Topic: General Cameron a Lame Seagull?

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This personal story was told to Richard Burke (real name Edward G Hamilton-Brown) by Trooper West in the NZ Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, 11 January 1866 during a stopover in Wellington. It is from a rare book "With the Lost Legion in New Zealand" Colonial Edition, by Col. G Hamilton Brown, published by T Werner Laurie, London. Researched and compiled by Dr John Osborne MG DTT PhD FSG, April 2003.

Duncan Alexander Cameron (1808-1888)

See also: The Governor - The Lame Seagull (Episode Five).

From pages 38-41

“… were taking advantage of the stoppage to enjoy a few days' life of civilisation between the two campaigns. They seemed to be all very keen about the new campaign, as they considered the new general to be a far better man, for the work, than the one who had lately resigned, whose method of conducting the last five years' operations they criticised in the most unmerciful manner while their open comments on the inutility of the regulars, both officers and men, made me wince with astonished indignation, so that it was with the greatest difficulty I could restrain myself from starting a row.

The man I was sitting next to evidently noticed my vexation, for he said: "If you have finished breakfast let's go out on the back verandah and have a smoke, and, if you have nothing better to do, a chat for an hour or two."

As he seemed a very good fellow, and I was most anxious to gain knowledge, I gave him my card, telling him I had only landed the day previous, "Yes," said he, "I can see you are a new chum, and I saw you were getting riled at the talk of the boys inside, but you must remember that the majority of those men have been ruined by the pig-headed procrastination of the General, who with twenty thousand men at his disposal has not been able, after five years' warfare, to gain any permanent advantage over savages who have never at any one time exceeded two thousand fighting men.

“Now," he went on, “my name is West. I own a large farm on the west coast. I have been out in this country seventeen years, but having sunk my capital in land and stock, had put in twelve years' hard work in clearing ground, fencing farm and improving stock. Five years ago I was well off, with every prospect of becoming a rich man, leaving a comfortable house, a wife and two children, good horses, valuable cattle and sheep, and was contemplating a trip home for twelve months. The war broke out, I just saved the wife and kids ; my house is burned, my stock and horses driven away and looted, my fences destroyed and my farm a wilderness, so that when this wretched business terminates I shall have to begin again. I am just completing three years' service in this force, and as far as I can see we are no nearer to the end than what we were the day we began."

“But why blame the General and troops?" I asked. “Surely you have out here thousands of officers and men whose splendid conduct and courage during the Crimea and Mutiny will live in history as long as the old flag flies?"

"Mr Burke," he answered, " you do not understand. The man who speaks a word against the courage and devotion of H.M. troops lies in the throat, but nevertheless, from the General downwards, they are simply useless for this sort of work. If you have the patience, and," with a laugh,” promise not to go for me, I will try and explain. The facts are these: The General and a vast majority of the senior officers are hide-bound in the old traditions and customs of the British army, so much so that they are quite incapable of adapting a new style of warfare to novel circumstances, while the training of the men itself renders them unfit for bush warfare. I read, as a boy at school, how General Braddock, refusing to take the advice of his colonial officers, was cut up in an American forest. It is the same here, and it has only been our overwhelming strength that has saved similar disasters in this country.

Look here, let me give you a few examples of what has happened in the past five years. You have, you say, been educated for a soldier, and have come to this country to lend us a hand; it will therefore do you no harm to hear and ponder over some of the absurdities that have been perpetrated, remembering that I am speaking with no ill-will against the General or troops but only just telling you how Maoris should not be fought. In 1860, when the war broke out in the Taranaki district, and we settlers saw our life's work go up in smoke, although the Europeans outnumbered the natives ten to one, it seemed that nothing could be done. The Maoris built pahs at the edge of the bush, often on deserted farms. General Pratt, then in command there, would besiege these, as if they were Sebastopols, and when with a vast amount of hard work he had sapped up to them he would find them deserted, the natives having withdrawn into the bush, where the General refused to follow them. The Maoris therefore used to plant their potatoes in perfect security, then, while their crops were growing, would announce the shooting season to be open, and invite their friends to come and pot white men, making raids into our country right up to musket range of the forts, killing and looting everyone and anything they came across.  

Occasionally the General (the Maoris called him the rat, from his burrowing and sapping propensities) would ginger up and try to make what he called a combined movement, and even to venture into the bush, but always to come to grief. Par example, at one of the very first fights, the attack on the pah at Waireka, Colonel Murray - with two hundred regulars and one hunched and twenty Colonials were detached to take it, the latter being ordered to make a detour through some very rough country and take up a position in rear of the place, while the regulars were to rush it from the front. The Colonials after a sharp skirmish took up the position assigned to them and held it all day, but the attack was never made, and at nightfall the regulars drew oft and returned to the town, leaving the Colonials planted there with their retreat cut off and ammunition nearly all expended. They were in a tight hx, and it would have gone hard with them had not Captain Cracroft, R.N., who with a party of sixty bluejackets had just landed from H.M.S. Niger, heard of their predicament. He at once took action, got hold of three young fellows to guide him, and started off with his jacks to do their best to help their stranded countrymen. Captain Cracroft wasted no time over formulating complicated plans or strategy but made straight for the pah; I it was pitch dark and when he reached the vicinity of it his party fell across a mob of the enemy.

