Topic: Samuel Mitchell and the Victoria Cross (the Gate Pa at Tauranga)

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This excerpt 'Samuel Mitchell and the Victoria Cross; or, the Gate Pa at Tauranga' is taken from the book 'Brave British soldiers and the Victoria Cross: a general account of the regiments and men of the British Army, and stories of the brave deeds which won the prize for valour' (c1890) by Samuel Orchart Beeton (1830-1877).

When the intelligence of the Gate Pa disaster reached England from New Zealand, the news was received with feelings of sorrow and surprise. The public at home were not prepared to hear of the disaster which had overtaken our arms in that distant colony. We have been so long successful by land and by sea, that we have come almost to regard victory as our right, and when our arms meet with any reverse we are apt to be unjust, and to ascribe our failure to any but the true cause. Sir Duncan A. Cameron, the general commanding the forces in New Zealand, has been most unjustly assailed as the cause of the recent disaster at Tauranga, and a portion of the English press have been unmeasured in their abuse of that distinguished officer. He has been charged with incapacity, mismanagement, and the reckless sacrifice of valuable lives; and while such charges can have no effect upon those who are on the spot, and have had frequent opportunities of witnessing his capacity for command, they have doubtless tended to injure him in the opinion of those who have only an imperfect knowledge of the circumstances of the case. Though we were not present at the attack on the Gate Pa, we have derived our information from some of the principal actors in that unfortunate affair, so that the following narrative may be safely accepted as a faithful account of what occurred. We shall confine ourselves to the simple facts of the case, and leave our readers to draw their own conclusions.

Tauranga is the native name of a district on the east coast of New Zealand, about a hundred miles south of Auckland. It has long been the site of a missionary establishment under the charge of Archdeacon Brown, who has laboured among the natives during more than twenty years, and remained unmolested at his field of duty during the progress of the present war. A few British settlers had established themselves there for purposes of trade, and a resident magistrate was appointed to watch over the interests of justice. The Maoris of Tauranga are and always have been a warlike race, but there was no reason at first to question their loyalty. During the prevalence of the war in the Waikato district, the principal scene of the late campaign, the Maoris at Tauranga remained faithful in their adherence to the British Crown. It was only after the hostile tribes, driven from their land in the Waikato by the advance of our army, had dispersed themselves in the south, that symptoms of disaffection appeared among the natives of Tauranga. The fugitives excited the alarm of their countrymen by asserting that they also should be stripped of their lands, and thus inciting them to revolt. The effects of these incentives to rebellion became so marked, that the 68th and 43rd Regiments, which had recently arrived from India, were sent to Tauranga to overawe the disaffected. This movement brought matters to a crisis; a small portion of the natives remained faithful to the British Crown, while the great majority left their homes and joined the insurgents. Our forces encamped on a small peninsula called Te Papa, which is connected with the mainland by a narrow isthmus: the command was entrusted to Lieutenant-Colonel Greer, of the 68th Regiment. The hostile natives continued to hover round our camp, cutting off our supplies, and seizing the commissariat cattle within a few hundred yards of our sentries, without any attempt on our part to punish their audacity. Emboldened by our supineness and their own success, they resolved at length to erect a pa, and the site they selected would have secured the approval of Vauban, if he had been still alive. In truth, the Maoris of New Zealand, though they have never studied at Woolwich, are adepts in military engineering; instinct in their case has supplied the want of science. The sites of their pas, which are simply redoubts built of earth and enclosed with a wooden palisade, have always been chosen with the double intention of inflicting the greatest possible injury on their assailants, and securing their own retreat when their position becomes untenable. No attempt was made to restrain the natives from erecting a pa at Tauranga; the work went on for weeks, and our men quietly looked on. It is a far easier matter to prevent the erection than to affect the capture of a pa, but there may have been causes for this inactivity unknown to us. Be that as it may, the pa was built without interruption on the narrow slip of land which connects the peninsula of Te Papa with the mainland. This isthmus is the gate which commands the entrance to the whole district; hence the pa erected on it was known as the Gate Pa. On either side was a swamp extending to the water, so that it was impossible for our men to force their entrance into the interior without dislodging the enemy from their stronghold. An order had been issued for the 43rd Regiment to proceed to Auckland, but Colonel Greer, in the exercise of a wise discretion, retained them at Tauranga, in the belief that their services would soon be required.

