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Henry Ancrum: A Tale of the Last War in New Zealand, Volume 1

Chapter XIII

page 231

Chapter XIII.

Two days after that on which Henry Ancrum arrived at Queen's Redoubt, the battle of Koheroa occurred.

It is not our intention to enter into all the details of this action, but simply to record a few facts connected with it, which are necessary for our own story. A few days before the arrival of Henry Ancrum's regiment, the General in command had crossed Maungatawhiri Creek, with a portion of the troops, in some boats which he had brought with him from Auckland for that purpose, and had established himself page 232on a steep hill on the other side called Koheroa.

On this hill a fort was subsequently built, called the Koheroa Redoubt. Immediately opposite this Koheroa hill, and extending to the southward in the direction of Mere-Mere, was a range of hills with very steep sides ending in a swamp on either flank, and very narrow at the top, along which the Maori great southern track or path extended.

This formidable position the Maories had chosen as their field of battle, digging ranges of rifle-pits across the summit of the hills, one behind another, so that if driven from one position, they could take refuge in the one behind it. The difficulty was, that the position was only to be attacked in front, as there were really no feasible modes of turning its flanks, as the deep swamps on either side of the range of page 233hills extended to considerable distances from their bases. It is true, a feint was made of turning the Maori position by making a wide detour on its left flank, but it is believed that this manœuvre produced little or no effect on the event of the battle.

Shortly after the troops employed to try and turn the left of the enemy's position as above-mentioned had started, the forces which were intended to attack that position in front, amongst whom was the company to which Henry Ancrum belonged, fell in under cover of the Koheroa hill, which completely hid them from the view of the enemy. When their formation was complete, they advanced swiftly from behind the hill, and dashed themselves at once against the first line of rifle-pits.

As previously stated, we do not intend to follow the action through all its inci-page 234dents; suffice it therefore to say, that one range of rifle-pits was stormed and taken alter another, until the Maories retired slowly and sullenly from their last position.

It was at this moment that Henry Ancrum, who had been one of the first to enter the enemy's last line of rifle-pits, perceived a few scattered Maories making towards some canoes in a creek towards his left, and thinking that they would be an easy prey, he called to some of his men to follow him, and dashed after the fugitives. A few soldiers ran after him, but so great was his impetuosity that he was considerably in advance of them, when a large and compact body of Maories, who were retreating on a line still further to the left, emerged from a wood, and fired a volley at the assailants. Henry Ancrum fell, wounded in the leg, and his few followers seeing how page 235vastly they were out-numbered, were obliged to turn back towards their comrades.

In an instant Henry Ancrum was surrounded. He knew that death was near. His wound had weakened him, but he struggled to rise. He was thrust back by the left arm of a stalwart savage, whilst in his right he saw gleaming the deadly tomahawk. The savage paused; he seemed gloating over his prey. Oh, what a lifetime can be lived in a few moments like these! Again the tomahawk was about to descend when a young man rushed forward and seized the uplifted hand that was about to take Henry Aucrum's life.

"It is the pakeha" (foreigner), he said, "who saved my life at the KaitaKatikara. I will now save his." p. 119

"Thou art a fool, Ihaka," said the first savage; "if we leave this stranger here, he will tell the soldiers which way we have page 236gone, and we shall be pursued. I tell you he must die."

"And I tell you," said Ihaka, "he shall not die; I will take him with me;" and stooping down, he lifted Henry Ancrum in his arms, and bore him, as gently as a mother would her child, to the nearest canoe, where he laid him softly on some rushes in its bottom, for he found he had fainted from loss of blood.

For some time the Maories were entirely occupied in providing for their own safety. The creek in which the canoes had lain communicated with an immense number of watercourses through the swamp. Some of these watercourses were entirely concealed by trees growing on their banks; through these they carefully and silently pursued their course till they were far out of range of their enemy's rifles; then they began to paddle more slowly, and Ihaka page 237had time to attend to the captive he had saved.

Henry Ancrum had recovered from his swoon, but felt very weak from loss of blood. He lay on the bottom of the boat in that sort of passive dreamy state which extreme weakness from the cause we have mentioned induces, at one moment feebly bemoaning to himself his sad fate in having been wounded and taken prisoner, and at the next wondering, in a sort of dull wandering way, that the Maories, who hardly ever took prisoners, should have spared him on any account whatever.

