Ohaeawai

 

The captured and desecrated British ensign hung limply from the inside of the Maori fortification, creating feelings of shock and consternation in the hearts and minds of the troops watching on from afar.

It was Tuesday, July the 1st, 1845.

The seemingly ceaseless rains from the weeks before had lessened, and a brief respite of sunlight had broken through, to briefly warm the bones of the awaiting foreign army.

The colours had been unceremoniously taken by a small raiding sortie, sent out from the Pa earlier in the day which had surprised and overrun one of the surrounding positions.

Lieutenant- Colonel Despard, overall commander of the British forces besieging Ohaeawai Pa was disgusted and apoplectic with rage. His troops were cold, wet and hungry after weeks spent in the Northland bush in the middle of winter, and this latest slap in the face could not go unpunished.

These miserable and ignorant savages would pay for their arrogance and daring against the Crown.

Rumour began to circulate amongst the men, that an order was imminent for a storming party to be thrown against the enemy’s position.

A few civilians who were present decided that they must act, in order to try and dissuade the aging Despard against such a rash manoeuvre and with Waka Nene in company, approached the British commander who was observing the Pa from a small hill.

“Sir, we heard that you intend assaulting the Pa, and we have come to say that unless a breach is made it will cause great loss of life and will fail.”

“What do you civilians know of the matter?”

“Sir, we may not know much, but there is one that apparently knows less, and that is yourself.”

Despard, perhaps additionally aggravated by the Neuralgia he at times suffered from flew into a rage, prompting Waka Nene to inquire as to what was being said by the angry white chief.

After being informed of the Colonels thoughts he uttered:

“He tangata kuware tenie tangata.”

“What does the chief say?” Despard asked of his interpreter.

“It is not complimentary sir.”

“I order you to tell me!”

“The chief says you are a very stupid person.”

At 3pm the bugles sounded for assembly and volunteers for the assaulting party were called upon from the 58th and 99th regiments. To a man, all stepped forward in an earnest desire for a final reckoning with their enemy.

Their feelings had been further fuelled by the capture and killing of a young private earlier in the day as he had been out foraging for food. His cries of pain and agony at the hands of the Pa’s defenders had been heard for some time, before an eerie silence once more descended upon the battlefield to come.

The right hand man from both front and rear ranks were ordered to the front, with full pack and implements deemed necessary for negotiating their way over the palisade, which lay some 100 yards away.

The Pa facing these soldiers had been strengthened considerably by its chief, Pene Taui, after the fall of Kororareka several months previously, and now presented itself as a formidable obstacle standing in the way of the British forces prevailing in what would come to be known as the Flagstaff or Northern War.

After the recent battle at Puketutu and Te Ahuahu, the injured Hone Heke and his ally Kawiti had arrived to lend support to Pene in consolidating this position into one which would prove to be invulnerable to ball shot and artillery. Heke was only to stay for a short time and was soon to leave as his wound rendered him incapable of fighting.

Under Kawiti’s supervision, many Puriri trees had been felled in the surrounding area in order to further reinforce the Pa’s palisades.

In addition to this, underground shelters had been dug with interconnecting tunnels attached, in order to provide fast and protected movement throughout the interior of the stockade.

The wood of the Puriri was chosen due to its strength and durability.

While unpopular for carving, its ability to protect against musketry and artillery fire proved highly desirable when considering the construction of what would become known as the Modern Gunfighting Pa.

After the inner chamber of the House of Commons was bombed in 1941, the New Zealand Government of the time made a gift of Puriri wood to the people of the British Isles. This wood was used when fashioning replacement despatch boxes for parliamentary services, which are used to this day.

It is unknown how many Maori defenders were present in the Pa as these numbers tended to vary. A large bodyguard of warriors had accompanied the wounded Heke as he had made his retreat to Tautoro some fourteen miles away.

Contemporary reports from the time estimated the garrison to have comprised of no more than 100 men.

The principle Hapu present were: Ngati-Rangi, under Pene Taui; Ngati-Tautahi, under Tuhirangi (elder brother of Heke); Ngati-Whakaeke, Ngati-te-Rehu and Ngati-te-Rangi, all of Heke’s Hapu; Ngati-Kawa, of Oromohoe; Te-Uri-Taniwha, of Te Ahuahu; and Ngati-Hine who were led by Kawiti.

Despard ordered what remained of his 32 pounder shot to be fired at an oblique angle towards the front of the stockade as the awaiting troops watched on. They had been directed to eat and prepare themselves accordingly for the attack to come.

