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Taranaki: A Tale of the War

Chapter XII

page 83

Chapter XII.

“How often have I paused on every charm,
The shelter'd cot, the cultivated farm;
* * * * * * *
Obscure it sinks; nor shall it more impart
An hour's importance to the poor man's heart.”


A Few days after the letter to his mother, mentioned in the preceding chapter, was despatched, peace being proclaimed with China, Herbert St. Pierre sent in his papers to retire, and having received a year's leave from head quarters, set out in a steamer for Ceylon, where he picked up once more the Australian packet, and proceeded to Sydney and via Nelson to New Plymouth. Here he arrived about the end of November, a short time after the brilliant action at Mahoetahi.*

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How different was St. Pierre's landing now! How altered were his feelings! How changed was the appearance of the place! When first he saw New Plymouth, a scattered village, with gay gardens neatly trimmed and shady bowers covered with roses; and

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clematis here and there were interspersed over the verandahs of the cottages; 'midst the larger houses of trade a few busy labouring men or a rustic lass a-shopping in gayer attire might be seen, with groups of merry children running by; the careful page 86 teamster, with his team of sleek, well-fed bullocks, urging them along with his well-filled waggon of hay or corn, singing as he passed down the street; whilst round the town the more cozy villas, with larger gardens, encircled with the bright-blossomed hedges or fruitful branches of peach and apple, cherry and plum, drooping with their weight of luscious store, or the clustering vine o'er the trellised walks by the babbling stream. Beyond, again, were seen the well-kept fields, rich in pasture, filled with herds and flocks, then in golden colour, bright with ripening corn.

Alas! all now was changed. A line of palisades enclosed the town in narrow limits, outside of which was a deep entrenchment. Mount Elliot, formerly a pretty green mound overlooking the landing-place, was a complete redoubt, with counterscarp, horn-work and ravelin; whilst the enclosure was filled with tents, gun carriages, guns, and other munitions of war. The custom's stores and boat-sheds were also palisaded round, the former loop-holed and converted into a block-house, and filled with soldiers. As you entered the town from the sea, to right and left were blockhouses within the palisades; and several hastily-built houses were everywhere erected within the town entrenchments for the soldiery, surplus inhabitants, picquet-houses and store-rooms, without any regard to appearance or position. On the market places and on the town reserves were encampments with tents; whilst the little gardens and neat trellises alluded to page 87 had disappeared, and sheds or tents took up the place of the former, the latter, from neglect, had vanished. Instead of the farm labourer and town-artisan was the hasty step of the soldier; in place of the merry group of children was the mournful knot of care-worn men, all with arms, showing they were of the Militia; in place of the teamster's song and farming carts, was heard the shrill note of the bugle-call and the tumbril and gun-carriage. Here were a group of officers parading near a body of armed men. Here walked by, with hasty stride, an orderly, or a mounted escort dashed over the hill. All spoke of war and preparation for war.

And thus it was as Major St. Pierre slowly sought the now humble abode of his once so gay and wealthy friends. Sad was his heart as he looked around and sought for their present home. Sadder still, as in silence he pressed in love their hands, though cheered by the warm welcome and the sweet smile of joy that still remained for the return of the wanderer.

But how shall we describe the sad scene that awaited him at Mr. Wellman's, now too ill to leave his room. Nor can we well describe his feelings as he determined to see, without delay, his well-loved, trusting Fanny. Humble, indeed, and crowded, was the home he now found her in; and as, with his still gay and cheerful-hearted cousin, he, on that same evening, sought the house, who could tell all he felt? Anxiety, however, to meet her once more broke through those feelings of restraint, and his heart rose as he entered their now quiet drawing-room.

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Here Mrs. Wellman met him, coldly indeed, but politely. But e'er Mary, who had rushed off to see Fanny, had with her returned, much of this coldness had vanished, and the sincere feelings of the goodhearted soldier had still their sway. Fanny, under the influence of repeated lectures and cautions, and from all she heard, and the continual reproach from one old lady connected with the family, and with whom two orphan cousins resided, known as Mrs. Grantham, —and who had the greatest aversion to all soldiers in general, and from some unaccountable cause, to Herbert in particular,—though in her own mind trusting him, at first smothered her feelings, and, fearing the watchful eyes of her mother, greeted him coldly. Still, there was a tremor in that dear hand, and the drooping of the eye-lash as she turned her face away told a different tale to the expectant lover; that though he soon left, apparently, chagrined, yet in his heart he knew he was still fondly loved. His own feelings, as they are expressed in the next letter to his mother, will explain all better than we can. It is dated the 12th December, 1860.

“My last letter told you of my intention to obtain leave to retire from the army and settle at Taranaki, or bring home our friends from there. The accounts I had from my uncle and cousin were sad indeed, and yet they fell short of the reality. Neither, in truth, can I describe the change of that once lovely province to the now desolated region; no description can convey a correct idea of the ruin caused to all the page 89 fair homesteads I so loved to admire and wander over during my former visit. You must fancy, therefore, how I felt when I again entered the bay of Taranaki, and saw the smiling village and blooming country converted into an embattled town and wild waste around. The town is, in fact, regularly beseiged, and no one allowed to go outside the blockhouses, of which there are six, forming a cordon round, the furthest from the town entrenchment not half a mile; these forts are strongly built of planks, loop-holed, surrounded with foss and embankment, and contain each about thirty men. As, however, I considered myself a stranger, and not owing allegiance to any one, I made repeated excursions to see minutely the amount of destruction to property, and to gratify my curiosity besides; in such venturesome trips there was an excitement to drown my feelings of sorrow at all I saw. Words fail me in very truth to tell to you, my dear mother, the sad change on every hand, from a smiling country rich in pastures, full of herds, and neatly-clipped hedges of furze (the prevailing fences of the fields), once so luxuriant with yellow corn or other crop; now no herd or animal was to be seen save close to the town, and there only a straggling few. Hedges, either overgrown and extending over half the fields, or broken open and burnt down, whilst thistles and weeds usurped the place of the former crop of the bountiful harvest; and where the comfortable cottage and fruitful garden adorned the glen or hill side, now a heap of ashes, a blackened chimney page 90 marked the spot, and the garden had become a dense wild of bramble.