Whilst he was busied with these reflections he saw his friend Ihaka—who had indeed proved a friend to him—approach from the other end of the canoe, and commence binding up his wound, which he did in a most artistic way, as he had been page 238accustomed to wounds and bloodshed from his youth up.

Ihaka also informed Henry that, having now got far beyond all danger from the fire of the soldiers, the canoes had turned down a channel leading to Mere-Mere, a very strong position, to which it had been arranged that the Maories should retire in case they were not able to hold their own on the heights near Koheroa.

In a very short time they had reached the end of the channel, which was only a short distance to the east of the position of Mere-Mere, where they landed, and having concealed their canoes amongst the brushwood, proceeded to the encampment, or rather bivouac of Mere-Mere, which consisted of rude huts, made of raupo and rushes from the neighbouring swamp, or in many instances simply of a roof or covering made of the same material page 239over a rifle-pit or excavation in the ground.

By Ihaka's direction four Maories of his tribe carried Henry Ancrum to the whari of his (Ihaka's) brother, who, when the natives had established their position near Koheroa, had remained behind in charge of the entrenchments which had already been commenced at Mere-Mere, and which he and the few Maories left with him had been busily employed in carrying on. Here they placed him carefully on a bed of newly picked fern, with a canvas bag filled with the same material for a pillow; and Ihaka proceeded more carefully to examine his wound, which was found to be in the right thigh, and not serious, although in consequence of its having divided some of the smaller vessels it had caused him to lose a great deal of blood; this however was perhaps no disadvantage, as although it page 240rendered him a little weaker, it made the chance of fever supervening much less likely.

It was quite dark by the time that Henry Ancrum had been settled on his bed of fern; but there was a fire in a rudely-constructed fireplace at the end of the whari which threw a wavering light over all the interior of it. Most of the Maories who had been engaged in the fight of the day, overcome with their exertions, were sleeping heavily, their dark tattooed faces looking preternaturally stern and solemn as the flickering firelight occasionally lighted them up and then left them again in shadow; but some even of the combatants, and all those present who had not been concerned in the battle, were still awake, and talking eagerly of the events of the day, the latter expressing their extreme astonishment at the fact that those ac-page 241cursed pakehas had been able to drive their friends from so strong a position, and all agreeing that the General and all his hohias would never be able to take Mere-Mere.

They also discussed another subject, which was, that news had arrived that the Governor and General were going to bring some regiments from India to attack them, and that the men of these regiments were very small, but excessively fierce. Now the Maori, though a very brave man in battle, is also very superstitious, and the idea of these fierce little men seems to have affected them very much. The fact is that there was some foundation for the report, as it was at one time in contemplation by government to bring two or three regiments of Ghoorkas, who are little men, from India.

During all this time people were entering and leaving the wharie in the most inde-page 242pendent manner, after the usual Maori custom; for a Maori thinks nothing of entering the house, not only of one of his own race, but even of those of the settlers in out districts, sitting down by the fire, lighting his pipe, and entering into conversation in the most amicable manner possible, although perhaps he may never have seen his interlocutor before.

After this manner several of those who entered (both men and women) came up to Henry Ancrum, and asked him in broken English what his name was, his rank, &c.; the women being most particularly anxious to ascertain if he was married, and if he had any children; some of the inquisitive creatures actually asking the second question after the former had been answered in the negative; the men informing him that he was singularly lucky not to have been tomahawked, and the old ones adding that page 243in their days — the good old times of Maorism—he would certainly have been eaten.

Suddenly the hopper sounded. Now the hopper is a horn, which is sounded loudly whenever it is considered necessary to assemble the tribes for a korero or talk, for the Maories, who are given to copy everything under the sun, at least for a time, have copied our parliamentary system with this difference: that instead of appointing delegates, every free Maori can attend the assemblage of the tribe or tribes of the place he may be residing at.

As we have said, the hopper sounded, and immediately the wharie was cleared of all but the sleepers, those who were awake rushing in the greatest haste and excitement to hear any news that might have been received, for news is the Maori's delight, and what is most strange is, that though they page 244are perfectly aware that they tell one another lies, and write one another lies, yet when news arrives it is generally implicitly believed.

Henry Ancrum was indeed delighted to find the whari evacuated by the noisy groups who had hitherto occupied it. He was worn out by the events of the day, and urgently required sleep, so he turned himself on his sound side, resting his wounded leg as well as he could, and was soon in a profound slumber.

End of Vol. I.