[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
“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
The message, headed Potiriwhi District of Tauranga, March 28, 1864,
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
These are binding laws for Tauranga.
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
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
“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
“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
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
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.