On the night of Thursday, the 28th of April, General Cameron, who had arrived at Tauranga with his staff some days before, commenced his preparations for attack. The forces under his command seemed to be amply sufficient for securing success: they consisted of the 68th Light Infantry, the 43rd, the Flying Column, made up of detachments from the 14th, 65th, and 70th Regiments, and the Naval Brigade, consisting of more than two hundred sailors from the different men-of-war stationed there. The attacking party were strong in artillery, having with them eleven Armstrong guns, besides two howitzers and six mortars. The only arms possessed by the enemy, whose numbers did not exceed six hundred men, were their rifles and tomahawks; but this inferiority was compensated for by the advantage of fighting behind the walls of the pa.

The general's object was to intercept the enemy in the rear, and thus cut off their retreat. Under cover of the night, the 68th Regiment and thirty men of the Naval Brigade forced their way through the swamp, and took up their position in the rear of the pa, without attracting the notice of the insurgents. April is one of the brightest and sunniest months in New Zealand, but the morning of the 28th was dark and lowering; heavy rains began to fall, and the rays of the sun were obscured by the murky atmosphere. By the imperfect light of dawn the 65th could be seen extended in skirmishing order behind the pa, so that the enemy were completely hemmed in. They might hold out for a time, but it was only a question of time; the general's arrangements were perfect, and no doubt was entertained of our ultimate success. At half-past seven o'clock the cannonade began; the artillery, officers and men, displayed the greatest courage and skill in working the guns; shot and shell continued to be poured upon and into the redoubt without intermission till four o'clock in the afternoon. The few natives who had appeared in the rifle-pits at the commencement of the attack were soon dislodged, and retreated into the pa by a hole not larger than an ordinary covered drain. During the cannonade they seldom returned our fire; the general impression was that the shot and shell had done their deadly work so effectually as to leave few of them alive. The general, however, delayed his attack till a breach had been effected in the walls sufficiently large to admit the storming party, a fact which seems to have been wilfully ignored by his assailants at home, who have unjustly accused him of recklessly sacrificing the lives of his officers and men by commanding them to mount an impracticable broach, when his proper course would have been a mine or a distant cannonade.

All that could be done by a distant cannonade was already effected; the breach was there staring them in the face; the storming party had only to enter in and take possession. The wanton sacrifice of human life is the last charge that would be brought against General Cameron by those who have taken part in this campaign; in this respect he resembles his friend and countryman Lord Clyde, who never exposed his men to unnecessary danger. If human skill could always command success, he had a right to count upon victory; but we need not anticipate. At four o'clock in the afternoon the storming party, consisting of the Naval Brigade and the 43rd Regiment, were formed into line, while the covering party advanced within a hundred yards of the pa, and opened fire. The enemy showed themselves on the walls, and briskly replied. The storming party, led by Commander Hay, of the Harrier, now advanced swiftly in column; the men were in the highest spirits, and rushed forward with a ringing cheer. Nothing could withstand the impetuosity of their attack; in a moment they had cleared the ditch, scaled the embankment, and plunged through the breach into the redoubt.

The reserve party thought that the day was won; for a time no sound was heard save a straggling shot or an occasional cheer. But this silence was not to last; it was only the treacherous lull that precedes the storm. That storm soon burst forth with the greatest fury; all at once the pa, the supposed grave of its Maori defenders, became instinct with life; volley succeeded volley in rapid succession; in the intervals might be heard savage yells such as never issued from any British mouth. It was a moment of intense interest to the spectators who for a time could see nothing but the clouds of smoke that rose from the pa after each volley; enough, however, soon became visible to show that our arms had met with a sudden reverse. Soldiers and sailors, mixed up in confusion, came thronging through the breach, plunged into the ditch, and rushed forward in the wildest disorder; some sudden panic had seized them, but there might still be sufficient time to turn the tide of war and retrieve the honour of the day. General Cameron at once ordered the supports to advance; a braver officer than Captain Hamilton, of the Esk, could not have been found to lead them on.