“Such were scenes that in my rambles each day I visited. At length even these were stopped. Once or twice a stray shot was fired at me; and then the open murders by the treacherous foe alarmed me, and made me unwillingly curtail my rides.

“My acquaintance with the Wellmans was restrained and cold, and the increasing illness of Mr. Wellman prevented me seeking an explanation. Sometimes, it is true, I meet Fanny, but she, though still the same to me, appears cold and distant when any are near.

“As I am not yet out of the service, I feel it derogatory to my rank to join the Volunteer force as a subaltern officer; but, as you know, whilst a student at Cambridge, I took a surgeon's diploma there, I have volunteered to the Medical Staff. I am permitted by the principal officer to assist, but no post is assigned me, nor am I in orders. Still, as I may be of use, I have joined the regiment at the front, and the one which, generally speaking, sees most service, and with them I am sure of a hearty welcome, as I know several of them. Thither I move to-morrow, deeply grieved at my reception by the Wellmans, but still devoted to Fanny, and hoping that time will unravel all this mystery.”

* “Tuesday, November 6th.—Before four o'clock this morning the troops prepared for the march to Mahoetahi; the carts were filled with baggage, ammunition, &c., and two howitzers (twenty-four pounders), were in readiness to start at five a.m. The Militia and Rifle Volunteers mustered opposite the Militia Office, and the whole force commenced the march at five o'clock precisely. On reaching the declivity before coming to the Mangoraka river, a halt was ordered, and the guns limbered up and taken to the front, and skirmishers thrown forward, while Mahoetahi, distant about a mile and a half, and the country adjacent, was observed by the General with a telescope. The order to march was again given, and the force proceeded, the 65th in advance forming a skirmishing party and support, with the General and staff, followed by the Rifle Volunteers, the guns, the artillerymen, the engineers, and the train of carts; the 40th and 12th being rearguard. The Mangoraka stream was forded, the men wading through the stream, and in silence and good order all advanced towards Mahoetahi, a hill on the left of the Devon Line, about eight miles from town and three from Waitara. In a few minutes firing was heard in the front, and the order was given for the guns under Captain Strover, R.A., to be brought to the front. At this moment, one man of the 65th, private Connolly, came to the rear, wounded in the arm by the third or fourth shot from the rebels. The General here dismounted from his horse, and ordered the guns to take up a position at fifty yards distance from the pah, while a heavy and continuous fire was kept up from a gully to the right of the enemy's position, and proceeded on foot to the front, where he remained during the whole action guiding and directing the movements of the men. An order was now sent to Major Herbert, commanding the Rifle Volunteers, to take position, to the left, in skirmishing order, which was at once done, the men skirmishing in high fern and across a deep swamp, gradually approaching the enemy's position. Firing was now opened upon the hill by the howitzers with shell, and the crack of the rifle was becoming more and more rapid. The 65th in front were under Captain Turner and Lieutenant Toker, the light company under Lieutenant Urquhart being sent to the extreme right to protect the flank of the attacking force, and Lieutenant Chevalier, with thirty men, to protect the guns. The Volunteers were extended to the left front of Mahoetahi, and their left flank under Captain Atkinson on the extreme left, and were fast lessening their distance, and by a rush took possession of a hill about a hundred yards from the pah. The order at this moment was received by Major Herbert to charge the pah, when he ordered the men to fix bayonets, and with a hearty cheer the pah was gallantly stormed simultaneously with the 65th in the front, the men running up the hill under a rapid fire from the rebels, who, when the pah was reached, retired behind the banks and whares in the rear. Now commenced a fierce fight, hand to hand in some instances, when two of the 65th—privates McGivern and Rooney, and two Volunteers, H. Edgcombe and F. Brown—fell mortally wounded, shot by the enemy at a distance of a few yards. Capt. Atkinson, with a small party, occupied a low hill on the left, and kept up a destructive fire on the rebels on their flank, thirty or forty of them being a few feet distant from the rest of our party on the hill. It was some time before the natives could be dislodged from the rearzof the pah, where they were keeping up a smart fire, wounding several of the 65th and Volunteers, including Captain Turner, severely in mouth, and Colonel Sillery slightly. Lieut. Toker and a few men of the 65th, with Mr. W. S. Atkinson (Native department) were hotly engaged at the right of the pah, while the Volunteers were as actively employed on the left, when most opportunely Major Nelson's column from Waitara, with one hundred men of the 65th from Puketakauere, under Colonel Mould, R.E., and Lieutenant Talbot, 65th, came up in the left rear, and with a twenty-four pounder howitzer dropped a shell amongst the rebels under the bank in our rear, which caused them to make a precipitate retreat down the hill into a swamp and across the country. Some of them ran up the Huirangi road, where they were taken in flank by the Waitara force and in rear by Lieutenant Urquhart's party with fatal effect; two shells were also thrown with good precision amongst them by Lieutenant McNaughten from Waitara. It was now a complete rout, and the natives still fell in making their retreat, throwing away their pieces and cartridge, pouches in the fern. Several hid in the swamp, where they were shot. It was a short and decisive victory; no natives were to be seen beyond a few stragglers in the distance. The General, now, with a reconnoitring party of the 12th, 40th, and a part of the 65th, proceeded up the Huirangi road, and came round back by Ngataiparirua and Puketakauere.”