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Incidents of The Maori War

Appendix. — The Armstrong Gun At Taranaki

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The Armstrong Gun At Taranaki.

Whilst collecting materials for the narrative of the twelve months operations in the Taranaki against the Maories in 1860-61, I sought for and obtained what information I required regarding the performances of the Armstrong guns, which had been despatched from England after the war commenced, under the impression that in the attack of heavily timbered stockades (the old and favourite defence of the Maories) the elongated shell from its beautifully rifled piece of ordnance would have a terrible effect, and would hasten the termination of hostilities. I accordingly subjoin what may prove interesting to those who are curious to know how the Armstrong guns were used in the Taranaki.

Before they arrived, I may repeat that the Royal Artillery, under Captain Strover, performed very valuable service in the attack on Te Kohia or the L. pah, at Kaihihi, at the action of Mahoetahi, &c., and during the progress of the sap from No. 3 Redoubt towards the strong position of Te Arei pah or Pukerangeora on the high cliffs of the Waitara River. Officers and men of the Royal Artillery worked with the greatest zeal in their important arm of the service, and cooperating with the Royal Engineers, under Colonel Mould, and covered by the arm of precision of the infantry, after a long and arduous struggle against a brave and determined foe, and in a country much more difficult than Cafferland, as we had seen, caused the Ngatiawa Maories to hoist the white flag.

The principal scene of operations in the latter part of the conflict in the Taranaki was, as was described, an extensive fern-covered and undulating plain stretching along the left bank page 416of the clear waters of the Waitara (or lively) river bordered with forest trees, and towards the heights where a long line of picketing marked the Maori position of Te Arei. The distance from the mouth of the Waitara to Te Arei was some half a dozen miles. The head-quarter (or Waitara) camp was near the mouth of the river. Three miles in advance was the Kairau or No. 1 redoubt, near the scene of the action about the Matarikoriko pah. No. 2 was in advance of that, then No. 3, of three squares en échelon, where the severe fight took place on the morning of the 23rd January, the Maories having made desperate efforts to storm it but were repulsed with heavy loss. Then commenced the sap against the position of Huirangi garnished with a series of rifle pits, and these being taken, the sap was continued towards Te Arei, and was supported by redoubts to the number of eight in all.

We had nothing in Cafferland like what I saw in the Taranaki. Kloofs and krantzes (ravines and cliffs) there were in South Africa in plenty, but no stockades or rifle pits, and though both Caffers and Maories are strong and active warriors, and cunning withal, yet I esteem the warfare in New Zealand much more dangerous than in South Africa for many reasons, including a considerable supply of double barrels in the hand of the Maories. The three Caffer wars obtained and well deserved a bit of ribbon.*

On the 4th of March, 1861, Captain Mercer, R.A. arrived at Auckland, New Zealand, in the 'Norwood,' after a prosperous voyage, with the Armstrong battery and ten-inch and eight-inch mortars. That day week he had cleared the ship of the battery, mortars, shell and other stores in all amounting to 700 tons; notwithstanding the extra labour of discharging by lighters, as the 'Norwood' lay out at some distance in the harbour being unable to go alongside the pier to discharge, officers and men worked with a will, all being desirous of taking part in the Maori war in the Taranaki. On the 12th March, half of the Armstrong battery page 417with the mortars embarked on board the colonial war steamer, 'Victoria,' Captain Norman, for the seat of war. Lieutenant Hunter, R.A., was left behind in charge of the other half battery, and was to follow on the arrival of Captain Watson, R.A., with 180 horses from Australia. Captain Mercer's party arrived at the Waitara River on the morning of the 13th March and commenced landing at once in surf boats. The same afternoon the Armstrong guns were taken out of their cases, cleaned and mounted, the ammunition, &c., examined, and the whole found to be complete and in perfect order. Major-General Sir T. S. Pratt, K.C.B., then commanding, directed Captain Mercer to proceed with Mr. Parris, the native commissioner, the following day, and select a favourable position for shelling Mataitawa, the stronghold of Wiremu Kingi, but the distance of the nearest spot from whence it could be seen over the tops of the trees of the forest was (by calculation) beyond the range of the 12-pounder Armstrong gun. Whilst Captain Mercer was absent Lieutenant Pickard had the men drilled and exercised at laying the guns, in order to see that they had not forgotten during the long voyage, the instruction they had received in England. The artificers were at the same time busily employed in making poles, &c., for bullock draught. Three poles were completed during the day, thus enabling the guns to start for the front at 6 A.M. the next morning, Friday, the 15th of March.