If a single arm could have changed the fortune of the war, the disaster of the Gate Pa would never have occurred; but the supports came too late. The gallant Hamilton sprang upon the embankment, waved his sword in the air, and shouted, "Follow me, men!" Scarcely had the words passed his lips when a bullet struck him on the head, the sword dropped from his hand, and he fell to rise no more. The death of their leader increased the panic of the men; the supports became mixed with the fugitives; all discipline was forgotten; all remonstrance on the part of the officers was unavailing; sauve qui peut became the order of the day. The enemy, profiting by this panic, took deliberate aim, and poured a destructive fire into the retreating mob, whose only thought was of escape. The day was lost; the instrument had broken in the hands of him who knew how to use it so skilfully. It was too much for even the strongest nature to bear with equanimity; the general dashed his field-glass on the ground, turned his back on the fugitives, and retired to his tent to conceal his emotion.

Various causes have been assigned for this disastrous retreat. It has been affirmed that the storming party, on entering the pa, met with no resistance, and saw no traces of the enemy, except a few wounded Maoris lying on the ground, apparently abandoned by their comrades. Believing that the redoubt was evacuated, they threw aside their arms, and began to help themselves to the plunder which was scattered about. It may be that the Maoris had recourse to this artifice in order to throw them off their guard, as they are already familiar with the looting propensities of the British soldier; it is certain that they had not all evacuated the pa.

A considerable number had done so; but the majority had concealed themselves in chambers dug out in the ground, and covered with boughs of trees and earth. They had remained there during the cannonade, and it is a singular fact, worthy of the notice of military strategists, that the storm of shot and shell which descended upon the pa for upwards of eight hours could not reach them. The killed and wounded were those who exposed themselves on the walls; no shot or fire could reach their more prudent comrades, who with heroic patience awaited the result in their subterraneous retreat. When the defenders of the walls retreated before the impetuous onset of the storming party, and tried to escape by themselves the others remained in their hiding-place, and bided their time.

When they saw through the thin covering of boughs and earth that the storming party had abandoned their arms and given themselves up to plunder, they opened a destructive fire upon them. The effect was much the same as if a volcano had suddenly opened at their feet, and begun to pour forth volumes of smoke and flame; many of our men were killed and wounded at the first discharge; discipline might have done much, but all discipline was at an end; mere courage could avail nothing against this invisible foe. Our officers behaved with their usual coolness and bravery, but every effort to restore order was unavailing; the confused mass staggered and reeled like a drunken man, as volley after volley was poured into them from beneath. Meanwhile the insurgents, who had striven to escape by the rear, repulsed by the steady fire of the 68th, returned to the pa, and increased the panic by the suddenness of their attack. The cry rose among our men that the enemy were being reinforced by the arrival of fresh troops: someone, it is said, gave the order to retire. Be that as it may, the day was already lost; the panic became general; soldiers and sailors rushed in a confused mass to the walls, and precipitated themselves into the ditch below. It was at this moment that Captain Hamilton came up with his supports: he came soon enough to find a death of glory on the walls of the Gate Pa, but too late to turn the tide of war. The supports were borne back by the flood of fugitives, and the Maoris remained masters of the field.

The soldiers blame the sailors as the cause of this disastrous retreat, and the sailors are ready enough to retaliate. It is matter of regret that they should have been mixed up together during the attack. Both fight well in their own way, but they fight best apart. The soldier has not the dash of the sailor, and the sailor is wanting in the steadiness of the soldier. It is certain that on entering the pa both became mixed up together, and the confusion which thus ensued prevented the officers from exercising that authority over the men which they might otherwise have done. When a panic once sets in, all discipline is at an end. The officers encouraged the men by voice and example; they remained at the post of duty when those under their command began to retreat; this fact alone is sufficient to explain the great disproportion between officers and men killed and wounded. It is painful to relate that our soldiers and sailors abandoned their wounded officers to their fate, and left them in the hands of the enemy; but there was one honourable exception. Samuel Mitchell, captain of the foretop of Her Majesty's ship Harrier, who formed one of the storming party, did all that could be expected from the British sailor in the hour of danger.

