A lesson learned in battle

GRAEME DUCKETT
Last updated 12:41 09/02/2013

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On March 1, 1860, Governor Thomas Robert Gore Browne and Colonel Charles Emilius Gold marched from Auckland with 200 troops to take control of the Taranaki military command.

Four days later Gold, with a force of 400 of the 65th Regiment, artillery engineers and the newly formed mounted volunteers, marched from New Plymouth to occupy the Waitara Block. The few remaining Maori on this land left quietly before the troop's arrival.

Gold's force quickly set up the main camp on the former Pukekohe pa site, known by many today, as the Camp Reserve or Pukekohe Domain. Near the mouth of the river, on the western bank, a blockhouse and living quarters were built on the former Kuhikuhi Pa, protecting the landing place of the military.

The Camp Reserve was originally called Gore Browne redoubt, but its name lapsed in favour of the Waitara Camp and the occupation went unchallenged by local Maori who were busy setting up new positions around the bush edges at Kairau, Huirangi, Manutahi (Lepperton) and Mataitawa. Here they were protected by bush cover and were close to the Whakaahurangi track, which offered an escape route and a means of bringing in support from southern allies.

The first challenge to the military was the construction of Te Kohia Pa at Brixton. It was manned by about 100 Te Atiawa who dominated the New Plymouth-Waitara military road which roughly followed the line of the Raleigh St we know today.

It was a provocative move and one the British could not ignore as it threatened the line of supplies to and reinforcement of their Waitara Camp. The pa was 30m long, 8m wide, with a side arm 8m long. It also contained a series of rifle pits and trenches within a double row palisading. It was also well provisioned with potatoes, maize, fish and fruit.

The first shot fired signalled the start of the Land Wars and the Maori at Te Kohia danced a war dance, hoisted their red fighting flag and returned fire from the three faces of the pa.

An hour of heavy British bombardment followed but the palisades were undamaged.

Firing continued from both sides until the pa suddenly fell silent. The British wrongly assumed the pa had been deserted and, carried away by the excitement of their first battle, three of the volunteers rushed forward to retrieve the fallen Maori war flag. A volley from every face of the pa rang out and two of the three were cut down immediately. The third, John Sarten, died several days later from the gunshot wounds.

The bombardment resumed and the military moved to within 200m of the pa by afternoon. The walls were breached but Colonel Gold held his eager troops back as dusk fell and the disgruntled soldiers remained in their trenches for the night. Next morning Lieutenant McNaughton and his troops advanced and entered the pa but soon realised it had been abandoned.

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For nearly three months peace prevailed, then, early in June, troops reported around 50 Maori building fortifications on two hills close together, Puketakauere and Onukukaitara.

Despite their menacing position, the British took little notice until the defences were complete and the Maori began making threatening gestures.

After troops were fired upon near the pa, Colonel Gold instructed Major Thomas Nelson to "teach the troublesome natives a lesson they will never forget".

Nelson's 40th Regiment were eager to upstage the 65th, who were embarrassed by the unspectacular capture of Te Kohia. Nelson's plan was to dominate the attack on the two pa but he underestimated the defensive strength of the pa and the terrain. The weather was a factor on the day of the "lesson" as well.

When Nelson's troops set off from Camp Waitara on June 27, 1860, it was a drizzly, cold and miserable day. The attacking force comprised 255 officers and men of the 40th regiment, 21 Royal Artillery with two, 24 pound howitzers, 54 Naval Brigade and seven Royal Engineers. They divided into three - 60 men under Captain Bowdler occupied the rear to protect Camp Waitara, 125 men under Captain Messenger of the 40th Regiment were ordered to outflank Maori positions to the east and then take Puketakauere while the main body under Captain Richards and Captain Beauchamp-Seymour were a mix of the 40th and the Naval Brigade who were to attack Onukukaitara from the northwest.

The assault began at seven with an artillery bombardment northwest of Onukukaitara but it failed to breach the palisades.

Some Maori moved out into the fern to skirmish, with Nelson ordering his infantry to attack. Heavy fire by the Maori from strategic rifle pit positions repelled the infantry.

Captain Richards and part of the Naval Brigade under Lieutenant Battiscombe, reached the head of the gully on the western flank advancing towards Onukukaitara and received a storm of fire, which the troops later compared to that of the Crimean war.

Maori used double-barrelled shotguns and muskets with a much greater rate of fire than the British. They nestled in rifle pits among the fern and the British were an easy target for the well camouflaged Maori.

Messenger's troops moved into swampland at the foot of the river valley east of Puketakauere, but their movements were easily seen from the pa. Maori reinforcements arrived from Kairau and Huirangi.

Messenger's men were dispersed and Lieutenant Brooke, entangled in the swamp, was tomahawked.

Because of the number of dead in the swamp, Maori came to call it, Te Waikotero, meaning "a pool in which maize and potatoes are steeped until they become putrid".

Messenger struggled through the swamp with 30 men attempting to join the main force while others attempted to head back to Waitara Camp. Two drowned as they tried in desperation to swim the flooded Waitara River. To the west Captain Richards and Lieutenant Battiscombe were outflanked by Maori reinforcements and forced to retire.

Colonel Gold marched 400 of his men from New Plymouth as far as Mahoetahi where they reached a flood- swollen Waiongana River.

Hearing the gunfire cease in the distance at Puketakauere, he decided to march his men back to New Plymouth.

Meanwhile, the main body was stalled by gunfire and when a general retreat was sounded by Major Nelson, the Maori started attacking the retreating troops. No further losses occurred. The troops arrived back at Camp Waitara by 11.30am.

British casualties numbered 30 killed, 34 wounded, all were from the 40th Regiment. Many of those left behind were buried by the Maori at an unknown location.

Major Nelson seized on the non- arrival of Gold and his troops as the main reason for the severe defeat that day. Gold was later taken to task by his superiors and was subsequently recalled to England.

The Maori force in the battle was estimated at about 400 men, composed mainly of Te Atiawa and Ngati- Maniapoto. Other tribes represented are thought to have been Taranaki, Ngati Raukawa, Nga Rauru and Wanganui. There were also some young men of the Waikato who had disobeyed Potatu's orders to remain at home. It was reported that six Maori were killed, and eight wounded.

A reunion in 1915 of surviving soldiers of this battle was held at Waitara. A monument at the Old Soldiers' cemetery on the Waitara Central School grounds commemorating the battle and those buried there, was unveiled.

- Taranaki Daily News

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