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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter XXII. — Colonel McDonnell's campaign. — Te Pungarehu

Chapter XXII.
Colonel McDonnell's campaign.
Te Pungarehu.

The first skirmish with Titokowaru's tribe took place on the 2nd of September. A strong reconnoitring party had been sent out to examine the Ketemarae district, and while so doing were fired upon by an ambush of the enemy. Captain F. Ross and three men were severely wounded; but, by a rapid charge on our part, two of the enemy were killed before they could escape to the bush. McDonnell now decided to build a redoubt at Waihi close to Ketemarae, as it was evident that most of our work would be in this neighbourhood; consequently, on the 5th, 120 men of the Forest Rangers and contingent, under Captain Newland, marched from Te Hawera and pitched camp within 400 yards of the Ketemarae bush. It rained heavily throughout the day, but every precaution was taken against a night attack, by throwing up rifle-pits and a small breast-work on the bush side of the encampment. Shortly after dark the Hauhaus reconnoitred the positions, but were seen by the sentries and fired upon. The shots brought the men out of their tents and into the rifle-pits, which were half-full of muddy water; but nothing further occurred, as the enemy, probably satisfied that they had no chance of surprising us, did not again disturb the men. Next morning McDonnell page 127arrived, to select a site for the permanent camp; but he was almost immediately recalled to Manawapou by a message from Major Inman, 18th Regiment, to the effect that a deserter from the 57th had just come in from the Hauhaus, and surrendered himself a prisoner. This man had been twelve months with the enemy, and it was expected that he could give valuable information as to their positions and movements, so McDonnell returned to Manawapou and questioned the man, but found to his disgust that he could give him no information. He had evidently been treated like a slave, and seemed only too glad to be once more with his regiment.

In McDonnell's absence the present site of the Waihi camp was chosen for our redoubt. All available hands were set to work, and by the 10th they had fortified the site of an old pah sufficiently for a small body of men to hold it easily. This was done in the midst of a terrific expenditure of powder and shot by the Hauhaus, who used daily to fire volleys from the edge of the bush, 1000 yards distant. Occasionally the contingent would seize their rifles, leave their work, and drive back the enemy, with great safety to both parties. One of the enemy's guns must, from the noise it made, have been a two-pounder: the Rangers christened it Big Ben. In a skirmish on the 13th two of the enemy were severely wounded, and as the blood spilt demanded vengeance, affairs soon took a more serious tone. The camp was supplied with provisions from Patea by a two-horse dray under escort of three troopers, a number admirably qualified to invite attack, and perfectly useless for protection, as we soon experienced. On the 15th the Hauhaus laid an ambuscade at a point where the road approached within 400 yards of the bush, and rather more than half a mile from camp. Hidden behind a few flax-bushes, they allowed the troopers to approach them, and then fired a volley into them, killing trooper Haggarty's horse, and the unfortunate trooper was hacked to death by tomahawks before he could free himself from his animal.

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Meanwhile the driver unhitched the leading horse, and galloped off with the two remaining troopers, leaving the cart and rations to be plundered by the enemy.

This affair took place within eyesight of the camp. The contingent and Bush Rangers turned out at once and doubled up to the scene of action, only to find Haggarty's body, for the Hauhaus had disappeared into the Keteonetea bush, taking with them the horse and provisions. Haggarty's death brought about one of those amusing instances of want of military knowledge so often noticed among colonial officers in the early days. Colonel McDonnell had issued an order that not less than ten troopers should form the escort of the ration-cart, consequently the captain who sent the three men had committed a serious breach of discipline. McDonnell was absent at the time, but the zealous officer in charge (another captain), without the smallest right to do so, assembled a court martial of ensigns and lieutenants, to try their senior officer; and they, supremely unconscious of the absurdity of the whole affair, not only found the captain guilty of neglect, but sentenced him to be dismissed the service; at least the finding amounted to the same thing.

I need hardly say that the finding of the court was not sustained by the defence minister.