On arriving at No. 7 redoubt the white flag was. flying from the Te Arei pah, but about midday, when Captain Mercer was in the advanced trench with the late Lieutenant E. C. MacNaughten, R.A., examining the position, &c., of the Maori rifle trenches, it was hauled down, and in place of it a large red war flag was run up, a single defiant shot was then heard, which was immediately followed by vollies from the Maori pits; these rattling against the gabions of the sap shewed that the natives were recommencing hostilities in right good earnest. Captain Mercer immediately returned to No. 7 redoubt, and opened fire from the Armstrong guns page 418and mortars on the lines of the enemy's rifle trenches, there being nothing else to fire at except the open stockading of Te Arei pah. The whole Maori position from our left front to our extreme right front formed a curve about a mile in extent, the Maori left resting on the forest, and the right terminating in a precipice overhanging the river Waitara, the dense forest being also immediately in the rear for escape. For as is well known the Maories never fight, except under strong cover, and when they have also a good and safe retreat to fall back upon. The position of Te Arei as well as the steep slopes of the hills stretching away to our right front appeared to be lined with rifle trenches or pits, many of them concealed by a stunted growth of bush, so that the presence of our all but invisible foe was often only known by the puffs of smoke from their discharged rifles or guns, or perhaps a few heads being occasionally seen above the crest of their line of trench for a minute or so, and then as suddenly disappearing. They lay concealed for hours, both in their pits and amongst the abounding cover and now and then by single shots and sometimes by vollies they endeavoured to do all the mischief they could.

There was no heavily timbered stockade to breach to enable the troops to take Te Arei by assault; for a broad roadway led right over the crest of the hill into the centre of the position of the Maories through open picketing. The extraordinary occurrence of finding oneself in front of the enemy with apparently nothing for artillery to fire at, struck the newly arrived artillery officers, and remarking the same, they were told if the white flag was hauled down, the rifle trenches of Te Arei, as well as those of the neighbouring hills, would be alive with natives, as far as their fire was concerned, but they themselves would be all but invisible. Captain Mercer then attentively considering these lines of pits or rifle trenches along the crest of the hills all around coupled with the peculiar mode of Maori warfare, and also being informed that their trenches were generally constructed in the following ingenious manner—first a narrow deep page 419trench is made, then on the side fronting their assailant it is dug out in the form of a shoe, the earth so excavated being thrown outside on the top to the rear, rough wood work, beams, &c., arranged so as to support the earth above the excavation, thus forming a secure place where they immediately retired after delivering their fire—it appeared to Captain Mercer that he had before him in these rifle trenches a target of about eight feet in height counting from the top of the trench to the bottom of the excavation, and running laterally some distance, and he calculated that by aiming at the centre of this target, some three or four feet below the earth thrown on the top rear of the trench, the shell penetrating just below the crest of it, and meeting with the resistance of the rough wooden support of the earth in the trench, or any other body momentarily to arrest the flight of the shell, it would burst inside and deal destruction around. To increase the chance of unearthing some of these wily natives, planks were procured for gun wheels and trails to rest upon, so as to adjust the gun to the greatest nicety of level. After a trial shell on each of their positions, and the range having been accurately obtained, the Armstrong guns were loaded and laid on certain points of the lines of the enemy's rifle trenches, and the gunner with lanyard in hand waited for the word to fire from the officer who was watching the trench with glasses, until some heads appearing above, or a puff of smoke from the discharged pieces revealed their presence in that direction, when the gun was instantly fired, and the shell was observed from the battery to enter just below the crest of the trench carrying destruction to any Maories in that portion of the pits.

