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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter X. — Relief of Pipiriki

Chapter X.
Relief of Pipiriki.

On the 21st, intelligence had been received from Captain Brassey by means of a Maori named Wiari, who for a reward of £15 had undertaken to pass through the enemy, and convey a letter to Major Rookes. By this it was seen that the enemy had attacked in force on the 19th and had been beaten off, after which they contented themselves with a blockade and heavy fire from the high hills in the neighbourhood. Pipiriki was at this period garrisoned by a force of 200 military settlers and Bush Rangers, who had been stationed there after the Maori fight of Ohotahi, to prevent the Hauhau's tribes of the Upper river interfering with the friendly natives. Pehi Turoa had never forgiven this occupation of his territory, and only awaited an opportunity to attack the men amongst whom he was living on terms of apparent friendship.

This opportunity was given when the greater portion of the fighting men of the friendly tribes left for the Weraroa; thus the Hauhaus were certain to have seven or eight days to effect the capture of Captain Brassey's force before they page 61could be relieved. "With this view, 600 fighting men of Upper Wanganui, Taupo, and Ngatiraukawa assembled to attack one of the least defensible posts ever held in New Zealand. The village of Pipiriki is situated on the right bank of the Wanganui river, surrounded by high hills, at no point distant more than 600 yards from the river, and rising in some cases to a height of 2000 feet. Just below the village the hills close in on either side upon the river, which runs between precipitous cliffs, impossible to pass if held by an enemy. In this basin three redoubts had been constructed; the main fort was built on low ground completely commanded by the hills, and untenable in the event of either of the small redoubts being taken by the enemy; the Gundagai fort was about 400 yards from the main work, and garrisoned by thirty men; the key of the whole station was Popoia, held by the Bush Rangers, about forty strong. It was the best position obtainable, as it was only commanded by hills 500 yards distant, and as serviceable traverses had been built in this work, the enemy's fire could do but little mischief at such a range. The weak point in the defence was the Cemetery Hill, which rose abruptly to a height of sixty feet above the main redoubt, from which it was about 400 yards distant. Captain Brassey was not to blame for not having seized and fortified this important position; he had acted under advice from Mr. Booth, R.M., who assured him that it would never be occupied, it being sacred as an old burialground. That he was mistaken in his belief is due to the fact that the enemy were not only Maories, but Hauhaus also. Another weak point in the defence was, that water was only obtainable from a gully midway between the main redoubt and Popoia, when an enterprising enemy could have cut off the supply and forced the garrison to run the gauntlet for each bucketful. It was a knowledge of this circumstance that rendered Sir George Grey so anxious to see the Weraroa force fairly on their way to the relief.

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On the 25th of July, the Forest Rangers, Wanganui Bush Rangers, and Native Contingent, in all about 300 men, embarked on board the Gundagai steamer, and late that evening reached the village of Raorakia; on the following morning they continued their journey in canoes, as the rapids would not permit a steamer of small power like the Gundagai to ascend further. That night the men camped at Koriniti, and next day arrived at Hiruharama, only twelve miles from Pipiriki; here they remained until the 29th, awaiting the arrival of the kupapas, who came that evening 500 strong. About midnight Captain McDonnell and Kepa, with sixty men, started and took possession of a cliff above a dangerous rapid named Te Pupa, about half a mile from Pipiriki. The enemy were reported to be in possession of this important pass, but the contingent found it unoccupied, and held it unmolested during one of the coldest nights I have ever felt. At grey dawn we prepared for a brush, but no signs could be seen of the Hauhaus, though we heard afterwards that they saw us and retired. As the sun was rising, the warlike canoe song of the Wanganui could be heard, and in a few moments the river was alive with canoes, each one trying to outstrip the other in the race for Pipiriki. Our men had a good start, and expected to win easily, but just before we reached the landing-place, Haimona with fifty men of Ngatipamoana in a big war-canoe passed us as though we had been standing still. The first thing that met our eyes on landing was the dead body of a Taupo chief (Mikaera); he was lying in a small stream, and must have been shot during the first days of the fight, for the rats had been hard at work. After the usual amount of cheering and congratulation on both sides, our force followed the retreating enemy to Ohinemutu, expecting that they would make a stand in that village; but they had evidently had enough, and had no intention of meeting us in the field, for we found that they had taken to their canoes and retreated in the direction of Mangaio, whence it was not considered advisable to follow page 63them, as the country is so inaccessible, that the only road is by the river between high cliffs, which, if occupied by an enemy, would effectually bar progress and annihilate the attacking force.

