their sabres and rushed at the stockade.

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