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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter II. — Colonial Forces Under Imperial Rule. — Battle Of Waireka

Chapter II.
Colonial Forces Under Imperial Rule.
Battle Of Waireka.

The first engagement in which the New Zealand militia and volunteers distinguished themselves took place on the 28th of March, 1860, during the early part of the Taranaki war, with a most creditable result to the small body of untried men engaged, few of whom had previously met an enemy in the field, and who were for the most part armed with the old Brown Bess musket, a weapon inferior in every respect to the double-barrelled shot guns of the Maories.

After the attack upon the L pah (so called from its shape), the majority of the Taranaki settlers, feeling that they were liable to be murdered at any moment by marauding parties of the enemy, left their homes and came into the town or nearest stockade for protection; but a few families on the southern boundary of the settled district who, up to the 28th of March, eleven days after the first fight, still lived on their farms, trusting to the protection and good faith of the tribe properly called Taranaki, who page 10it was supposed would not turn against us, as they had nothing to do with the Waitara dispute, and had been, moreover, before the arrival of the Europeans, deadly enemies of the Ngatiawa or Waitara tribes. That this supposition was ill founded was soon proved, for the Maories, who had long watched the growing strength of the Pakeka with fear and distrust, hailed the prospect of war with delight, and, sinking tribal jealousies, hastened to join from all parts of New Zealand, thus converting the insignificant quarrel, which had originated with a portion only of the Ngatiawa, into a national Maori war. Foremost among these tribes were the Taranaki, Ngatiruanui, and Ngarauru, the latter a branch of Wanganui. By the 26th of March at least 600 warriors of these tribes had mustered and taken possession of the southern district of Taranaki, ransacking the deserted houses and carrying off the settlers' property, and on the 27th they threw down the gauntlet unmistakably by murdering three men and two boys. When intelligence of these outrages reached the town of Taranaki it created a most painful apprehension, lest the same fate should have overtaken the families, which included several ladies, who were still on their farms. In order to ascertain their fate it would be necessary to fight, for they were surrounded by the enemy, whose flags could be seen flying from newly-erected pahs on the farms themselves. At noon on the 28th, Lieut.-Colonel Murray, 65th Regiment, marched from town with 300 men, 120 of whom were militia and volunteers. The latter corps, under command of Captains Browne and Stapp, were detached with orders to march by the sandhills, take the enemy in rear, and rescue the Rev. Mr. Brown's family and the others, while Colonel Murray with the main body was to march by way of the Omata village to attack the enemy's position on the Waireka Hill, and so draw their attention from the flank movement. Meanwhile the Maories from their commanding position had noted the march of each column, and page 11thoroughly understood its significance: the settlers on their way up from the beach were allowed to cross, without molestation, two deep ravines, which were immediately occupied by the enemy. Their retreat was thus cut off, both in front and from the ravines on their left flank, and on arriving at the crest of the plateau our men suddenly found themselves engaged by upwards of 400 of the enemy's best men. A veteran company might well have been dismayed at such a position; not so the Taranaki settlers; they pushed forward and drove their foes back beyond a small farmhouse, of which they took possession, and lying down under cover of a fence opened a heavy fire upon the Maories. While these operations were in progress, Colonel Murray, who had marked the dangerous position of the settlers, detached a subdivision of thirty men under Lieutenant Urquhart, 65th Regiment, to their assistance. This officer soon cleared the ravines by the fire of his Minie rifles, and thus a line of retreat was opened for the militia so long as he continued to hold his position flanking the ravines; but the settlers, perfectly satisfied with their work, had no wish to retire, naturally thinking that Colonel Murray would now do his part. For some mysterious reason he did not, nor did he allow Lieutenant Urquhart to remain long. After an hour's heavy firing the retire sounded, but the combatants declined to notice it; again it sounded, but still Urquhart was deaf; finally a sergeant was sent to him with peremptory orders to retire on the main body. After this there could be no hesitation, and the officer reluctantly withdrew, taking care not to notice that a sergeant and ten men were marching in the opposite direction to join the militia. From these men Captain Stapp learnt for the first time that the main body had left him to his fate. The ravines had been re-occupied by the Maories, and our ammunition was so nearly exhausted, that a retreat at this moment would have been annihilation. After a brief consultation it was decided to retire upon the farmhouse, page 12fortify the garden fence against a sudden rush, hold the place until dark, and then cut a way through the enemy. The materiel used for the parapet was straw and turnips, not sufficient to stop a bullet, but it answered as a blind and it looked strong.

