The Battle of Gate Pa

[This is an excerpt from my new short story collection "Hellfire & Damnation III," now available for purchase from Amazon in both paperback and e-book versions.]
Circle Three: Gluttony - The Battle of Gate Pa, April 29, 1864

Rawiri Puhirake circulated amongst his Nai Te Rangi New Zealand warriors. “Do not talk. Do not speak. Do not whisper. Be as silent as the ghosts of your ancestors.”

The men were crouched in a rabbit warren of tunnels dug beneath the surface of the New Zealand hill known as Gate Pa. They had worked on the site for days, making it nearly invisible to the British, three hundred of whom would come against them at daybreak. Rawiri knew they would come. He had guaranteed it. He invited the British to do battle at a certain time, in that certain place, with a carefully worded message. The challenge was phrased in excellent English. It was transcribed onto parchment using elegant calligraphy.

The message, headed Potiriwhi District of Tauranga, March 28, 1864, read: To the Colonel: Friend, salutations to you. The end of that, friend, do you give heed to our laws for (regulating) the fight. Rule 1: If wounded or captured whole and butt of the musket. Rule 2: If any Pakeha being a soldier by name shall be traveling unarmed and meet me, he will be captured and handed over to the direction of the law. Rule 3: The soldier who flees, being carried away by his fears, and goes to the house of the priest with his gun, even though carrying arms, will be saved; I will not go there. Rule 4: The unarmed Pakehas, women and children will be spared. The end.

These are binding laws for Tauranga.
Terea Puimanuka
Wi kotiro
Pine Anopu
Rawiri Puhiraki
Rawiri—who had been well-educated by A.N. Brown and his wife Christina (and, before Christina, by Brown’s first wife, Charlotte), missionaries at The Elms—was an outstanding student. He easily mastered English. He wrote in a beautiful cursive handwriting, inviting commanding Brigadier General Carey to fight at Gate Pa.

The letter was so succinct in its composition, so grandly executed in a formal, stilted style, laying out the exact time of day and location of the battle, that it was tantamount to baiting the Brigadier General. Brigadier General Carey had, so far, refused to engage in battle with the Maori, other than defensively. It was merely adhering to the Rules of War in that day, time and place. Courtly. Chivalrous. Polite. The Rules of Engagement had been hammered out in discussion with the signers of the invitation, the authors of the pact. When, seven weeks later, the brilliant Rawiri was killed in a different battle, the rules of engagement would be found sewn into the lining of the coat of Ngai TeRangi (one of the chief authors of the document) along with these words: “If thine enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink.”

The invitation to take up arms was successful. It succeeded in convincing the British to move militarily against the native peoples of New Zealand in the Tauranga Campaign. After the courtly invitation to do battle at Gate Pa, the General was determined to fight to put down the opposition he termed “savages” and “niggers.” Missionary A.N. Brown, who had been at The Elms from 1830 (and remained at The Elms until 1887), had mixed emotions. He was British, but he and his two wives had come to know the natives well. They had come to appreciate the Maori. At this point, Missionary Brown had known the Maori for thirty-four years. He had taught many of them to read and write English. The Maori were good students. They learned quickly and were quite clever. A church—a prominent feature of The Elms—was established to convert the Maori to Christianity. Therefore, it was with very mixed emotions that Brown and his second wife, Christina (first wife Charlotte had died in 1859), hosted a grand dinner for the British officers on the eve of the battle.

April 28, 1864, The Elms, Gate Pa, New Zealand, Evening

Rather than apprehension about tomorrow’s battle, the men appeared to be in a festive mood. They feasted in a gluttonous fashion. Suckling pig. Local produce. All manner of beverages. Good Scotch whiskey. Christina favored the assembled ten officers with songs on the piano following the meal. “Aren’t you fearful that you or some of your men will fall tomorrow?” Christina asked Brigadier General Carey as they dined. She shivered slightly as she addressed this sensitive question to the General, seated to her right.

He wiped his mouth with the white linen napkin before responding. His fingers were greasy from tearing the legs from a small, cooked, quail. “Pshaw, my good woman. They are a half-naked, poorly armed bunch of savages, outnumbered ten to one by well-trained British troops. We have 1,650 men available to us. Only three hundred will march tomorrow. I doubt if we need that many. We shall bombard them with four batteries of artillery from a range of 350 to 800 meters for eight hours before we advance upon the poor devils.” The General sipped from his cup. He fixed Christina with a look of utter confidence. Then he continued, “By then, if they haven’t run off, they will wish they had.” Carey smiled a wry smile. The nine officers listening at the table chuckled politely in agreement. “In fact, I shall send troops behind the battlefield, to make sure the savages don’t try to sneak away into the morning mist and flee to the hills.” General Carey took another drink from his tumbler of good British ale. His actions conveyed to Christina that the subject was closed.