One volley the bluejackets fired, then out cutlass and revolver and charged the astonished natives, who fled for the protection of their works with the sailors in close pursuit. The stockade is reached, but that does not check the shell-backs, who, giving one another a leg up, enter the place and gut it as clean as a red herring - The Maoris who had bailed up the Colonials, hearing the row ran to see what was up, and the latter, taking advantage of their absence, retired in safety. So far so good, but the conduct of the soldiers' O.C. in botching the show caused heaps of ill-feeling. "Subsequently, after an immense amount of talk and preparations, a field force goes out to attack Puketakauere, more combined movements and high-falutin strategy, all of which, when it comes to the point, proved unworkable in the bush, and we have to clear out after losing sixty soldiers, shot down like sheep. Again look at the game Cameron has played in the Waikato. With an overwhelming force he attacks Rangiriri.  Mind he is fully cognisant that the natives have neither food nor water in the pah. He surrounds the place, and instead of waiting for them to be starved out he assaults the pah three times, getting beaten back with the loss of over one hundred and thirty men.

"Next day the pah surrendered, as its defenders are dying of thirst. The following year at Orakau he played the same silly game. He knew the enemy had neither food nor water yet he tries five times to rush the place, loses heaps of men and the Maoris, unable any longer to endure the pangs of thirst, Sally out, break through the surrounding troops, and many of them escape.

During the same month comes the Gate pah. Again over one hundred men are lost through folly blind stupidity, nothing else. The General has learnt nothing, is incapable of learning. True the Tommies caught same fellows within two months at Te Ranga and pretty well wiped them out with the bayonet. Then the war breaks out again on the west coast. What is done? General Cameron starts to march up the coast to Taranaki with two thousand men.

“I was with the mounted portion of the force, and the first day out the column had marched fifteen miles when it was halted, early in the afternoon, to pitch camp. The Adjutant-General, Johnston, had picked out a site at Nukumaru. My O.C., an old hand, who knew the country well (I was acting as his orderly) rode up to the staff. 'General,' said he, 'don't you think we are rather too near the bush, especially as that long Toe-toe grass grows right up to the tents, and we are only five miles distant from the Weraroa pah, the principal stronghold of the enemy.' 'Pooh, pooh, Major,' answered the General, 'do you imagine, sir, for one moment, that any body of natives would dare to attack two thousand of H.M. troops ?' 'Yes, sir,' said the Major, 'fifty Maoris are quite capable of doing so.' But it was no good talking, so we rode away to our lines. ‘Keep your horses saddled, boys,' said the Major, 'we may be wanted any moment,' and we did so.

“Well, sir, the troops had just finished pitching the tents when rip comes a volley from the Toe-toe grass. Over rolled Adjutant-General Johnston and sixteen men dead, and there was hell to pay : men rushing to the piles of arms, bugles blowing and officers shouting contradictory orders, while the natives continued blazing into the camp, some of them even rushing in with their tomahawks, "At the first shot our O.C. had yelled out ‘Mount’ and as we were standing to our horses we were on them in a moment. ‘Charge ' sings out the O.C and we charged through the long grass right into the middle of the Hau Haus, there not being more than fifty of them all told. Maori won’t stand mounted men so we swept them back to the bush, killing a good lot. On our return to camp we found all the soldiers standing in rows looking very pretty, and the General very angry declaring it was not warfare for fifty savages to attack two thousand British troops.

“Now the General ought to have learned something from that lesson, but he didn't, for next night a gale of wind blowing, the column was halted to bivouac in long dry fern. Fine beds for tired men long dry fern makes, provided there is not a gale of wind blowing and the Hau Haus are not hostile but on this occasion such was the case, and we were roused out by shots and bugle calls to see a wall of fire, twenty feet high, charging us faster than a horse can gallop. Gad, sir, it was a case of sauve qui peut , and we all bolted for the sand-hill like redshanks the Maoris tomahawking five of the I8th R.I. picket and a lot of others. This last affair so disgusted the General that he refused to leave the beach, and, without making another attempt of any sort, consumed fifty-seven days to march fifty-four miles while the Maoris, only a handful in number used to chaff us and call the General the lame seagull. I’ll give you one other instance of incapacity, or call it what you like. Sir George Grey asked the General to attack Weraroa pah. The General insisted it was impregnable to the force he had at his disposal, and that he should require at least six thousand men to do so. After a lot of blarney he sanctioned an attack to be made by Sir George, who with less than five hundred Colonials and friendly Maoris, took the place.

"Now look here, we settlers are sick of the war, and want to get back to our farms and businesses. We are paying the British Government forty pounds sterling per annum for every regular, and when it takes an army fifty-seven days to march along an open beach fifty-four miles we don't think we are getting our money's worth. Besides we can tackle the natives better ourselves. We men you see here are on our way back from the east coast, where, without the help of a single regular, we have smashed the Hau Haus taking their pah Waerenga-a-Hika, and, with only twenty-three casualties, have killed one hundred and fifty of the enemy, and forced four hundred more of them to surrender, two hundred of whom have been transported to the Chatham Islands, so that they are out of the way.

" Now the reason I have told you all this is, you say you have come out here to see fighting! That being so, my straight tip to you is to join a colonial corps; all the fighting during the coming campaign will be done by them. Don't bother about a commission; join the ranks under Von Tempsky or McDonnell and learn your work; then, after you have done that, you may take a commission if you like, and your men will think all the more…”

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