New Zealand Wars book review and excerpt

I’ve read quite a few modern books on the history of the New Zealand Wars of the 19th century.  While erudite and informational, they are often – to be honest – quite dry reads.  They give the facts, the theories, the information, the reasons – but they  fail to depict the sheer excitement, terror and intrigue of these odd wars.

That was until I recently read Peter Maxwell’s Frontier – The Battle for the North Island of New Zealand 1860-1872.  I had heard of this book before – it is regarded as quite controversial because Maxwell lets fly at some of the modern revisionist historians, particularly James Belich, author of The New Zealand Wars.    But I had never read Maxwell’s Frontier myself.

Then the other day I finally got hold of a copy, and – boy – did I realise I had missed something by not reading this wonderfully written and profusely illustrated book until now.   Yes, it does indeed throw pot-shots at Belich and others (and, in many cases, these pot-shots hit their targets fair and square).

But whether you agree or disagree a with Maxwell’s dissection of revisionist histories, one thing that is hard to disagree with is that he brings the New Zealand Wars to life much more vividly than any other modern historian ever has (and I even include Belich’s TV series in this).

By reading Maxwell’s book, for the first time I could really sense the struggle, the misery, the excitement, the guts, of those brave soldiers and warriors battling in the bush and fern.  Stories that are sketched in a few dry sentences in other historical books, Maxwell fleshes out into exciting stories that you can really see in your mind’s eye.

And not only that.  Maxwell has a gift for sorting events into order and matching them with other events, both elsewhere in New Zealand and even overseas.  In this way, he sews the rather piecemeal threads of the New Zealand Wars together so you can see how the various events influenced and flowed into each other.

Another interesting aspect of this book is that Maxwell dwells often on the many Māori who fought alongside the British and colonials for various reasons.   These warriors often receive minimal or scathing attention in other books, so it is interesting to see their perspective presented with equal weight to the Māori warriors of the other side.

If there is only one disappointment (for me) in this book, it is that it only covers the wars of the 1860s and 1870s.  My particular interest is the 1840s wars, so to me this is a shame.  But, nevertheless, Maxwell makes the 1860s wars such an exciting and colourful story, I do hope that Empress Miniatures will venture into that conflict one day.

I thoroughly recommend Frontier.  Just to prove my point about how enthralling Maxwell’s book is, here (with his permission) is an excerpt covering the fight at Pukekohe East Church in 1863.

The Fight at Pukekohe East Church

Excerpt from FRONTIER – The Battle for the North Island of New Zealand 1860-1872

by Peter Maxwell

The Presbyterian church at Pukekohe East had been consecrated six months earlier. It stands in a clearing in the bush at the edge of a flat-topped ridge. Immediately behind the building the land drops away steeply for several hundred feet, offering a prospect across rolling country to the summit of Pukekohe hill, four miles distant to the south-west.

Each day the ridgetop clearing grows larger as trees are felled and trimmed and the logs added to the wall. By early September the clearing extends to perhaps an acre but it is still littered with branches and tree stumps. The church is garrisoned by seventeen men of the Forest Rifle Volunteers, Sergeant Perry in command. Each man is armed with an Enfield with fixed bayonet, and has the makings for sixty cartridges.

A section of the garrison continues the work of tree felling while others deepen the trench and throw the dirt hack against the logs – it is warm work and the pace is unhurried. Each morning fires are lit to consume the brush and boil the billies. They burn until dusk, sending columns of smoke above the treetops. At times the smoke thickens and drifts into the bush, putting the occasional wood pigeon to flight. The settler/soldiers toiI with axe and spade – their rifles are stacked vertically in stands of three, never more than a few paces distant. Perry has ordered rifle slits to be cut into the wall, a tedious job involving the hewing of matching half slots in separate logs, then the careful stacking of them to ensure that the holes align.

At times, Lieutenant Lusk rides by on his routine patrols through the Pukekohe area. The Lieutenant regards the church’s defences with a critical eye – the rifle slits he approves of, but the walls are too low. He would prefer them shoulder height. He orders two more rows of logs to be added and the ditch deepened further.

At dawn on Sunday morning the 13th of September after a night voyage downriver three canoes each carrying between sixty and seventy Waikato warriors are beached near Tuakau. The canoes are dragged up from the bank to e concealed in the bush for the river is now regularly patrolled by British craft. The raiders are met by warriors whose tribe has just been evicted from its land.  They guide the newcomers to the Alexandra Redoubt but there is no real battle plan – the fort is fired upon from the bush edge. The garrison returns the fire. An hour long gunfight ensues which produces few casualties for both parties are well protected behind timber. Eventually the raiders draw off to the north-east, crossing the slopes Pukekohe hill in search of easier pickings.

The raiders spend Sunday night in the bush but they are on the move again at first light. By 8am they have silently ringed the Pukekohe East church. The garrison is slowly coming to life, the fires have been rekindled and a cooked breakfast is underway.

The men of the working party are unaware that almost 200 men surround them. The annihilation of the garrison is seconds away – a coordinated charge will overwhelm them. Then a single shot rings across the clearing. Perhaps a settler saw a movement at the bush edge and loosed his Enfield at it – perhaps an attacker stumbled and triggered his gun by accident.