He entered the pa with Commander Hay, and when that officer was mortally wounded he refused to leave him, though repeatedly urged by him to consult his own safety. The gallant sailor listened to the voice of humanity, and refused to leave his dying officer; raising him in his arms, he carried him outside the pa amid a shower of bullets. There must have been a cherub aloft watching over his safety and sheltering him from danger; no hostile bullet reached his person; the body of his leader was rescued from falling into the hands of the enemy. Mitchell, on this occasion, was doing duty as captain's coxswain, and his heroic deed was not overlooked or forgotten. It was reported to Commodore Sir William Wiseman, who recommended him for the decoration of the Victoria Cross, and we are glad to observe, from the London Gazette of the 26th of July, that this honourable distinction has been awarded to him.

Long may he be spared to wear it! - a living witness that England can appreciate and reward such acts of gallantry. We were glad to learn that the services of Dr. Manley, E.A., had met with the same recognition. The duties of an army surgeon rarely afford him an opportunity of displaying gallantry in the field; but he has often to exhibit a moral courage as worthy of our admiration as the dashing bravery of him who heads a forlorn hope. It requires no usual amount of courage to minister to the wants of the wounded and dying on the field of battle amid the bullets of the enemy, and this was clone by Dr. Manley with as much sang-froid as if he had performing an operation in St. George's Hospital.

It has often struck us how little faith can be placed in the best historical narratives, when we consider the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of attaining to the truth regarding an affair of recent occurrence, even when we have an opportunity of consulting the principal actors. The storming of the Gate Pa is no exception to this rule. The fugitives assert that an officer gave the order to retire; the officers deny that such an order was ever given. We have mentioned above that the panic originated from the return to the pa of the Maoris who had endeavoured to escape, and were driven back by the fire of the 68th; we have heard it strenuously urged that the Maoris never left the pa, but had merely concealed themselves in the subterraneous chambers, where they lay perdus till they heard the approach of the storming party. It went the round of the papers that the 68th Regiment three times in succession endeavoured to storm the pa, and were as often repulsed. It was not the duty of the 68th to storm the pa; they were assigned their position in the rear to cut off the enemy's retreat; they indignantly deny that they ever attempted an assault or suffered a repulse. Their trifling loss in killed and wounded renders it impossible that they ever quitted their position. We merely mention these discrepancies to show that a little scepticism is not out of place in the study of history, and that the future historian of the war in New Zealand will find some little difficulty in arriving at the truth.

The night of the 29th of April was, in the British camp at Tauranga, a night of deep humiliation and mutual reproach. Tho men were disgraced in their own eyes, and what would the people of England say? There is not a more gallant regiment in the service than the 43rd; Napier, who belonged to them, has commemorated their deeds of valour in the Peninsula, and the memory of the numerous engagements in which they have taken part is preserved on their colours. But now where were all the laurels they had won in the Peninsula and India? Soiled and trampled in the dust, and by whom? Not by forces equal to them in arms and discipline; not by foemen worthy of their steel; but by a horde of half-naked, half-armed savages, whom they had been taught to despise. They erred in despising them overmuch; they forgot, or they had never learned, that the defenders of that pa belonged to a race reckless of life, loving war for its own sake, who were then fighting, as such a race ever will fight, for their homes, their lands, their liberty, their all.

