The fight at Rangiaohia for the recovery of McHale’s body. February 21 1864, by L.A. Wilson. Via the Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: A-109-050.

The first, forgotten Anzacs, more than 50 years before Gallipoli

Australian and New Zealand volunteers fought together in the Waikato War, yet still its place in the Anzac tradition is unacknowledged by our defence forces or Returned Services Association.

When I was a boy cub I attended Anzac Day services in the South Auckland suburb of Drury. A crowd would gather around a cenotaph that rose between the Great South Road, the main trunk line, and our local rugby club’s changing sheds.

I would stand with my fellow cubs, behind a thin tweedy line of RSA members. A bugle would blow, the sun and the national flag would rise, and medals would flash from the blazers of the veterans, as they stood to attention in front of the cenotaph. I would puff out my bronchial chest, which was covered in badges my mother had sown onto my cub jersey, and pretend I was wearing a row of Victoria Crosses.

A local minister – some years he was Anglican, others he was Presbyterian – would speak about the sacred Anzac tradition, which had begun on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915, when New Zealand and Australia troops had fought side by side. When the sermon was over, the veterans would march off slowly towards the Jolly Farmer, our local pub, with tears in their eyes.

A grenade’s throw away from our cenotaph, on the other side of the Great South Road, stood St John’s, one of the network of fort-like Selwyn churches that Anglican settlers of South Auckland had raised in the 1850s and 60s. I never thought of visiting the neglected graveyard of St John’s, but if I had pushed my way through its hawthorn hedge and long grass I would have found a white obelisk, about eight feet tall, on which the names of eight men were inscribed. I wouldn’t have known it, and the other Kiwis who gathered across the road every Anzac Day wouldn’t have known it, but the men commemorated by that monument were the first Anzacs to die in battle. They didn’t die on a Turkish beach in 1915; they were slain by Māori muskets and tomahawks in a battle at Titi Hill, a few kilometres south of Drury, in the cold spring of 1863.

Almost 52 years before Gallipoli, Australian and New Zealand volunteers fought together in the Waikato War. In the swamps and forests of Te Ika a Maui, they struggled with the army of King Tawhiao, ruler of the Waikato. Scores of them died; the survivors received, as compensation for their troubles, plots of confiscated Māori land.

The Waikato War was fought because Auckland, the capital city of the colony of New Zealand, had filled with frustrated immigrants from other parts of the British Empire. These men and women had been promised their pick of the most fertile land in Aotearoa.

But Tawhiao had persuaded Māori to stop selling their land to settlers, and to instead use new-fangled technologies – the flour mill, the iron plough – to produce food for the hungry city of Auckland. Instead of colonising the Waikato, thousands of immigrants found themselves stuck in the capital, eating bread and fruit and fish exported north by Tawhiao’s kingdom.

A clique of colonial politicians, many of whom would soon begin careers as property speculators, persuaded Governor George Grey that the Waikato must be conquered and colonised. Grey did not need much persuading: ever since he’d led violent “expeditions” into Aboriginal Australia in the 1830s, he had been fond of gunplay.

Grey knew that he would need a huge army to defeat Tawhiao. He was able to haggle 5,000 soldiers from Britain, and his allies in the settler government conscripted five thousand local whites.

But Grey needed more troops, so he sent recruiting agents across the Tasman. The nation-state of Australia did not exist until 1901, when six colonies agreed to unite and create a federal government. But the concept of Australia existed throughout the 19th century, and by the 1860s a sense of Australian identity was spreading through the continent. This new identity did not necessarily conflict with old loyalties: advocates of an Australian nation-state often argued that it was the only way to ensure Britain’s continued dominance of the South Pacific. A strong Australia could counter the threats that other European empires and Chinese immigrants posed to the “British race”.

Grey’s recruiters tried to appeal to both the imperial and national pride of Australians. In the halls and meeting rooms of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and Tasmania, his emissaries explained the threat that Kingite Māori posed to British civilisation. Tawhiao, they complained, had isolated Auckland from other settler towns, frustrated immigrants who needed land and a living, and denied both the authority of Queen Victoria and the sanctity of the Anglican church. Australians who joined the fight across the Tasman would win the respect of their fellow members of the British empire. They could also expect to receive parcels of confiscated land, after the enemy was routed.

According to Jeff Hopkins-Weise, who wrote a Masters thesis and a book on the subject, more than 3,000 Australians volunteered for the Waikato War. Australians made up a significant minority of each of the four Waikato Regiments that the settler government was able to form in 1863 and 64. The regiments’ soldiers wore dark blue serge jackets and trousers, and dark blue pork pie hats. They had much less training than the professional soldiers of the British army, and were regarded as less reliable by Grey and his generals.

On the 10th and 11th of July 1863, Grey’s men emptied six Māori villages on the edge of Auckland, sending their inhabitants fleeing down the Great South Road on bullock carts and horses. On the 12th of July, British troops crossed the Mangatawhiri Creek, the tributary of the Waikato that Tawhiao had decreed to be the northern border of his kingdom, in whaleboats they had dragged over the Bombay Hills. The invasion had begun.