The natives were also in the habit of firing vollies when the working parties, or any number of men were going to or returning from the head of the sap; on these occasions the guns were laid on the lines of the pits, and the shells fixed with both time and concussion fuzes, and before the parties marched, the gunners were ready waiting for the word, which was given directly the natives opened fire, and the Armstrong page 420shells at the same instant burst amongst them. Lieutenant Pickard and Acting-Sergeant-Major R. Hayes made some excellent shell practice with the Armstrong guns. Colour-Sergeant J. Moran, Royal Engineers, whilst at the head of the sap, and Bombardier T. Singer No. 3 battery, 12th Brigade Royal Artillery, whilst working the Coehorn mortars (with the late Lieutenant E. C. MacNaughten, R.A.) have both given satisfactory evidence of their having personally observed the action of the Armstrong shell, its entering just below the crest of the rifle trench in front of Te Arei, and bursting inside. Hapurona and Ihaiha informed one of the officers of the 14th Regiment (Captain Buck), through an interpreter, that they did not like the new shell &c. One is very much amused at the grotesquely absurd remarks that are hazarded and ventilated concerning the action of the Armstrong gun by those who, if actually brought to book on the subject, are as ignorant as a babe unborn of the mechanism of the Armstrong shell, or of either the time or concussion fuzes, and know absolutely nothing of the action of either or of both when placed in the shell. These individuals were under the impression that a few Armstrong shells launched against the Maori position would cause Te Arei and the neighbouring hills to leap into the air, and the dense forest which clothed them to vanish in a blue flame according to the most approved stage effect. It need not be said that they were disappointed, and, naturally short-sighted, they could not make it out, why "an Armstrong shell fired with concussion fuze only, and consequently not bursting until after penetration, and travelling at the rate of one thousand feet per second," carried to them no visible demonstration; hence, instead of the Armstrong shell being innocent, they themselves are shown to be "the innocents." Viewing it, however, as a whole, it is not exactly the target that an artillery officer would choose to demonstrate to the uninitiated the destructive effects of the Armstrong gun; but considering the peculiar circumstances attending the warfare in front of the position of Te Arei, it was the best and only page 421way to use this gun with advantage, and from observation Captain Mercer was fully convinced of the decided superiority of rifled ordnance over smooth bored; at the same time, there can be little doubt but that the shrewd cunning of these artful natives, in dispersing in twos and threes, and never fighting except they are concealed amidst the abounding cover of their country, neutralizes, to a certain extent, the effect of the destructive powers of an artillery that may be brought against them. Notwithstanding all this, they felt seriously the artillery fire during the last four days of the struggle, as well as previously under another excellent and zealous artillery officer, Captain Strover, and the fact of their sudden departure home, and so terminating the war at Taranaki suggests the interesting question, "Why these Maories having recommenced hostilities in good earnest, on Friday morning March 15, should suddenly 'shut up' on the following Monday March 18, and twenty-four hours after that the Waikato contingent decamp on their way back to their country." One is also struck with the remarkable fact, that since the war at Taranaki not a stick has been cut in Waikato, nor have any preparations for defence been made in support of the King movement, which would appear to demonstrate that they had felt the power of artillery, and indeed they say they will build no more pahs for artillery to knock down, but will take to the bush, &c.

Capt. Mercer being very anxious to get at the real facts of the case with respect to the effect of the guns, and to ascertain what the natives themselves thought of the artillery fire, made inquiries in all directions, and was informed by the Rev, Mr. Wilson, the clergyman of the Church of England, who has been for the last twenty-nine years in New Zealand, as before noticed, and has great knowledge of both the natives and their country, and who has visited the Waikato district since the termination of hostilities at Taranaki, that the Maories had a great dread of artillery; they said they could not come out into the open, because they could not face the page 422fire of the guns, and that had no artillery being brought against them they would have constructed strong pahs, and any attempt of the troops to take them without artillery would, they said, be attended with similar results as the attack by Colonel Despard in the north in 1845. That the night firing of the mortars as well as the artillery fire in genera], created great alarm amongst them, and on two or three occasions when they thought themselves perfectly secure, the shot and shell came tumbling amongst them until they at last exclaimed that the very woods were not safe; that the fire of the artillery was exceedingly accurate, the shell ploughing up their trenches, and that they could not endure the harrassing uncertainty of shells dropping amongst them during all hours of the day and night, winding up by saying that they would excuse themselves for killing unarmed men, &c., for "ambushes" were their only "big guns" or "artillery," and that they would, if the war was renewed, take to the bush and rifle pits, spread themselves all over the country, and do all the damage they could.

It appears that they fully understand the secret of their strength, which lies in this very dispersion, combined with never fighting except when the nature of their magnificent country, consisting of mountains, ravines, gullies with high fern, bush and forest, favours their peculiar mode of war-fare.

