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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter XXXI. — Second Attack on Te Ngutu O Te Manu. — Death of Von Tempsky, Captains Buck and Palmer, Leutenants Hunter and Hastings

Chapter XXXI.
Second Attack on Te Ngutu O Te Manu.
Death of Von Tempsky, Captains Buck and Palmer, Leutenants Hunter and Hastings.

Owing to the obstructive policy of Mete Kingi, a leading chief of the Wanganui tribe, no friendly natives had joined the field force; but, after some months' talking and worry, his opposition was over-ruled and seventy Maories arrived at Waihi; they were a good specimen of the Maori warrior, troublesome but useful, especially in page 181scouting and bushwork; they appeared to be ready and willing to strike a blow, so McDonnell announced that he would make a raid on the night of the 6th of September. Our allies, nothing loth, made preparation for the coming engagement; but on the night named the Tohungas (learned men) discovered that the moon and its attendant star stood in a most unfortunate position one towards the other, betokening nothing less than death to the attacking party. They were consequently very Pouri (dark), and begged the colonel not to go, but he declined to listen to them. In vain middle-aged warriors, of wide experience and grave mien, implored the colonel to postpone the expedition if only for a day; he was inexorable, so the die was cast, and the Maories, after holding a meeting, decided to go, saying that as they had remonstrated against such impiety they would not suffer, but that the Pakeha would in all probability be annihilated, and serve him right for going in the face of such predictions. My readers will probably smile at this as mere childishness, but I can assure them that there were many Pakehas who at the time believed the Maories were right; and as for the noble savage, he never required the confirmation of the following day, when, after bearing the brunt of the fight equally with the Pakeha, he escaped scot-free. We took the fourth of the force engaged. About mid-night the expedition started; it was bitterly cold, in fact freezing, and the Maories, who were mostly without boots, were crippled for weeks after by the frost of that night. Doubtful information had been received, to the effect that Titokowaru and his tribe had retired to an inland village called Ruaruru; where this was no one seemed to know, so there was nothing left the colonel but to follow out the old system of striking deep into the bush until some well-beaten track was crossed, when it was followed up to the bitter end. These tactics were duly observed on this occasion, and the column, 270 strong, was far into the bush page 182by daybreak, steering across the western slope of Mount Egmont until nearly 2 p.m.; when their perseverance was rewarded by crossing a well-beaten track. After holding a small council of war, it was decided to follow the track towards the sea; this was done for nearly an hour, when another halt was called, and the chief Kepa ordered one of his men to climb an immense rata-tree and report if he could see either smoke or an opening in the bush. The man quickly ascended the tree, and immediately reported smoke about half a mile further down the track, and stated that he could plainly hear the sounds of a Maori Haka (dance).

This last item was of importance, as it plainly showed that the Hauhaus had no idea of our proximity. Kepa's advice was admirable, and had it been carried out would in all probability have finished Titokowaru's career; he said, "We now know where to find the enemy; my advice is that you take your men off the track about two hundred yards into the bush, where they must lie down in perfect silence; leave me with my men in ambush on the track, and if one of the enemy passes, I will have him tomahawked without noise; but I do not expect any one to come, for it is late in the afternoon, and the track is evidently not much used. So soon as it is dark I will go down, and reconnoitre the enemy's position, so that we may know what to do to-morrow morning." This advice if followed out would undoubtedly have ensured success, even in the opinion of the Hauhaus themselves, who, when they were informed of Kepa's speech, said, "Had that been done we were lost." But McDonnell had also a certain amount of right in his view, for he feared that the Hauhau scouts might find he had crossed the river, in which case they would prepare for attack from any quarter, so he divided the Europeans into two divisions, one of which Von Tempsky commanded, and the other he took charge of himself, and gave the order to advance.

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The Maories under Kepa led the way, and after marching about five hundred yards, came suddenly upon a Maori tent in the middle of the track, and, worse still, a woman standing outside.