On the following day a sham escort was sent out, to deceive the Hauhaus, who were known to be on the look-out for another victim. While this party sauntered carelessly along the road, another was sent into the bush by a long détour, and, as they expected, surprised a small body of Hauhaus who were watching the supposed escort. One of them was shot, and little Winiata, to square things in accordance with Maori ideas of right and justice, dealt him the same number of tomahawk cuts that poor Haggarty had received, and conceived a very low opinion of the Pakehas because they rebuked him. When Colonel McDonnell received intelligence of the attack on the convoy he determined, even with the limited force at his page 129disposal, to give the Hauhaus a lesson they should not easily forget. On the 1st of October he started with 113 men of all ranks, and marched in the direction of the Waingongoro redoubt, with the purpose of throwing the enemy's scouts off the scent. About 10 p.m. the column left the redoubt, crossed the river, and marched inland for the Mawhitiwhiti pah. On reaching this deserted settlement a well-worn track was found leading into the bush, this was followed by the force until it entered a small clearing, where the men were ordered to lie down and await the dawn, which was not far off. While they were anxiously awaiting the order to move, the crowing of cocks about a mile inland gave McDonnell the information he required as to the position of the Hauhau village, so he pushed forward immediately, and just as day was breaking reached the entrance to a long narrow clearing named Te Pungarehu, throughout the whole length of which whares were to be seen. This rendered it impossible to surround the enemy, but promptitude in war can do a great deal; the men received orders to advance quietly but rapidly, leaving a few men to guard the door of each whare as they passed, and if possible to reach the furthermost one before the alarm was given.

The men moved on with a rush, and stopped the doors of the huts so quickly, that although they were heard, and the alarm given, few of the enemy escaped. The arrangement was admirably planned and carried out. There was no confusion; the men with cocked rifles guarded the doorways and awaited orders, while McDonnell, stepping in front of the largest and most central whare, called out to the Hauhaus that they were all surrounded, and desired them to choose quickly whether they would surrender as prisoners of war, or be shot. The answer, admirable for its brevity, was a volley from the doors and windows of the huts, which wounded some of our men; but it was also a volley fired over their own graves, for our men, appreciating the advantage of their page 130position, went in for the fight in earnest, and fired the huts. In a few moments the sharp crack of the rifles, the yells of the combatants, and smoke and fire of the burning whares, transformed the quiet village into a perfect pandemonium. The raupo whares burnt like tinder, and the Hauhaus had to run the gauntlet; twenty yards was the utmost length of their tether, few went beyond it, and none escaped. Unfortunately all of the whares were not built of raupo, one or two were wharepuni, built of slabs and covered with, earth, out of which it was not easy to dislodge the occupants. Farrier-Major Duff, one of the bravest men in the force, tried to enter the door, and fired his revolver several times inside; but was mortally wounded while doing so. The only way to get at them was by digging, so the force went to work with a will, and had nearly accomplished their task, when a volley was fired into them from three sides of the clearing, by the main body of the Hauhaus from Te Ngutu o te manu, who, alarmed by the firing, had arrived too late to save their friends, but soon enough to make us very uncomfortable for our line of retreat. No time was to be lost, so McDonnell made overtures to the men inside the wharepuni, and promised to spare them if they surrendered. One man came out on the strength of this promise, and was fairly lifted off his feet by a volley fired by a few of the contingent who were standing near. This act of treachery enraged McDonnell, and his anger was so genuine that the remainder, undismayed by the fate of their compatriot, came out and surrendered. Meanwhile the Hauhaus were pressing us hard, and had succeeded in cutting off retreat by the track we had followed on entering the clearing. To have forced the position would have entailed great risk, as they had possession of the fallen timber; under these circumstances McDonnell, who was seldom at loss, asked his prisoners if there was not another track leading to the open country, assuring them at the same time that if he lost many men he should page 131not be able to save his captives. This had the desired effect, they not only said there was another track, but offered to act as guides. The difficulty was to get out of the clearing; but the men were used to the work. One half the force was extended along the edge of the bush to keep the Hauhaus in check, while the others removed the killed, wounded, and prisoners to a place of safety. This was a work of great danger, particularly in the case of poor Duff, who had fallen at the upper end of the clearing, now completely in the enemy's possession. He was only brought off by downright pluck, two men being wounded in the attempt. Ensign Northcroft particularly distinguished himself in the attempt. So soon as the wounded, now seven in number, were placed in safety, McDonnell directed Captains Newland and Kepa, with thirty men, to form the rear guard, and give the main body time to carry out the wounded. Ensign Poma of the contingent, and Northcroft also, remained with the rear guard, and both behaved gallantly. Coverring the retreat was the most arduous part of the day's fighting, for with 150 Hauhaus closing in on them, this brave little band held their ground, and allowed the main body to draw off quietly, carrying the wounded in blankets, meanwhile the rear guard, closely pressed, fell back from tree to tree, until they arrived at the edge of a deep ravine, where they made a determined stand.