After the sanguinary affair at Puketakauere in June 1860, Major Nelson, 40th Regiment, commanding at the Waitara camp, a brave and zealous officer, at length drove the Maories from their pah by shells at uncertain times; and at night, from a 68-pounder, they were harassed out of Puketakauere by a force indequate for investmeut and assault.

The mortar battery, consisting of two ten-inch and two eight-inch mortars was on the right, and outside No. 7 redoubt, and under the command of Captain Strover. These mortars were fired at intervals throughout the whole day, whenever there were any signs of the presence of the natives page 423in their pits; the practice was very good, the shells dropping in the Maori trenches both in Te Arei and on the hills to our right, burying and destroying everything near them. In order to harass the natives as much as possible, firing was carried on during the night at uncertain hours with the mortars laid upon different positions, so that they could never tell when or where the shell was coming.

On Saturday 16th March, an attack was made on our extreme right; a 9-pounder gun, accompanied by a detachment of the 40th Regiment, commenced firing some rounds of common case into the bush to drive out the natives; and subsequently on their retiring to the trenches on the edge of the wood, some shrapnel shell were sent amongst them; soon after the firing ceased, and the men returned to camp.

It had been the practice to place every night behind the sap roller, and sunk in the earth in its box, an eight-inch naval shell with a friction tube fixed through the fuze, and a cord attached to it and the sap roller, so as to explode should the natives attempt to capture the roller. This was suggested by the Royal Engineers, and carried out at their request by the Naval Brigade, in consequence of one sap roller having been carried off by the natives, conceiving that in the event of their trying to do so a second time, the main rifle trench in front of Te Arei, not far from the head of the sap, would be lined with natives watching the operation, as well as at hand to help to secure the roller and drag it up the hill to the pah. The Armstrong guns were loaded and laid on this trench the last thing before dark; each night also the mortars were laid on different parts of Te Arei. On Saturday night the trap of the shell succeeded; the Maories endeavouring to capture the sap roller, the shell exploded, and immediately afterwards the enemy got the benefit of both the Armstrong and mortar shells from No. 7 redoubt.

Sunday, March 17th, was a sad day for the artillery, for page 424they lost poor MacNaughten, he was killed whilst in the act of laying a Coehorn mortar in the extremity of the advance demi-parallel, the ball passing through the wrist and entering the chest, he died almost immediately, firing his last shot on the anniversary of his firing his first one in this war. He had ably conducted the fire of the Coehorn mortars since the advance of the sap from No. 8 redoubt, and had been in every engagement throughout the whole war. The force was now deprived of his most valuable assistance, and the service has lost in him a most brave and efficient officer Sergeant J. Christie, R.A. an excellent non-commissioned officer, was wounded in the shoulder in the advance demi-parallel early on Monday morning, whilst Captain Mercer was arranging with him about carrying on the practice with the Coehorn mortars.

Some hours after this, a red war flag being observed hoisted on a hill to our left front and to the right rear of Te Arei, some 1900 yards distant, and natives being observed working as if they intended to occupy a new position of rifle pits when they should be obliged to retreat from Te Arei, the guns were laid, and some Armstrong shell fixed with time and concussion fuzes were sent amongst them; one of the shells burst at the front of the flag-staff, when they instantly hauled down their flag, and they themselves giving over working, disappeared and were no more seen in that direction.

On Monday afternoon, March 18, a sharp attack was made on our extreme right from the wood adjacent to No. 7 redoubt; during this attack the Armstrong guns were used against the main rifle trench in front of Te Arei to keep down the fire of the natives on the head of the sap. A 9-pounder gun and a 24-pounder howitzer were taken down to the edge of the wood, and after some rounds of common case to drive the natives out of the bush, on their retiring to their trenches, which formed a continuation of cover from the wood to the flag-staff hill, some common and shrapnel page 425shell were used against them. Gunner T. Talford was wounded hi the leg whilst serving the 9-pounder gun.

At four o'clock on the morning of the 19th March the Sergeant Major, R.A. accompanied Captain Mercer outside the redoubt, and fired the last two mortars at Te Arei, and within two hours afterwards white flags were flying from all the Maori positions.

* A New Zealand medal would be a great boon.