After Grey sent his troops across the Mangatawhiri, the Kingite forces began a campaign of guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. Bands of fighters would emerge from South Auckland’s puriri forests to ambush troop convoys on the Great South Road and loot and fire settlers’ cottages. The First Waikato Regiment was initially kept north of the Mangatawhiri, and deployed against the guerrillas.

On the 23rd of October, 1863, a couple of hundred insurgents paddled across the Waikato River and began to shoot at cattle on the slopes of Titi, a low hill halfway between Pukekohe and Waiuku. Ignoring orders, a column of men from the first Waikato Regiment hurried from Drury towards the gunshots. The 50 or so soldiers were commanded by Lieutenant John Perceval, who had been recruited two months earlier in Bendigo, a goldmining town in northern Victoria. Perceval’s men were advancing into a few acres of recently felled forest when the Kingites, who had hidden behind logs and branches, opened fire. The colonists fell to the ground and began to return fire, rolling behind logs whenever they needed to reload.

Onehunga Camp, New Zealand, the quarters of the wives and families of the Victorian volunteers. Illustration by Samuel Calvert, Melbourne Post, 1864

Soon Perceval rose and charged alone towards the enemy. His men shouted at him to stop, but he kept going, scrambling over logs, into a volley of musketballs. After Perceval fell dead, his force began a semi-organised retreat into the comparative safety of the uncut bush around the clearing. Unwilling to let the Pākehā go, the Kingites dropped their rifles and rushed forward, wielding long-handled tomahawks. The colonials fired as they retreated; a few Māori dropped dead, but the others kept coming. One Anzac knelt, at the edge of the bush, and began to reload his rifle with trembling hands. A tomahawk split his bowed head in half.

By the time they reached the fortified Selwyn church at Mauku, about halfway back along the road to Drury, the Anzacs had lost nine men. Eight of them, including four Australians – John Perceval, Michael Power, William Beswick, William Williamson – were buried in a single grave in the churchyard at St John’s.

The Waikato War was lost by early 1864, when Tawhiao and thousands of his subjects retreated across the Puniu River, into the region of mountains and forests that soon became known as the King Country, leaving Pākehā armies in possession of his best lands.

More than a million acres of the Waikato and adjacent regions were confiscated, and thousands of them were gifted to Australian soldier-settlers. But the new farmlets were far from good roads and from markets, and many of the Australians soon sold their land, for a pittance, to the Auckland politicians who had plotted the war.

The fighting in the Waikato was barely over when John Gorst, a former aide to Governor Grey who had helped recruit Australian volunteers, published The Maori King, a book that exposed the greed and bloodthirstiness of Auckland’s settler government, and provided eyewitness accounts of the suffering of the refugees that Grey sent down the Great South Road. James Cowan’s two-volume The New Zealand Wars, which was published in 1922 and has long been considered a classic, celebrated the bravery with which Waikato fought to defend their rohe from an unprovoked invasion. In 1957 Keith Sinclair’s The Origins of the Maori Wars provided more details of the conspiracy between the settler government and Grey.

In 1995 Queen Elizabeth II apologised to Tainui iwi and to the King movement for Grey’s invasion, which she called a devastating injustice. The monarch was only acknowledging what had always been obvious to scholars.

Australians do not seem to have difficulty acknowledging their role in the Waikato War. Last January two representatives of the Australian Defence Forces visited old Waikato War battlesites, holding ceremonies of remembrance with local hapu and collecting soil from the sites to include in war memorial being built in Sydney. Many branches of the Returned and Services League have taken an interest in the Waikato conflict. The website of the huge New South Wales branch of the RSL, for example, has a page devoted to the subject.

In New Zealand, though, the origins of the Anzac tradition in the Waikato War are almost never acknowledged by either our defence forces or our Returned Services Association. This reticence is part of a larger silence, amongst our Pākehā majority, about the wars of the 19th century.

At the end of 2015 I joined the photographers Paul Janman and Ian Powell on a walk along the 200km length of the Great South Road. At old battlesites and in pubs and on the rubbish-strewn berm of the road, we talked with hundreds of locals about the past.

We noticed a huge gap between Māori and Pākehā knowledge of the war. Most Māori knew at least the outlines of the conflict, and many could give detailed accounts of battles, and produce artefacts – old cannon shells, photographs of warriors – that were held as taonga by their whanau.

A few Pākehā, especially older people, knew about the Waikato War, but the big majority had an encylopedic ignorance of the conflict. Some of them said that the war was fought in the 15th or 16th century; some insisted that it was a fight between rival Māori iwi, and had nothing to do with Pākehā; others claimed that the war occurred in the years before 1840, and was brought to a close by the Treaty of Waitangi.

The ignorance of Pākehā about a foundational event in their country’s history is not healthy, especially when it is set beside the vivid and bitter memories of Waikato Māori.

This Anzac Day I’ll go back to Drury, but I won’t join the crowd around the suburb’s cenotaph. Instead, I’ll visit that little churchyard on the other side of the Great South Road. I’ll kneel by that lonely monument to the first Anzac dead, and leave a wreath to the innocent victims of the Waikato War.

Scott Hamilton, Paul Janman, and Ian Powell’s book Ghost South Road will be published on May the 17th by Atuanui Press


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