The time may come when the Maori race will be subdued, but that will only be when the Maori race has been extirpated. Would that the people of England knew this as well as the colonists of New Zealand! A disgraceful chapter in the future history of our country might then have never to be written. The storming party learned when it was too late that the courage of despair rises superior to all human calculations of success, and that no bounds can be assigned to the heroic powers of endurance of men fighting for their liberty. It could be no ordinary race that waited patiently for eight hours, with no other shelter from the descending hurricane of shot and shell than a few boughs of trees covered with earth, till the moment had arrived for rushing forth and rolling back their assailants like a broken wave. It adds nothing to our glory to detract from the virtues of our adversaries. In the Maori character there is much to condemn, but much also to admire and to imitate. If, instead of being exterminated, they were embodied into regiments, commanded by men who spoke their language and studied their character, they would be found as useful as the Sikhs in India; and, on the ground of public expediency as well as of Christian principle, it would be better to save than to destroy. The Maori race once extinguished can never be restored, and it would be impious to imagine that any one race has been created in vain.

But what was the fate of the wounded and dying officers left in the pa? Night closed over them and concealed them in impenetrable darkness. No less than seven officers of the 43rd were there, besides others belonging to the navy. They were in the hands of those who cut off Captain Lloyd's head, and sent it round among the other tribes as a trophy of victory. The vanquished soldiery could hear the yells of triumph from the pa; some even imagined that they heard the shrieks of their tortured countrymen, but this was only the work of the imagination. The Maoris remembered mercy in the hour of victory, and treated our dying officers with humanity worthy of the imitation and admiration of all civilized nations. No hostile hand hastened on the hour of death, already fast approaching. Their persons and their property were alike respected. An effort was made to relieve the sufferings of those who were still alive. Lieutenant-Colonel Booth, commanding the 43rd, was shot through the spine and the arm. His wounds, though mortal, did not produce immediate death. He stood leaning against the wall of the pa, suffering intensely from thirst; around him lay his slaughtered officers. Our pen shrinks from recording the sufferings he endured throughout the night of horror which he survived. He had risen rapidly to command, and was in the very prime of his strength and manhood. Tall, erect, and powerful, he looked like a man who could ward off death for half a century; he had done so in India and elsewhere, but now he had met his fate at the Gate Pa at Tauranga. This was the first time that he had led his regiment into action, and had they behaved in a manner worthy of their high reputation? Alas!

There lay the two Glovers, the sons of an English clergyman, on the field of gore, but not of glory [Captain Robert Glover and Lieutenant Frederick Glover]. They were lovely in their lives, and in death they were not separated. We had seen the elder fall in the foremost of the fray, and the younger, who loved him with more than a brother's love, rush forward with a loud and bitter cry. A brother's love may do much, but it cannot reverse the iron decrees of fate, which take no account of human affection or sorrow. It was in vain that he raised him in his arms, and strove to bear him from the field a hostile bullet brought both the brothers to the ground, and left them side by side, with the tide of life ebbing fast away. If there is a mother in some distant English rectory weeping, like Rachel, for her children, because; they are not, or a father lamenting their loss, let us comfort them with the assurance that in life and in death they were all that the fondest parent could wish.

We have read of a martyr's sufferings at the stake: we question whether in intensity they equalled those endured by Colonel Booth during that fearful night. He never lost his consciousness, and an occasional groan escaped from his lips. An armed Maori stole up to him. There was no sorrow in the thought that he had come to give him the coup de grace; but it was not so. The heart of the half-savage man was touched by the spectacle of woe. Colonel Booth read this feeling in his face, and muttered, "Water." The Maori shook his head, to show that there was none in the pa, and slipped out in search of some. He never returned, but next morning his body was found at the brink of the swamp, with a pannikin by his side. A soldier of the 68th, ignorant of his purpose, had fired at him with fatal precision, and arrested him on his errand of mercy. The will must be taken for the deed. The exposure of his life to all but certain death from the humane desire to give a cup of water to a dying enemy shall not be without its reward.

In the course of the night the insurgents abandoned the pa, and made good their retreat by the rear, without suffering much loss from the 68th, who had been placed there to intercept them. No blame can be attached to the 68th; no regiment has ever been able to prevent the Maoris from effecting their escape. They pass with case through swamps where the British soldier could never gain a footing. Amphibious in their habits, they are as much at home in the water as on land. Their loss on this occasion was trifling: it certainly did not exceed thirty men, while ours amounted to 104 killed and wounded, including a larger portion of officers than on any other occasion where British troops have been engaged. The causes of this disproportion are already known to our readers.

