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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter I. — Landing of Troops at Wanganui

Chapter I.
Landing of Troops at Wanganui.

At early dawn on a peculiarly brilliant morning in the beginning of the year 1865, the quiet settlement of Wanganui was startled from its slumbers by the booming of a gun, announcing the arrival of the first of seven regiments despatched to crush out the Maori rebellion in that district. The township of Wanganui is situated half-way between Wellington and Taranaki, and is surrounded by the finest agricultural land in New Zealand. It derives its name from the noble river which waters it, and is navigable for steamers up to Pipiriki, a native settlement sixty miles from its mouth. As the troops landed, all was bustle and page 3commotion, and the quiet agricultural village suddenly became a centre of importance. I was soon on the wharf, and shall never forget the martial bearing of Colonel Logan as he marched up the beach in command of the 57th Regiment—as fine a body of men as ever had the honour of serving their country. Our Major Cooper, then senior officer in command, received and quartered them in the York Stockade, taking precedence of Captain Blewett, in command of two companies of Her Majesty's 65th Regiment, who had been stationed there for some time. Soon after, Major Rookes, one of the most soldierly-looking men the colonial force ever had, with considerable military experience, gained in both cavalry and infantry regiments, and who had seen some service, was appointed commanding officer of militia and volunteers. I also had the honour to receive Her Majesty's commission as lieutenant and quarter-master, after having for months served as a full private, doing picket duty on alternate nights, subject to the orders of my son-in-law, who was captain and adjutant, and of my own son, who was a lieutenant. Such was then the fortune of war in New Zealand.

The first outbreak in Wanganui occurred in the year 1848, when the up-river natives, led by their old chief Maketu, murdered the Gilfillan family, drove in the out-settlers, and actually occupied and held possession for some time of a portion of the town, although it was garrisoned by several companies of Her Majesty's 58th Regiment. During this siege a settler, named John McGregor (now a wealthy settler there), seeing some of his cows on the opposite side of the river, crossed with the intention of bringing them in, and was ascending Shakespeare's Cliff, when an ambush of Maories, from a ti-tree scrub, suddenly rose and pursued him. He turned and fled for his life, and as he looked round at his pursuers, they fired. A ball entered his mouth and passed out of his cheek without displacing a tooth. Finding himself hard pressed, page 4John MacGregor leaped over the cliff on to the beach below—some say a height of fifty feet—and so escaped. This settler afterwards headed a deputation to Sir George Grey (who was always to be found where danger threatened), asking him to remove them to Wellington, and abandon the settlement. But Sir George Grey, with his knowledge of human nature, replied, "Before I assent to your request, I should like to see how many of you really wish it." He then directed all those who were anxious to run away from the natives to move to the other side of the room. Not a man stirred, Sir George Grey having by this speech roused their courage, and saved the settlement. Now, again, the outbreak had commenced by the up-river natives threatening a second descent on the township, although it was protected by Her Majesty's troops. But the town natives, learning their intentions, took possession of a small island in the middle of the river, determined to be the first to oppose their progress.

I happened to be the sentry on guard that night at an out-picket station, near St. John's Bush, and at about two o'clock in the morning I heard a horseman gallop furiously up the avenue. It was pitch dark, and I let him come close up before I challenged him. He seemed to have forgotten the picket, for on my calling out, "Who goes there?" he was so startled (knowing that the Wanganui Militia sometimes fired before challenging) that he pulled up suddenly and both horse and rider went into the ditch. I turned out the guard and found that the horseman was Lieutenant Barton, of the 57th Regiment, on his way to acquaint his colonel with the result of the river fight. This was the beginning of the war, and to secure the town from a second invasion, Major Brassey, an old Indian officer, who had fought under General Sale and others, was soon after sent up with 200 of the Taranaki military settlers to occupy Pipiriki, a native settlement on the river-bank, sixty miles from the township. I received orders from the defence minister (Major Atkinson), being then quarter-page break
Vincent Brooks, Day & Son Lith.Sir George Grey K.C.B.Sampson Low & Co. London.

Vincent Brooks, Day & Son Lith.
Sir George Grey K.C.B.
Sampson Low & Co. London.

page 5master
, to keep these settlers supplied with three months' rations in advance, lest they should be cut off before assistance could reach them. This was a difficult and arduous duty, as my means of transport was limited to a few friendly canoes, and two boats crews whom I enlisted in the service; to say nothing of the reluctance of the imperial commissariat to supply me with the requisite quantity of stores.

Every day some fresh incident occurred to prove the hostile character of the natives around us, and an order was issued for the out-settlers to bring in their wives and children for protection. This order had not been in force many days, when the murder of Mr. Hewitt took place. This gentleman, having settled on land in the neighbourhood of the Kai-iwi river, eight miles from town, had removed his family for safety, but continued, with his servant, to occupy the house, there being a military station within half a mile of his farm. He had ridden into town, and, having turned his horse into my paddock, he (on coming for it in the evening) requested my wife to go and comfort Mrs. Hewitt, who was in very low spirits, and did not wish him to sleep at the farm, having a presentiment that something would happen. "But," he continued, "as I have left the man there, I cannot desert him." He accordingly rode out, and in the middle of the night was awakened by the furious barking of his dogs. He incautiously went outside with his man to ascertain the cause, and, hearing Maories talking in the bush around his house, was in the act of returning when he was shot down. His man fled from the place, and leaping a bank and ditch fence caught his sock on a stake, which held him head downwards in the ditch. This saved his life. It was very dark, the Maories gave chase, thinking he was far ahead, and he escaped to the station: on returning with assistance, he found poor Hewitt's lifeless trunk. The head was gone, and the heart had been cut out. The head was afterwards placed on a pole and carried by the page 6natives through the country as a trophy, together with that of Captain Lloyd who had been shot at Taranaki a short time before. These murders so incensed the settlers, that old and young came forward to avenge them. In the meantime a company of Bush Rangers, under the command of Major Von Tempsky, Captain George, and Lieutenant Westropp, having made a forced march through the bush, arrived, after encountering the natives, and losing in the skirmish one of their officers (Lieutenant Whitfield), whose body they brought in for interment.