For a moment she stood petrified by our sudden appearance, then ran screaming down the track pursued by the Maories; as our men passed the tent a man sprang out, and was immediately shot; as also two poor little children out of three who were found there; the third was carried all through the fight on a Maori's back, and brought safely into camp, where he gave a good deal of information. The firing had of course roused the main body who were only 300 yards distant, consequently all chance of surprise or success was gone; the best possible disposition was made under the circumstances, and the men advanced cautiously in line, until close to the clearing where we expected to find the pah. Here Kepa's men were extended on the left, and ordered to work round the pah on that side; while Von Tempsky and his division crossed a creek on their front, and closed round their side of the place. All seemed to have forgotten Katene's warning, that for the future the Hauhaus would fight in the bush, and not in their pah but it was brought to their memory quickly, for as the division under Von Tempsky, and part of McDonnell's, descended into the bed of the creek, they were literally shattered by volleys fired from the opposite bank within fifteen yards, and at the same time enfiladed from a small bush hill on their right. Just at this moment, Kepa came to McDonnell and told him that it was Te Ngutu o te manu that they were attacking. On the former occasion, the force had taken it from the open ground in front. At first McDonnell could hardly believe the chief, but he soon found that Kepa was right. Meanwhile the men were falling fast, and the ten stretchers brought were fully occupied. Dr. Best, and Lieutenant Rowan, were among the first officers hit, the latter dangerously, as his jaw was shattered; but page 184it was lucky that they were hit early in the action; a very few minutes later they would have been left behind. Athough our men in the creek were close to the pah, the scrub was so thick that they could not see it, and the rata-trees inside the palisades were occupied by the best of the enemy's marksmen, who, secure in their elevated position, rained death and destruction on the Europeans. Kepa on the extreme left had a much easier task, the Maories occupying the bush in his front were quickly driven back to the pah, and the friendlies following held possession of the whole side of the clearing; in fact, there was nothing wanted to ensure victory, even at this stage of affairs, but men sufficiently used to the work, who would not take alarm at the loss of a few men even in the dreaded bush. But as it was, victory was simply impossible, for McDonnell's divisions had suffered as heavily as Von Tempsky's. The genial and gallant Lieutenant Hunter was one of the first officers killed; only a few moments before he had requested his men to look out for partners, as the ball was about to commence. Very few of the men saw him fall, and his body was left on the field. Captain Palmer and Lieutenant Hastings were mortally wounded, and left to their fate, for there were no stretchers available. By this time McDonnell saw that he would have some difficulty in saving the remainder of the force; so he decided to retire at once, carrying all the wounded that he could find. With this view the colonel sent his brother Captain McDonnell to Major Von Tempsky, requesting him to follow McDonnell's division as they retired. Kepa was also sent for, and he advised the colonel to retreat round the edge of the clearing with his wounded, while Kepa held the enemy in check as rear guard.

Captain McDonnell carried his message to Von Tempsky, who, unaware of the extent of our losses, did not like the idea of retreat, and suggested trying to storm the pah; but when he was informed of the strength of the place, and page 185the number of our wounded, lie hesitated, and, walking a few steps to get a better view of the position, was immediately shot dead. Captain McDonnell informed Captain Buck, the next in command, of the colonel's orders, and implored him to carry them out at once, as his brother was moving off. He then returned to the colonel, and reported Von Tempsky's death, and that Captain Buck would carry out the orders. The colonel instructed his brother to take a dozen of Kepa's men, and make all haste to reach the dangerous defile leading to Te Maru, before the Hauhaus could take possession of it, and cut off the retreat of the forces, for he had a lively recollection of the loss he had sustained in crossing this gorge on the former occasion. Captain McDonnell and his men arrived at Te Maru breathless; fortunately they had a dog with them who ran on in front, and had just reached the bush, where a voice asked in Maori, "Who are you?" They could see the dog was a Maori. Our Maories answered, "It is us, come on." Out stepped two athletic young Maories from under the trees, and were immediately shot down; they were the Hauhau advanced guard who had nearly been too quick for us. One retreating column was under fire, the whole way from Te Ngutu o te manu to Te Maru, men falling continually; but once across the gorge, we were comparatively safe, and the wounded were sent on in front, while the force turned on their pursuers.

Then for the first time it was found that Captain Roberts, with Von Tempsky's division, had not joined the main body; McDonnell wished to return and find them, but Kepa suggested that they had retreated through the bush on the other side of the pah, and in all probability were better off than McDonnell's division, as the main body of Hauhaus were evidently on their front. The retreat was therefore continued, and as it was nearly dark the Hauhaus drew off their men, and did not molest them further. This division reached Waihi about 9 p.m., the men thoroughly exhausted by page 186their long march, and carrying fourteen wounded, some of whom were borne on crossed rifles for want of stretchers.