The first assaulting column under the command of Major Macpherson consisted of a total of 120 men: 40 grenadiers each from the 99th and 58th regiments; a small party of seamen from H.M.S Hazard; and about 30 pioneers from the Auckland Militia to carry axes, scaling ladders and ropes.

The second column under the command of Major Bridge, numbered around 100 men consisted of 60 of the remaining grenadiers from the 58th, and 40 light infantry drawn from the 99th.

In advance of these two main assaulting parties, an initial vanguard consisting of just over 20 men under the command of Lieutenant Beattie from the 99th would carry the overall attack forward.

As the impressive, yet ultimately desultory artillery barrage began to peter out, the British attacking force moved into their final positions for the storming of the stockade, forming up into four tight lines, elbows touching when crooked, with the regulation 23 inches separating each rank.

They would focus their attack on the North West corner.

Standing in the winter sunshine, these men stood at attention in their dirty and disheveled campaign tunics and breeches. Some of the men’s boots had been either eaten away or lost entirely by the previous weeks spent trudging through the muddy tracks, with the occasional soldier’s feet clad only in flax leaf and vine.

After half an hour of interminable waiting, the bugle call was finally and mercifully heard for the advance to begin in earnest. The commanders ordered ‘prepare to charge’ which was answered by a hearty ‘hurrah!’

As this wave of dishevelled Red Coats rushed forward to within fifty paces of the palisade a loud cheer was heard amongst the men whose blood was now well and truly up for the fight to come.

Almost immediately, however, the entire front facing section of the stockade exploded in a murderous volley of fire, belching forth a scything stream of lead and smoke into the advancing troops, made even more terrible by the enfilading angles which created a veritable killing ground ahead.

Some of the troops made a vain attempt at tearing away the palisade wall with their hands and bayonets but were felled in the process by the occupants of the Pa who, firing from well concealed and protected positions were able to maintain the outer wall’s integrity with minimal danger or risk to themselves.

A veteran of the action: W. H. Free, who was interviewed in his autumn years, was to say of this action – Quote

In our Light Company alone we had twenty-one men shot in the charge. As we rushed at the pa a man was shot in front of me, and another was hit behind me. When the bugle sounded the retreat I picked up a wounded man, and was carrying him off on my back when he was shot dead. Then I picked up a second wounded comrade, a soldier named Smith, and carried him out safely. Our captain, Grant, an officer for whom we had a great liking, was shot dead close to the stockade. Nothing was explained to us before we charged. We just brought our bayonets to the charge when we got the word, and went at it hell-for-leather. End quote.

Despite the carnage brought about by this hopeless position the remaining troops continued to bravely assault the palisade wall but to no avail.

When the bugle call to retire from the field was first heard it was initially ignored by the assaulting party, and was eventually repeated again and again until every man began to make their own desperate escape from the merciless shots of death and fire which continued to nip at their heels as they retreated back to the safety of their own lines.

In a little over five minutes, almost 40 men had been killed outright, and seventy more had been wounded, some mortally so.

Many attempts were made to carry away the wounded and dying throughout the remainder of the afternoon, however, the constant sniping which continued to be fired from the Pa was to deny most of these efforts.

A veteran of the garrison, Rihara Kou was to remark later on – Quote.

“The soldiers fell on this side and that…they fell right and left like that, like so many sticks thrown down.” End quote.

As the late afternoon turned into a brisk winter’s evening, the surgeons in the British camp did what they could for the wounded and dying, all the while hearing the distant chorus of victorious chanting emanating from the Pa’s ecstatic defenders.

Despard, aggrieved at such losses, began to make moves to retire his remaining forces back to Waimate, but reconsidered this order after remonstrations from some of his men and Maori allies who were reticent to leave their fallen comrades, who still lay as mute witnesses to the carnage which had unfolded.

Archdeacon Henry Williams and Reverend Burrows, who had both witnessed the battle, spoke with the Pa’s occupants and finally gained the desired permission to retrieve from the field the bodies of the fallen who were duly buried in two graves on the afternoon of the 3rd of July.

Total losses for the Maori are unknown but are believed to have not exceeded 10.

After another week of tense stalemate, the Pa was finally abandoned during the night of the 11th, and destroyed by the remaining British forces the following day.

Perhaps some thought was given during this process towards eradicating this grievous and humiliating loss from the minds of all present, however, the stain of this day’s memory would remain for the British army indefinitely and would give them much pause in their future dealings with the Maori in the years and battles to come.

The British army had tasted it’s first experience of the Maori Pa, and discovered in it’s deceptive simplicity, a cunningly ruthless and extremely well-ordered mind.

 

Source material:

The New Zealand Wars: Volume One – James Cowan.

 


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