The troops remained in town long enough to concentrate their force and make arrangements for transport, &c, when the order was given to march, and 2000 of Her Majesty's troops ready equipped for the field left the town for the front. They began to move off about four o'clock on a beautiful summer's morning, and before seven the last regiment was ascending St. John's Bush Hill. Major Chauncey, who was in command of the rear, nearly lost his life just before starting. His regiment was drawn up before the Rutland Hotel, when a wild bullock leaped out of the stockyard, and, rushing into the town, singled out the major, who was on horseback in front of his men, literally lifted horse and rider high in the air, and was preparing for a second charge, when the men simultaneously broke ranks, and in an instant fifty bayonets were in the animal. This was the first blood, and would it had been the only blood spilt on that eventful day. I call it eventful, because the incidents which afterwards occurred changed the whole plan of the campaign, and led to the differences between Sir George Grey and General Cameron, who commanded the field force. The country between Wanganui and Taranaki (the battle-field) was then only known to a few who had travelled between the two settlements. The only existing map of it was compiled by myself and two others, who had often made the coast journey, and revised by the Catholic priest, Father Pezant, whose frequent visits gave him a more accurate page break
Vincent Brooks, Day & Son Lith.Major Von Tempsky.Sampson Low & Co. London.

Vincent Brooks, Day & Son Lith.
Major Von Tempsky.
Sampson Low & Co. London.

page 7knowledge of the various Maori pahs, and their distance from each other. This map was lithographed, and used by General Cameron throughout the war. The morning was unusually fine, and the troops in splendid health and spirits. Major Witchell, who was in command of the military train, accompanied the force, his men being formed into a cavalry troop for the occasion. The transport corps, whose duties were among the most dangerous in the service, was principally officered by our young colonials. (I frequently meet at the Thames two of them, who, after performing a dangerous and arduous duty in a manner of which they may be justly proud, have retired into private life, one having turned his sword into a ploughshare, and the other into mining shares.) All marched merrily on, without presentiment of evil; for who could forecast danger to such a fine body of British soldiers from a few hundred rebel natives? Adjutant-General Johnston, a fine, active soldier, having perfected his arrangements, galloped away to the front, while martial music from the various military bands was heard far o'er hill and dale. The troops took the road up St. John's Bush Hill, through Taylor and Watt's beautiful farm at Westmere on to Alexander's, when they descended to the beach, crossed the Kai-iwi, ascended the cliffs at Okehu, and ultimately arrived at the Nukumaru Lake, in the middle of the Waitotara block, situate five miles from the Wereroa pah, one of the principal strongholds of the Maories, and fifteen miles from the town of Wanganui. Here a halt was called, and General Cameron gave the order to pitch the camp, when Major Witchell rode up and said, "Don't you think, general, we are too near the bush?" The bush was within half a mile of the camp, high toe-toe intervening. General Cameron replied, "Do you imagine, Major Witchell, that any body of natives will dare attack 2000 of Her Majesty's troops?" The major made answer that it would not surprise him, but nevertheless the camp was pitched. Major Witchell, page 8however, having still a presentiment of danger, for he knew that Maori warfare was entirely ambush, rode up to his men, and ordering them to dismount, told them not to remove a saddle, but to be ready at a moment's notice if required. The camp work proceeded, everyone was busy, when a volley was fired from amongst the toe-toe, which killed Adjutant-General Johnston and fifteen men; and had it not been for Major Witchell's precautions —his troop charged through the high grass and drove the Maories back—a much greater loss must have occurred, as one Maori was actually shot within twenty yards of the general's tent, in the very middle of the camp. Such was the result of the first day's campaign, and those who had witnessed with the pride of Englishmen the departure of the troops in the morning, were destined before night to receive the dead and dying.

General Cameron, so well known and appreciated as a man of undoubted courage and experience, could not brook this incessant murder of his men. He looked upon the Maories as too insignificant a foe to waste a British soldier's life upon; consequently, after repelling a second attack, made on the day following by the natives in force, who again surprised the camp, and although roughly handled succeeded in killing five men of the 18th picket, and several others, he withdrew his men to the beach, forming camps at the mouth of the Waitotara, Whenuakura, and Patea rivers, and nothing could induce him again to approach the bush. Sir George Grey wrote to the general to inquire why he had passed on up the coast without reducing the Wereroa pah, which he had left in his rear full of armed men. General Cameron replied that it would have cost the lives of too many of Her Majesty's troops had he acted otherwise. This feeling was shared by many who had not suffered by the revolt, but the settlers in the disturbed districts, smarting under the destruction of their farms and homesteads, and the coldblooded murders of their friends and relatives, became a page 9formidable foe. They had something to avenge, and the Bush Rangers, led by Major Atkinson, Von Tempsky, and McDonnell, were more dreaded than any two British regiments. These men, used to bush life, scouring the country far and near, in a manner which could not be imitated by disciplined British troops, fought the Maories in their own way, which kept them in such a constant state of alarm, that they dared not even sleep in their pahs. Had this mode of guerilla warfare been generally adopted, the war would have terminated more satisfactorily to all concerned.