Forest Fighting

The Skirmish at the Big Clearing, Patumahoe

A history of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period Volume 1: 1845-1864

Title: The New Zealand Wars Author: James Cowan, F.R.G.S. Publication details: R. E. Owen, 1955, Wellington Part of: New Zealand Wars (1845–1872)

Major Von Tempsky, in his MS. journal (now in the Turnbull Library, Wellington), gave the following animated description of the first skirmish of the Mauku Forest Rifles and the Forest Rangers (8th September, 1863):—

“We mustered about fifty men, including fifteen Mauku Rifles, under Lieutenant Lusk. From the Lower Mauku, where the stockade of the settlement was erected, the houses of the settlers straggle along a wooded ridge running south; at about a mile and a half another ridge joins the former at a right angle, dotted with another set of settlers’ houses, amongst them a little church with a white steeple, now made bullet-proof and garrisoned by settlers and Militia. At the eastern end of that settlement the native village of Patumahoe commences; it had been abandoned long ago by the natives who had joined the cause of the fighting tribes. South of this about a mile or two lies the farm of Messrs. Lusk and Hill. We visited the house, and there at last we found fresh tracks. We followed them like sleuthhounds. They led through the corner of a large paddock, then entered the bush by a well-beaten path. We were about a mile from the paddock when we heard three, four, five, six shots fired, evidently in the paddock. We turned and hastened back. It was reported from the rear that Maoris could be heard shouting to one another. Jackson and Lusk decided that the party should divide, a process I did not believe in but had to assent to. One party, under our ensign, Hay, and guided by Mr. Hill, were to look up the Maoris in our rear, as it was thought that there would be found the strongest number of enemies; thirty men, all Forest Rangers, were allotted to that party. The remaining twenty, under Jackson, Lusk, and myself, proceeded towards the paddock.

“Cautiously we sallied from the bush, reconnoitring the paddock. We saw no enemy. At last we saw a beast lying dead, evidently. That sign at least was satisfactory. We rushed up to it, found it warm yet, and with six bullet-holes in it. We looked around; nothing else was visible. The paddock was of great length, about half a mile square, covered with burnt stumps and logs. The settlers set to skinning the beast while it was warm, and I reflected on the probabilities of our case and kept the men from lumping together, as I did not believe in the apparent serenity of the bush.

“We had just scattered a bit when another shot was fired, towards the south-west corner of the paddock. There was no mistake in this; there were the Maoris, and thus they intended to draw us on. We pleased them to a certain extent, but not exactly the way they wanted us to go—across the open paddock right on to the dense bush where the shot was fired. We made for the bush immediately opposite to us and followed its cover along the edge towards the direction of the shot. We knew that at every step now we might come upon the Maoris, and I can assure you we kept a sharp lookout all around us; but we saw nothing; nothing moved except what we moved.

“Thus we marched on. Where the deuce are the Maoris? Down comes a volley with a vengeance. The powder-smoke is blown into our faces; I rub my eyes—I can hardly see for the saltpetre-fumes in them. ‘Give it to them, boys, right and left!’ and away crack our carbines and rifles. Over the din, the clatter and spatter of shots, you can hear the high-pitched voice of a Maori chanting an incantation. Our carbines answer. Ah, you hear a change of key now—you hear those two or three fellows singing ‘Miserere Domine’—and such a Miserere!—that one fellow in particular must have been hit in the spine, for his yells are abominable. Are none of our men hit? I cannot see one down yet—they are all behind the trees, and blazing away for the very life of them. What they can see, however, is an enigma to me, for all that I have seen, and see, are blue puffs of smoke from the green undergrowth. Once I saw a black head—had it on the bead of my revolver nearly, but it ducked. I have not fired a shot yet. Hang firing—I will try my old Mexican blade. A perfect labyrinth of fallen trees from the clearing, interlaced with a new green growth of creepers and old supplejack, is the accidental breastwork our friends have chosen as their fortress. I struggle into it, get hopelessly caught, and struggle out again. No advance that way, certainly. I join once more the skirmishers.

“Jackson has fallen in with a new idea. He has drawn five Rangers into the paddock behind some logs, and shouts to us to come to him. Of course it is a mistake; we remain where we are; but the Rangers commence blazing away, and we might get a friendly bullet by mistake, so we have to form in the paddock also, losing every chance of cutting off the retreat of the Maoris.

“There behind good cover, stumps and logs, a harmless exchange of shots is carried on for a while. Our thirty Rangers appear on our left wing, panting; they have found no Maoris, and, hearing our firing, have joined us.

“I urge a charge. Not yet. Very well. I can see nothing to fire at, so I lie behind my stump and look at Lusk, who is in the same predicament. I have a dog with me who won’t go under cover, and gets hit in the head—only a graze though, as I found out afterwards.

“At last, while the fire of our opponents had grown slacker, for very good reasons, a party was sent from our right flank to cut them off. We were to charge when the cheer of this party was heard. We rushed with frantic valour into the bush. The bush was calmer than ever. We traverse and jump from tree to tree. Strange is this bush fighting—mysterious: blue smoke, green leaves, perhaps a black head: cries, defiant, soul-rending, you hear perhaps—yes, you can hear them talking next door to you, coolly familiarly, but you see nothing—nothing tangible to grasp, to wrestle with.

“Our circumventive force still continued cheering in the depths of the wood, so that I began to think they had made a find of some of our game, but there they were dancing around a dozen extempore huts, the Maori encampment, revelling in retaken plunder and eating the Maori dinner cooking on the Maori fire. There was no sign of a body anywhere. Yet there could be no doubt that several of them must have been hit, judging from the painful climax of howls they set up after our first meeting at 20 yards, where several of our men on the left flank must have seen the backs of several Maoris lying behind the stumps. We now know that five were killed, and that one hundred Maoris were opposed to us, mostly Patumahoe natives then engaged in plundering and destroying settlers’ property in the neighbourhood. I believe that after our first close encounter no one on our side made any hits excepting perhaps Jackson and Hay, as both of them were crack shots and don’t fire at the smoke, as the general run of excited combatants do.

“We returned to Mauku laden with spoil and intoxicated with our victory. The Forest Rangers and Mauku Rifles had fleshed their arms at last, and that is no small matter with young soldiers. In casualties Alfred Speedy, son of Major Speedy, was shot through the cap, W. Worthington through the trousers, and Mr. Wheeler through the coat. This from a volley at 20 or 15 yards. Too much powder, ye Maoris!”

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