A Noble Foe Remembering In Reverence and Reconciliation

On 3 February 2021, over 300 people had gathered on the site of the British Camp to remember and commemorate those who died some 175 years ago in the Battle of Te Ruapekapeka, the final battle of the New Zealand Northern Wars.

The theme for the commemorations was Kawea a puriri mai – in reverence, remembrance and reconciliation.

The visiting dignitaries waited on the western end of the ridge of the site as the warriors slowly advanced in formation towards them, preparing to issue the challenge (if you’ve seen the All Blacks haka, you’ll have a good idea of what this is).  The re-enactors in 58th Regiment uniforms made especially for the day raised their muskets in presentation. Leading the visitors onto the site was Dame Patsy Reddy GNZM QSO DStJ Governor General of NZ, Rt Hon Jacinda Arden Prime Minister of NZ, and Her Excellency Laura Clarke British High Commissioner to NZ.

The challenge was accepted and a Tika was taken up by Kaumatua Joe Harawira on behalf of the Governor General, Cpl Willie Apiata VC NZSAS on behalf of the Prime Minister, and Wg Cdr Andy Bryant Defence Adviser for the British High Commissioner.

The event was organised by the Te Ruapekapeka Trust in its quest to create a commemoration of the battle and the fallen from both sides.  The highlight was the unveiling of a memorial to the British who died, two of whom were serving with the 58th Regiment, a predecessor of the Royal Anglian Regiment: Private James Edmondson from Borough, Lancashire (aged 22) and Private Thomas Lyons from Cashel, Tipperary (aged 24).  The memorial is a traditional obelisk of black marble engraved with the names of the 12 British service personnel who are laid to rest directly under it.  The New Zealand Army Band provided music and a combined services firing party gave the three volley salute.  The commemorations were completed with the laying of wreaths, and were followed with a traditional Maori lunch in marquees.

Te Ruapekapeka was the final battle in New Zealand’s Northern War of 1845-1846, and was the first major conflict between iwi (Maori tribes) and the British Crown following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.  The Crown and iwi interpreted the Treaty differently, and iwi considered that Crown policies not only damaged the Northland economy, but also were a defilement of chiefly authority.  However, the iwi leaders were not united, and several Ngāpuhi chiefs, motivated by old rivalries and fears about the balance of power within the region, either tried to remain neutral or sided with the Crown.  There were more iwi fighting for the British than against them.

Te Ruki Kawiti (of the Ngāti Hine tribe) constructed the pā at Te Ruapekapeka over several months and it was the strongest pā built during the Northern Wars. Defended by a double pallisade of heavy logs, the pā’s extensive network of trenches, underground tunnels and deep, bomb proof shelters made the defenders almost artillery proof.  By siting the pā deep inland on an inaccesible hilltop, Kawiti also ensured that the pā would be difficult for the British to reach and that assaulting troops would have to cross a narrow field swept by interlocking musket fire.

Governor Robert Fitzroy warned the troops “You will never surprise the New Zealanders, but they may frequently surprise you, unless a vigilence hardly known in European warfare be always, and at all hours, unremittingly exercised.”

It took a month for 1300 British troops commanded by Col Henry Despard and 400 Māori led by Tāmati Wāka Nene to drag heavy artillery over 20Km of rugged country to reach Te Ruapekapeka.  After weeks of harassing fire against the pā, Despard ordered a massive bombardment on 10 January 1846, which breached the walls of the pā in two places.  The British launched the attack and after prolonged and heavy fighting, Kawiti withdrew into the nearby bush and an intense firefight broke out amongst the trees.  Twelve of the British and an unknown number of Māori were killed before the firing eventually fizzled out.

Peace between the iwi leaders, and between iwi and the Crown, soon followed, and the Wars came to an end.

Capt Robert Marlow RE surveyed and drew the fortifications after the battle and the RSME at Chatham built some replicas for practice, anticipating further Māori conflict.  Whilst it may be disputed whether Ngāpuhi invented trench warfare, their expertise certainly came as a nasty surprise at Ohaewhai earlier in the War, when Col Despard managed to incur 90 casualties in 60 mins with a very ill-judged frontal attack. Chief Tāmati Wāka Nene, who had expressly warned against it, to describe him as “a very stupid man”.

Prior to the event, the Colonel of the Regimental, Major General RW Wooddisse CBE MC sent a message to Te Ruapekapeka Trust which was exceptionally well received, with copies being framed and displayed in a number of marae (Māori meeting places).

On the day, the Regiment was represented by Nick Gordge, formerly of 5 (V) Bn Royal Anglian Regiment, who in conversation passed on the Regiment’s best wishes to the Trustees.

Should you ever be fortunate enough to come to New Zealand, you are highly recommended to visit this impressive unique battlefield, untouched from the time of the Battle and pay your respects at this new memorial.

The Northern Wars

Te Ruapekapeka