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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter XXXIV. — Battle of Moturoa. — Death of Captain Hunter. One-fourth of the Men Engaged Either Killed or Wounded. Colonel Whitmore Falls Back on Nukumaru

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Chapter XXXIV.
Battle of Moturoa.
Death of Captain Hunter. One-fourth of the Men Engaged Either Killed or Wounded. Colonel Whitmore Falls Back on Nukumaru.

Colonel Whitmore having received these reinforcements, with characteristic energy determined to attack Moturoa at daybreak on the following morning, and ordered detachments of Nos. 1, 2, and 3 Divisions of the armed constabulary, Patea Rifles, Patea Cavalry, and the kupapas, to start at midnight; and No. 6 Division, who had marched from the Kaiiwi that day, to follow in support at grey dawn. About 6 a.m. the column assembled at the entrance to the bush, rather more than four hundred yards from the pah, and the colonel made his dispositions. Kepa, with twentyfive men of No. 1 armed constabulary and his kupapas, was ordered to make his way through the bush to the right rear of the pah, one hour being allowed the chief to get into position; seventy men followed him, and the remainder would have done so, had not Colonel Whitmore, in his ignorance of Maori customs, stopped a young chief and ordered him to hold a position on the right, to prevent any flanking movement on the part of the enemy. This irritated the main body, who said, "If we do not all go into the fight, none of us will;" consequently 300 men remained outside the bush and never fired a shot. Had they gone in, the pah, strong as it was, might have been surrounded, and the enemy starved out.

Meanwhile, Kepa's party had reached the edge of the clearing on the extreme right of the pah, from whence could be seen a long line of palisades at the upper end of a small clearing; the ground in front of the pah was destitute of cover, but on the right, the stumps of a newly-page 199burnt clearing afforded excellent shelter, and saved many lives among the kupapas. For nearly twenty minutes this party, hidden in the scrub, watched the pah, which was not more than forty yards off; everything was quiet, too quiet in fact, for they overdid the thing, when a man in rear of the pah began to cut firewood. At the first sound a grim smile ran down the ranks, and one old warrior said: "Do they think us fools? Now I know they expect us." Suddenly the silence was broken, a gun was fired from the pah, then three more in quick succession, as Major Hunter, at the head of fifty men of No. 3 armed constabulary and some of the local forces, charged across the open ground and made straight for the pah. When within fifteen yards, the whole face of the palisades literally blazed; it was a wet, misty morning, and the flashes from the guns could be seen plainly. At least two hundred Hauhaus had opened fire on their assailants. Kepa now ordered his party to charge out, and led them round the rear of the pah, until he found himself exposed to a cross fire from a strong party of the enemy, who had taken up a position flanking the right attack, rendering any movement on that side until they were dislodged impossible. Meanwhile Major Hunter's column had almost reached the palisades, and finding the enemy too strong to be taken by assault, took cover and held their ground. Although half of them were killed or wounded, Major Hunter mortally, for half an hour the survivors held their own close to the palisades, and were so encumbered by the killed and wounded, that it was not thought possible to carry them off. At this critical moment, Colonel Whitmore brought up No. 6 Division of the armed constabulary in skirmishing order, and by drawing the enemy's fire, saved the advanced party from extermination. Major Hunter and all the wounded were brought off, but four or five dead lying close to the palisades were left, as it was certain death to attempt their removal. The fight was page 200now left to Nos. 2 and 6 of the armed constabulary and the kupapas, who held their ground for another half-hour, to give the wounded time to get away; they then retired slowly—the kupapas by a short cut through the bush, and No. 6 by the broad cart-track leading into the clearing. The latter party suffered very heavy loss as they converged from the clearing into the narrow track; and the Hauhaus thinking to repeat the Ngutu o te manu, charged out on them, but a volley from No. 6 sent them flying back. One fanatic, stark naked, charged right into the ranks before he was shot. The behaviour of the force on this occasion was certainly beyond all praise, no man retired without orders, and then slowly and in perfect order; there was no hurry, and but for the killed and wounded, a spectator might have thought it a field day with blank ammunition. When the rear guard reached the edge of the bush, they received orders to double, so as to get out of range of the bush before it was lined by the enemy; this was done, but a volley killed one and wounded two of our men at 500 yards' range. The pah at Moturoa was supposed at first to be a simple palisade erected across the upper end of the clearing, and intended more as a blind than a real defence; but it was soon discovered to be a work in the best style of Maori fortification, defended by strong palisades and rifle-pits in rear, and a high parapet in rear of all enabled the second line of defenders to fire over the top of the outworks. The pah was large enough to hold 500 men easily, and filled with casemated rifle-pits, so that had an enemy succeeded in surmounting the outworks they must have been annihilated inside, every inch being commanded by the casemates; it was therefore lucky that we did not succeed in forcing our way in. As it was, our losses were very heavy, not more than two hundred men took part in the engagement, and of that number we had twenty-one killed and twenty wounded, or one-fifth of the force engaged; much the same as the percentage at page 201Te Ngutu o te manu. The following table will show the companies who bore the brunt of the day:

Killed. Wounded.
No. 1 Division Armed Constabulary 0 2
No. 2 Division Armed Constabulary 2 2
No. 3 Division Armed Constabulary 9 3
No. 6 Division Armed Constabulary 4 8
Patea Rifles 2 0
Patea Cavalry 1 0
Kupaspas 3 5
Total 21 20

Thus fell Major W. Hunter, who undoubtedly sacrificed his life to save his honour, his last words being, "I must show the world to-day that I am no coward," the unjust accusations made against him after Turu Turu Mokai still rankling in his mind.

His body was afterwards brought into Wanganui and buried with military honours, and the tomb now over his grave was erected by friends and comrades.

After this severe check, Colonel Whitmore fell back to Nukumaru, and from thence to the line of the Kaiiwi, the best position to defend the settled districts of Wanganui. Major Fraser was left in command at Patea with as many men as could be spared, and the Wairoa settlers determined to hold their redoubt against all comers. The services of the kupapas were dispensed with, as they would not be required for the purely defensive operations which Colonel Whitmore contemplated, until he received trustworthy European reinforcements.