The dining room for the feast the night before the battle was no more than twelve feet by ten feet. Narrow. A shoebox shape. With the table, the breakfront, the piano and the hutch usually containing Charlotte’s prized china (displayed there when it wasn’t in use), there was barely room to move around the outside of the burnished wooden table. Directly to the left of the dining room was Reverend Brown’s office. Very tiny. Beautiful wood everywhere. Barely enough room for his desk. Trophies on the wall, along with guns. The British soldiers were in fine spirits at dinner that night, gluttonously relishing the opportunity to consume a fine home-cooked Elms meal. Unconcerned. Almost nonchalant.

“Tomorrow, we will put down the savages, once and for all,” Brigadier General Cary said with confidence. The 1,650 men the British had at their disposal were distributed this way—700 from the 68th Regiment, 420 from the Naval Bay, 300 from the 43rd Regiment, 50 from the Royal Artillery and 180 from, variously, the 12th, 14th, 40th, and 65th regiments. The natives were badly outnumbered. The British had vastly superior weapons. Addressing the subject of the battle that was to come on the morning following this sumptuous feast, Brigadier General George Cary said, “We will move on them at daybreak. We have four batteries of artillery. In addition to the 110 pound Armstrong gun, we have two forty pounders and two six pound Armstrong guns. In addition, we have two 24-pound howitzers. Two eight inch mortars. Six Coehorn mortars. What do the savages have? knives? Rocks?” The British officers laughed openly at the last dismissive remark. The mood on the eve of battle rivaled that of the Mexican troops under Santa Ana at the Alamo. The Mexican troops had reveled the night before their assault on the fort with mariachi music, the festive strains drifting back to the defenders of the San Antonio Fort. The British officers this night did not have an accurate impression of the enemy they would face on the morrow, nor did they give the Maori the respect that they deserved.

Rawiri Puhuraki, the great Maori strategist, continued to rally his troops throughout the night. He moved amongst them stealthily as they crouched in their trenches, waiting patiently. Rawiri urged complete silence. “Do not let them know where we are. Do not let them know how many we are. keep perfect silence until I give the signal to fire. Now, who will go with me to take the white picket fence that surrounds the garden at The Elms?” asked Rawiri. Rawiri smiled as two eager young volunteers jumped up to join him. The three Maori approached under cover of darkness. They quietly dug up the white picket fence that surrounded a vegetable patch. The tinny piano playing of Christina Brown wafted from the open window while the natives worked silently under the full moon, and the officers inside gorged themselves while listening to the playing of their hostess. The Maori carried the fence back to the ramparts of their home-made trenches, aligning the sharpened planks so that any advancing soldier would have a sharp, pointed stake aimed at his mid-section to navigate before he could move on to breach the Maori trenches. As the Maori re-buried the fence, they smiled with pleasure at the irony of their action. They were using a picket fence from British property as a weapon against those very British. Rawiri was amused. He was filled with great good humor at the justice of turning a picket fence belonging to the enemy into a weapon to be used against the enemy, all while tomorrow’s combatants supped within The Elms, singing songs, eating, and sipping tea.

The officers within The Elms with the Browns continued to enjoy the wild boar, suckling pig, wild turkey, quail, British wines and whiskeys imported from London, and other delicacies of the house. The ten officers left the table quite full of themselves in both body and soul. The next day, only one of the officers sitting at The Elms table on April 28th would still be alive. The medical officer was the sole surviver.

April 29, 1864, Dawn, Gate Pa, New Zealand

The British began the battle at dawn by shelling thirty tons of metal at the enemy for a full eight hours. The Maori, however, for the first time in recorded wartime history, creatively had improvised trenches. This technique would later be used extensively in World Wars I and II. The heavy artillery shells sailed harmlessly over the trenches where the Maori silently crouched, awaiting the advance of their opposition. The Maori prepared for the moment when the enemy soldiers would enter the killing Zone. Although fifteen Maori died, the battle was pronounced a rout for the British.

It was considered a disaster by British standards. Local newspapers reported that the British forces were “trampled in the dust by a horde of half-naked, half-armed savages.” One paper described the Maori battle plan as “a remarkable tactical ploy, brilliantly implemented as well as brilliantly conceived.” The British did not anticipate that their artillery would sail harmlessly over the heads of their opponents. Soon, the unsuspecting Brits were engaged in hand-to-hand warfare with courageous Maori warriors decorated with the striking tattoos of their tribe. The re-purposing of the white picket fence from The Elms proved to be just one of many hurdles that caused the troops to become paralyzed with fear. If they could find a way out, they streamed from the killing Zone in frantic retreat. All the other officers, wounded, dying or already dead, would be brought back to the small house at The Elms, a building roughly large enough for ten people to inhabit at once. Eighty wounded men were cared for in the house. Most of the soldiers would be placed on the grassy lawn outside.