Six bodies were found and buried, but the Hauhaus admitted having thirteen men killed and many wounded; the Taupo tribe suffered most. Prom the accounts given by the garrison, it appeared that the Maori (Wiari) warned Captain Brassey on the 18th that he would be attacked. This warning had not been slighted, for it had been usual to place a picket of sis men over the store-tent at the landing-place, which was some distance from the redoubt; but on the evening of the 18th Captain Brassey dismissed them, knowing that they could be out off to a man if the Hauhaus chose to do so. That night all were on the alert for the expected attack, but morning broke without any alarm, to the satisfaction of those who treated the warning as a piece of Maori bounce. Lieutenant Chapman of the Bush Rangers took his usual morning walk in the direction of the picket-tent and came suddenly upon an ambush of the enemy, who luckily for him tried to run him down and tomahawk him, knowing that a shot fired would alarm the whole force. Their attempt was unsuccessful, for Chapman was a good runner, and with the additional spur of the tomahawk, beat them easily, though nearly cut off by another party who were hidden in the scrub under the Cemetery Hill. Once the presence of the enemy was discovered, all was plain sailing; the alarm was sounded, and the men swarmed out of their mess whares and manned the parapets. So far the Hauhaus had only been seen on the southern side of Pipiriki, but soon after 300 Hauhaus were seen from the Popoia redoubt to march from Ohinemutu; the Bush Rangers concluded from their appearance that they intended to storm the redoubt, they therefore reserved their fire, but were disgusted to see the Hauhaus disappear into a ravine, under cover of which they entered a line of new rifle-pits on the page 64crest of a ridge slightly above, and 300 yards distant from Popoia. From this position they poured in a heavy and continuous fire upon the Bush Rangers, but without doing any mischief. Captain Newland, the officer in charge, would not allow his men to reply indiscriminately, but adopted the wise principle of selecting his best shots; three men were chosen to answer the enemy, who were thus induced to expose themselves. One Hauhau, more excitable than the others, sprang on to the breast-work of their rifle-pits to encourage his friends, and was immediately shot dead; a woman took his place, but did not remain long, for she was severely wounded. After this lesson there was not much dancing bravado on the parapets. Meanwhile a small party of the Hauhaus had crawled unseen up the cliff and established themselves in the Rangiahua village, within thirty yards of Popoia, and opened such a well-directed fire upon our loopholes, that Captain Newland found it absolutely necessary to dislodge them. He sallied out with a few men and drove the enemy down the cliff without loss, for the Hauhaus fought wretchedly, hardly stopping to fire the first volley; the whares were set on fire, and under cover of the smoke a strong rifle-pit was constructed, which was held throughout the siege by a few men. By this time the main and Gundagai redoubts were in trouble; the party who had chased Mr. Chapman took possession of the Cemetery Hill and opened a plunging fire right into these redoubts. The tents were riddled in a moment, but the men took shelter behind the traverses and were safe while they remained there; this, however, could not last long, for cooking, &c., would have to be done, and the cooks would have had a very warm time of it. Captain Brassey saw that the hill must be taken at all risks, and told off Lieutenant Clery and forty men for the assault. This small party crossed the few hundred yards of ground between the two positions at the double; once at the foot of the steep hill they were sheltered from the enemy's fire, and paused to take breath. Their ascent through the page 65thick scrub was covered by a heavy fire from the Gundagai redoubt, Lieutenant Clery kept his men as much as possible in line, and when near the summit called on them to charge. As they dashed forward the Hauhaus fired one ill-directed volley, wounding Clery and one of his men, and then stampeded down the opposite slope, leaving one of their own number dead on the hill. They had already begun to dig rifle-pits, and Lieutenant Clery completed them, and built a very fair redoubt, which he held until the end of the siege. Thus the enemy had failed in all their operations, and in two cases had bolted before we could try conclusions with them. After this check they contented themselves with occupying the higher peaks, and firing all day, at ranges varying from 500 to 800 yards, expending large quantities of ammunition without the smallest result. Captain Brassey had only 160 rounds of cartridge per man, and had he allowed reckless firing it would probably have been expended on the first day; but better management prevailed, and only two men in each redoubt were allowed to fire. The best shots were chosen, and they did their work so well, that two of the Hauhaus were shot in a whare on the opposite side of the river, 700 yards from the redoubt; in all they had thirteen killed, and our loss was two wounded.

This was certainly the most feeble of their attacks; had they behaved with their usual vigour, Captain Brassey must have suffered severely, as each bucket of water would have cost a few lives; but as it was they allowed the garrison to get wood and water with impunity, and at Rangiahua and the Cemetery Hill they seemed to think only of saving themselves, and hardly waited to fire on us.

The force remained at Pipiriki until the end of August, during which time the village of Pa Poaka, within a mile of Mangaio, was destroyed. A raid upon Taupo was also projected, but it did not come off, for on the 19th of August orders were received for the whole force to march on Wanganui, en route for Opotiki, there to take vengeance page 66on Mr. Volckner's murderers. Pipiriki was Landed over to the imperial troops, who established a line of posts on the river, and kept a small steamer running constantly backwards and forwards with supplies.