While holding this position, Ensign Poma happened to notice an open space among the trees, and suspected rightly that it was a clearing and that the enemy would take advantage of it to turn our flank. He accordingly took six of his men and had just reached the plantation when fifteen Hauhaus sprang over the fence and ran across the clearing straight for Poma's men, who wisely held their fire until the enemy were within fifteen yards, and then shot four of them. The remainder retired double quick, closely followed by Poma, who tomahawked the fallen, and carried off their arms. This check seemed to page 132sicken the Hauhaus, as they ceased from that moment to press upon the rear guard, who retired slowly and rejoined the main body in the open country. Ensign Northcroft distinguished himself particularly throughout the whole fight, and has since been recommended for the New Zealand cross. Volunteers Rushton and White were also conspicuous for their bravery.

These men had been sergeants in the Patea Rangers; disgusted with the treatment their company had received they had resigned with the rest, but continued to serve without pay rather than desert old comrades. Rushton had one bullet through his coat, and another smashed the stock of his carbine; White was a man of singularly quiet courage, and when, some years after, he fell mortally wounded in the Whakatane river, his loss was mourned by the whole force Once in the open country, the force halted and made stretchers to carry the wounded, and, after a short rest, returned to Waingongoro, where they were kindly received by Captain Noblett and his detachment of the 18th Regiment. Dr. Spencer relieved our surgeon of the care of the wounded, and took them into hospital, where three of them died within an hour.

For the numbers engaged, this skirmish was the most disastrous ever fought by the Ngaruahini tribe; they acknowledged having twenty-seven men killed, and we had seven able-bodied prisoners. About thirty stand of arms were either brought away or destroyed, and much valuable property, including kegs of powder, was burnt. The moral effect of this fight on the Hauhaus was profound; not only had they lost one-fifth of the fighting men of the tribe, but they had been foiled by their own peculiar tactics. Attacked at grey dawn far in the bush, where the Pakehas had never trod before, consequently could not have known of the existence of the village, they were surprised in the whares, and shot down with but small chance of retaliation. In this affair one is at loss which to admire most; the boldness which conceived the idea of page 133penetrating into the midst of the enemy with so small a force, the skill displayed in carrying out the plan, the masterly manner in which the force when crippled by the loss of eight men was extricated from the bush, in presence of an enemy superior in numbers, and who possessed the inestimable advantage of knowing every inch of the ground, or the steady coolness of the rear guard, in a position where the smallest mistake would have brought the enemy charging down upon them in overwhelming numbers.

The danger of entering the bush with a small or untried force consists chiefly in this, that one wounded man will take at least six men to carry him off, and if the enemy is enterprising, some of the stretcher parties are almost certain to be hit, as they offer a good mark to the well concealed Maori; thus eight or ten casualties will cripple a force of 100 men. If the men are untried, a panic will almost certainly ensue, for the men can see the effect of the enemy's bullets, but not the effect of their own; and the singularly savage war-cries of the Maori are more effective in the bush than elsewhere.