Thirty-one of the British soldiers would die, nine of them the very same officers who had dined in such splendor the night before the battle. Among them was an officer named Hamilton. After the British infantry marched into the maze of pits covered over with raupo shares (a New Zealand bulrush, Typha orientalis, with sword- shaped leaves, traditionally used for construction and decoration), they began to die. They marched two deep. Sailors on the right. Side-by-side under the breast of the hill until they were seventy yards from the Maori trenches. There they halted.

Hamilton exhorted the men, “Steady now, men. This will all be over soon.” Hamilton was right. But his prediction of an easy British victory was incorrect. Like the other soldiers, he was oblivious to the true nature of the enemy. A member of the First company, Glover Garland, described Maori warriors, decorated with war paint and provoking fear by their very appearance, poking their rifles out of the trenches when only three yards away. They killed many of the British soldiers, inflicting fatal head wounds. Captain Hay from the ship the Harrier was critically wounded. Bob Glover found his younger brother suffering from a major injury to his head, a nearly crushing blow above his left ear. Bob began shouting over the din, his voice reflecting shock and fear, “Will no one help my brother?” Utterton of the Second company and Hamilton and Clark of the Third company and Moran and young Glover of the Fourth company: all lay dead. Hamilton—who had reassured the men just moments before—was on his back, a gory corpse.

When young Glover was lifted up amidst all the confusion, his brains were clearly visible spilling from his gaping head wound. “It was so hot,” Bob Glover said later. “So hot. The men were paralyzed with fear. They didn’t expect anything like this. They didn’t know whether to retreat or to press forward.” Sergeant Major Vance lay face-down in front of them, dead and grotesquely disfigured. Corporal Booth could be heard moaning, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” His comrades in arms were trying to find a way out of the maze. Amidst the heat and panic and sound of gunshot, all was chaos. Confusion. Hamilton, one of The Elms officer dinner guests, had tried valiantly to rally the bewildered, panic-stricken men. He seized a rifle. Held it aloft. Shouted, “Come on, Men! Follow me!” As Hamilton uttered the last sentence, he was fatally shot, collapsing as quietly as he had hitherto been loudly exhorting his troops.

It was a terrible defeat for the British, but a wonderful victory for Rawiri Puhurike and his Maori natives. What made the victory even more gratifying was the code the natives had agreed upon before the battle. The human rules of engagement that the so-called “savages” imposed on themselves and on the British did not go unremarked. The Maoris’ gallant behavior under the leadership of the forty-year-old Rawiri later influenced the colonial governor to permit the Maori to keep their lands and live peacefully amongst the British.

Thirty-one of the British were killed. Eighty were wounded, including nine of the ten officers who dined the night before the battle with the Browns. Only fifteen Maori were killed. The Battle of Gate Pa became known as “the single most devastating British defeat in the New Zealand Wars.” Later, word spread that some of the Brits were cut down by friendly fire as they circled behind the trench area, as ordered by their commanding officers.

The great Maori chiefs, (Ngai Te Rangi, Te Reweti, Eru Puhirake, Tikitu, Te kani, Te Rangihav, Te Wharepouri and the master tactician, Rawiri Puhirake) agreed, seven weeks later when the British returned to New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty and resumed the Tauranga Campaign, to cease fighting. At that battle seven weeks later, Rawiri was killed. The chief architect of the Rules of Engagement also died in the fighting. The turnaround from the May battle convinced the Maori to agree to terms in order to stop the slaughter. Make no mistake: the Maori won and revolutionized warfare forever. The bellicose Brigadier General George Carey agreed, after the Battle of Gate Pa, that defensive action, only, might be the better, wiser course of action. He had not expected to face an opponent so fierce, smart and fearless.

Not only had the Battle of Gate Pa introduced the world to trench warfare for the first time (just as the Battle of Ypres in World War I was the first use of chemical warfare), but the primarily peaceful Maori agreed to lay down their weapons “if we can have full claims over our lands and the Governor will promise to see that no harm befalls us.” Unlike the American Indians of the western United States, promises made to the Maori were kept. The fighting ended with peace in New Zealand, a new-found respect for the native inhabitants, and an entirely new way of warfare that would endure forever.