These men had nothing to he ashamed of, they had behaved well before the enemy, and brought off their wounded; but very different was the case with a party of wretched fugitives, about forty in number, belonging chiefly to the Wellington Rifles, who arrived at Waihi nearly three hours before McDonnell, and reported Von Tempsky, Buck, both the McDonnells, and all the force as destroyed, and themselves as the only survivors. They must have bolted almost at the first shot, and left their comrades to fight and die alone.

McDonnell's first enquiry on reaching camp was whether Captain Roberts had arrived, and he was much disquieted when he found he was absent; for he knew that he alone would be blamed if anything happened to that officer and his men, whose doings we must now relate.

Hardly had Captain McDonnell left Von Tempsky's division, when Captain Buck determined to recover the body of the latter officer before retiring; he called on a few men to assist him, and advanced to where Von Tempsky lay, and while in the act of lifting the body, was shot dead. The men fell back and informed Captain Roberts, who then took command; but unfortunately he knew nothing of the order to retire, and continued to hold his position in front of the pah, until some of his men reported that McDonnell had retreated, and left them alone to fight it out.

Under ordinary circumstances, Captain Roberts and his division, about seventy strong, would have been more than a match for the enemy opposed to them; but the bad behaviour of the recruits had now extended to the rest of the force, and they were all in such a state of panic and so disheartened, that he could not persuade them to keep apart and take cover; they only crowded more closely together, and so presented an easy mark to the Hauhaus.

Luckily some of the Maories had got mixed with this page 187column; among others the chief Pehira Turei, and Captain Roberts, after consulting with him, decided to retire through the bush towards the sea, trusting to the approach of night to shake off his foes. Pehira led the column in the right direction, while Captain Roberts, assisted by volunteers Livingstone, Pope, and Blake, Sergeant Russell, armed constabulary, and one or two men brought up the rear, and behaved so gallantly, that with sixty men of the same stamp the Hauhaus could have been beaten easily.

About sunset, Sergeant Russell had his thigh smashed by a rifle-ball; and as there was no means of carrying him off, his fate was sealed; in fact he recognised this himself, and asked his comrades to shoot him; they refused to do so, but Livingstone put his revolver in his hand, smashed his carbine against a tree, that it might not fall into the hands of the Hauhaus, and there left him to his fate.

The circumstances attending the death of this gallant soldier were elicited from a prisoner months after. It appeared that the enemy, following up Roberts, came upon Russell lying in the track; one of them thinking he had an easy prey, rushed forward to tomahawk him. In a moment Russell drew his revolver from, under his coat and shot his enemy dead. After this reception, the Hauhaus stood off and shot him; so he died a soldier's death, and was not even tomahawked. It was now too dark to follow, and the Hauhaus drew off, and left our men to continue the retreat in peace. For nearly an hour Captain Roberts pushed forward, so as to get well away from Te Ngutu o te manu; he then called a halt until the moon rose, as Pehira assured him that he would easily lead them out of the bush if he had the moon to guide him. Cold, hungry, tired, and in many cases wounded, the men sat down in a heap, and through the long hours of pitchy darkness before the moon rose, they could hear the triumphant yells of the enemy rejoicing over their victory. When at last the moon made her appearance, it was discovered that two of the wounded had page 188died of exhaustion during the halt, but the remainder followed their guide, and just at dawn of day, found themselves safe outside the bush, and when about two miles from Waihi, they met a party of sixty Maories who were going to look for them, even to Te Ngutu o te Manu, and were greeted with a cheer that might have been heard five miles off. Kepa and his men had behaved especially well in offering to go in search of Captain Roberts, for they were all in a state of grief over the death of their old chief, Hori Te Anaua; under these circumstances, Maories do not as a rule care to fight. The deceased was a chief of the highest rank, and dignified mien, one of a past generation who had always shown the greatest friendship to the Europeans, and whose last words were, "Take care of the Taonga" (Europeans). All through the night, the lamentations over his death had been carried on, and at 8 a.m. the Maories had started and met the division already related. The reception given them may be imagined; but their appearance was not calculated to raise the spirits of the force; every third man was wounded, some of them severely, and all were covered with the blood of their wounded comrades. The enemy's loss this engagement was, according to the highest estimate, only twelve killed; and according to the Hauhaus only two; but as their allies the Ngarauru admitted at the time some six or seven, we can only suppose that the people of Te Ngutu wished to conceal their losses. Our casualties were very heavy, amounting to twenty-four killed and twenty-six wounded, being one-fifth of the force engaged.