Shortly after sunset the enemy's fire ceased, but Captain Stapp did not deem it advisable to retreat until the moon had set, judging rightly that he would have a better chance with his men in the dark, as the enemy's fire would be uncertain. When the darkness was deep enough, the retreat commenced; bayonets were fixed, and our men marched in a solid body with bated breath, expecting every moment to receive a volley. At the bottom of the first ravine some dead Maories were seen, but no live ones started up to bar the progress of the small body of settlers, who effected their escape, carrying with them two killed and nine wounded.

Why the enemy allowed them to retire with impunity they learned when they reached town. Some time after Colonel Murray and his force had marched, Captain Cracroft of H.M.S. Niger landed sixty blue-jackets and marines, and followed up, hoping to take part in the skirmish; on his way he met Colonel Murray returning to town, and was told that the settlers were still engaged with the enemy. Captain Cracroft expressed in strong, terms his surprise and indignation at the desertion of them, and proceeded to their assistance. On arriving at the Omata stockade he was joined by three young settlers as guides. It was now nearly dark, and the firing on both sides had ceased, there was therefore nothing to guide the sailors to the position occupied by the militia, and Captain Cracroft concluded that they had retired; but hearing that the Maories had a pah on the Waireka Hill, he determined to attack it. They descended cautiously into the deep gorge, for it was an uncanny place for ambushes, and while ascending the opposite hill came suddenly upon a party of the enemy. A volley and charge sent them to the right-page 13about with the loss of several of their number, the survivors were followed closely, and the pah taken in a very sailor-like manner; the first men up caught hold of the palisades and made a back, while others made one jump on to their shoulders and another over the palisades. In less time than it takes to tell, there were only dead and dying Maories in the pah.

Captain Cracroft did not remain long on the ground, for he feared that the Maories would seize the gorge through which he had passed; and as nothing could be seen or heard of the militia, he returned to town with his gallant little band. Meanwhile the fugitives from the pah had warned the main body who were surrounding the militia that their stronghold had been taken; a general rush in pursuit was the consequence, and before they returned the militia had retired. Thus Captain Cracroft had saved the settlers from heavy loss, if not annihilation by his dashing attack; for the Maories would soon have discovered our want of ammunition. The losses in these actions were one marine killed, Lieutenant Blake and four sailors wounded; one militiaman killed and eight wounded. The enemy's loss was never accurately known but a European, living under the protection of Kapata Ngarongomate, who saw cartload after cartload of killed and wounded pass on their way back to their own country, estimated the killed at forty. This is probably near the mark; however, the Maories only acknowledge seventeen killed and twenty-five wounded. If these numbers are correct, it is strange that the chiefs should have suffered so severely; no less than six were killed, including Te Rei Hanataua, the greatest chief in the Taranaki province. Although the militia failed to rescue the families before mentioned, the fight had been a most successful one for them, and their failure did not (as might have been expected) endanger the lives of those in the enemy's power; for the Maories of 1860 were not Hauhaus, and though like all savages they held peculiar notions as to what page 14constituted a murder, still they respected non-combatants. Immediately after taking possession of the Waireka, the leading chiefs proceeded to the Rev. Mr. Brown's house and tapued it, affixing a notice to the door forbidding their tribes to interfere with his or the other families, some of whom were foreigners. After the fight in which they lost so heavily, some of the young men might probably have sought revenge, but by this time the chief Rapata had them all under his care, and as he was a man of high rank in the Taranaki tribe he was not to be interfered with lightly. The Taranaki settlers took part in many other skirmishes, but with the single exception of Mahoetahi, none were of sufficient importance to justify notice here.