Topic: The Battle for Ruapekapeka Pa by Jonnie Rutherford

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A Hollow Victory - The Battle for Ruapekapeka Pa by Jonnie Rutherford

 The oppressive silence of the countryside was all-encompassing as if a storm were about to be released.

In the pre-dawn hours British soldiers moved stealthily into position behind a low hill, but their objective, Ruapekapeka Pa, was hidden from view by the bush, dark and foreboding. The soldiers strained eyes and ears for any movement or sound issuing from the surrounding trees. The dim light added to the tension and apprehension. Nothing was observed nor heard. No slight rustle of feet or cracking of twigs, no ghosts flitting among the tree trunks. To all intents and purposes the pa and the environs seemed devoid of living souls.

The year was 1846.

Ruapekapeka was heavily fortified, the outer palisades so strong they were virtually impenetrable even to weighty artillery. The natives, estimated to be around five hundred, were led by Kawiti, a fearsome and ferocious warrior. They could hold out for days and assault might be attended with a severe number of casualties.

Colonel Despard was in a quandary. He needed men willing to go out and scout out the surroundings, and in particular to learn the layout of the pa and where a breach might be possible. Two men volunteered, McConnell and Bennett. Both had previously engaged with the enemy, but the bush was unknown.

Dawn was fast approaching, adding to the men’s predicament. They first had to cross an area of no man’s land, cleared of any cover, before reaching the trees. Ducking under the wide-spread arms of a puriri tree, they froze as a slight sound reached their ears, as if something had plopped into water. Hearing it again, they dared not move, their nerves as taut as a violin’s strings. McDonnell and Bennett sensed they were being watched.

As their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom they decided to move on when once a plop was heard, closer this time. Looking around to try and locate where it was coming from, muskets raised in defence, they notice a large bird. Similar to the pigeons back home in England, but more colourful and eating the berries of the tree under which the men were hiding. Occasionally a berry was dropped, making the distinctive plop the men had heard as it hit the damp ground.

Much relieved it was a bird and not the enemy, the two soldiers continued. On reaching the far side of the bush, the men were dismayed to see another clearing between them and the outer defences of the pa. Open ground that it would be extremely foolhardy to cross.

The trees grew right around the perimeter of the clearing and in some places up to the pa itself, outlined by a palisade roughly ten feet high.

Gathering as much information as possible, McDonell and Bennett thought they could see a second palisade behind the first and what appeared to be a large space between the two. Whether this was a trench or flat ground only they could not ascertain. There were no sentries posted as expected, nor were there any signs of occupation.

They reported back. The colonel was disturbed. He knew from previous battles that Maori were masters of fortification and if there was a space between the two palisades it would be a deep trench. Deep enough to enable the defenders, lying in wait, to fire at will on any approaching besieger. He would need to use the element of surprise under cover of early evening to take the pa.

As evening fell the soldiers crept to their positions behind the trees facing Ruapekapeka. Then with the colonel’s cry of “Charge!” bouncing off the bush, the soldiers stormed the pa.

As the front line of attackers reached the first palisade a voice rang out unexpectedly.

“Hold your fire!”

The men dropped to the ground and there was a deathly silence. No return fire, no yells, screams or challenges. Ordered back to the bush line the troops waited. When morning broke, Colonel Despard commanded a small party of soldiers to reconnoitre.

Finding the pa deserted they reported back. All Maori had fled. The infantry were then ordered to seize Ruapekapeka. On entering, the pa was found to be a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels, dugouts and shelters.

In a tactical manoeuvre the Maori warriors had outwitted the renowned British forces, escaping via the tunnels into the bush behind.



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