For a time it was not known in the British camp that the enemy had evacuated the pa. The frantic yells had died away no sound was heard to disturb the stillness of the night. Tempted by the long-continued silence, Major Greaves [George Richards Greaves (1831-1922)], of the 70th, stole up to the ditch, mounted the breach, and found the pa empty. Returning to camp, he reported what he had seen, but no attempt was made to enter the pa till daybreak. The enemy had fled, carrying their wounded with them. Colonel Booth was still alive, but the surgeon told him that his hours were numbered. He was borne to the camp, where he survived till the following day. Before his death he was visited by General Cameron. "I endeavoured, sir, to carry out your orders; I am sorry that I have failed. I at least tried to do my duty." "You have done so nobly," was the general's reply, as he pressed the hand of the dying soldier, in whose breast the sense of duty was stronger than the love of life. It is pleasing to record the virtues of men who, in this inglorious warfare, have gone down to the grave unwept, unhonoured, and unsung, because England takes little interest in a war with savages, and dismisses the subject for others more attractive. Tho other dead or dying officers were removed from the pa. Captain Hamilton, of the 43rd, breathed only once after his body was found. A bullet had passed through his head, and so altered his features that it was difficult to recognise the handsome face with which we were once so familiar. We had known him years ago in the East, when he was an ensign in the 10th Regiment. During the interval he had served throughout the whole of the Indian campaign, and followed Havelock to Lucknow. He belonged to a race of soldiers, and was every inch a soldier himself. Poor Hamilton! we think of him still as he sat at the mess-table, expatiating on the capture of Lucknow, or some cognate subject, to a group of admiring ensigns who loved him for the dangers he had passed. He served in the 10th Regiment with the present Sir Henry Havelock, now on the staff in New Zealand, who always spoke of him with respect as a gallant soldier, and betrayed the deepest sorrow on learning that he had fallen.

The cause of the sudden panic which seized our men at the Gate Pa will never be known with certainty. It would be easy to show, from ancient and modern history, that the best troops are subject to such panics, which often spring from the most trifling causes. Terror, like courage, is sympathetic; it spreads like an infectious disease, from man to man, till all are swept away before it. At the battle of Fridlingen, fought on the 14th of October, 1702, between the French and Austrians, the former almost lost the day through a sudden panic which seized their ranks. The infantry had reached the summit of a hill to dislodge the German cavalry, and had succeeded in doing so, when a voice suddenly exclaimed, "Nous sommes coupe's!" On this every regiment turned and fled. It was fortunate that in Marshal Villars they had a leader equal to the occasion. "Allons, mes amis!" he cried; "la victoire est a nous! Vive le roi!" " Vive le roi!" replied the soldiers, still retreating as fast as they could. With some difficulty Villars rallied them, and led them back to victory; but if a single regiment had attacked them at that moment the result would have been the same as at the Gate Pa. The most trifling incident may make a whole army retire in confusion. Such an incident occurred during the Indian campaign. A body of our men were on the march, preceded by some of their officers on horseback. A horse became restive, and threw its rider; other horsemen rushed to his assistance; clouds of dust were raised; the cry rose from the ranks that the rebels were upon them; a sudden panic was the result, and our soldiers fled when no one pursued. It was fortunate no enemy was at hand to profit by the confusion and terror occasioned by the nowise remarkable incident of a surgeon falling from his horse.

The 43rd Regiment have already atoned for the disaster at Te Papa. A few weeks after that event they again encountered the enemy at Te Ranga, and proved themselves worthy of their Peninsular fame and the glorious names inscribed on their standards. A temporary reverse is no proof that a regiment has degenerated; it is often the occasion, as in this instance, of eliciting the display of a higher amount of courage than might have attended ordinary success, and of teaching a deeper respect for those whose military spirit and capacity we have been disposed to under-estimate.

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Samuel Mitchell and the Victoria Cross (the Gate Pa at Tauranga)

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
Samuel Mitchell and the Victoria Cross (the Gate Pa at Tauranga) by Debbie McCauley (Tauranga City Libraries) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License