Breakfast is abandoned. The settlers snatch their rifles and scramble back over the wall. For those critical few seconds the attackers are non-plussed. The pakehas have vanished as quickly as rabbits down a burrow. Nobody moves. Then a row of bayonets slides out through the rifle slits. “Wait for the order..” Perry commands “..then fire independently.”

The assault comes in a rush. “Wait until I shoot…” Perry calls again. At thirty yards his Enfield cracks and the first warrior drops. The log wall is lit with individual flashes. The warriors shoot directly at the stacked trunks, their shotgun balls thudding into the timber – scattering chips of bark. The first wave of attackers surges up to the ditch, but men are falling.

There is something wrong, some lack of will. Two hundred against seventeen, yet the attack falters. There is over excitement, some type of confusion, of ill discipline. Warriors, whether in bravado or light headedness, stoop to gather up the breakfasts abandoned by the settlers. They are no more than fifteen paces from the defenders’ rifle muzzles. Point blank. Three are immediately shot down. Others throw themselves at the wall but they are bayoneted about the head and shoulders as they attempt to climb. The settlers are fighting for their lives, focused on loading and shooting, but the attackers seem to be uncertain of their goal – they lack decisiveness.

In minutes the assault has failed. The warriors fall back to take cover behind the tree stumps. They have suffered nearly twenty casualties with nothing to show for it. Sporadic gunfire continues, but Perry has his men controlled. He moves along the wall counselling each in turn. Take your time he instructs. “Aim your shots, don’t waste them.”

In the next half hour fifteen more warriors are shot dead.

A woman, Rangi-rumaki, shotgun in hand, a bandolier of cartridges around her waist, exhorts the warriors to attack again. She exposes herself recklessly to fire but there is no second charge.

Now a curious event occurs. Unseen by the defenders a white wood pigeon swoops across the clearing to land on the church roof. A symbol – the Maori are convinced that the bird has come to protect the pakeha. A chief orders that it be killed. A hailstorm of fire straddles the pigeon – the church roof is sieved, splinters of match lining shower down inside but the bird remains unharmed. It struts along the ridgeline pursued by shot. The defenders are mystified – they can only guess at why, despite the closeness of the battle, their enemies’ gun barrels are angled skywards.

But while the attackers concentrate on killing the bird the settlers concentrate on killing them. Joseph Scott and James Easton, holding the right front of the stockade, take the largest toll. The attackers’ casualty list climbs steadily into the thirties.

Cowan [an earlier historian] reported: ‘Hour after hour the firing continued in the smoke-filled clearing. The powder grimed garrison, with smarting eyes and parched throats, stuck manfully to their posts, firing with care for their ammunition was running short..’

At 1pm the first reinforcements arrived. Lieutenant Grierson and 32 militiamen had run across country from Ramarama. They bellied up through the bush, loosed a fusillade at the nearest warriors then sprinted across the clearing under fire to scramble over the wall. Once the reinforcements regained their breath and reloaded the gunfight intensified.

In 1920 Cowan interviewed a veteran of the battle, Te Huia Raureti, at his home on the Puniu river. By mid afternoon Huia told him, the men of his raiding party had suffered sixty casualties, forty of whom were dead. (Cowan I – V. 282)

But the fight was not yet over. There were still more than 100 warriors surrounding the church, and still shooting. A second detachment of militia arrived. Rather than making a run for the building they went to ground along the bush edge. The fighting was close for one man, shot in the leg, was tomahawked where he lay. The militiamen crouched behind stumps and fallen logs, adding their fire power to the defence. The attackers reacted by shifting their positions, spreading out into a semi-circle through the bush on the opposite side of the clearing.

At 4 o’clock, after being summoned by civilians who had heard the distant shooting and ridden for help, 150 British soldiers stormed into the clearing. They had marched from the new Tuakau redoubt seven miles to the south-west. During this final assault three British soldiers were killed outright and eight wounded, but their charge was carried.

The Forest Rifles lay their Enfields down. They have been on their feet shooting for eight hours. Between them they have fired over 1000 rounds, each load ram-rodded home from the muzzle; powder charge, patch and ball. Not a single man has been touched by a bullet. Their church walls are punctured by a frieze of holes at head height, just above the level of the logs, leaking powdered gravel. Inside, the building is a shambles of broken glass and splinters. Dust motes circle in the shafts of light slanting down from the bul]et holes in the ceiling.

Frontier may be ordered direct from Peter Maxwell, RD 2, Waihi 3682, New Zealand. Email:

NZ$46.50 per copy, postage included within New Zealand. Payment may be made by cheque, or by Visa or Mastercard.

Photo of Pukekohe East Church as it stands  today by Peter Maxwell.

2 thoughts on “New Zealand Wars book review and excerpt

  1. Roly,that excerpt is fantastic. I am a bit of a Belich fan, I must admit, but this is good reading and great detail. It has already started me thinking what rules would be best to do this scenario on the tabletop. Cheers Greg

    1. Well, Greg, you’ll find Maxwell disagrees quite a bit with Belich. But don’t let that put you off, because, as I mentioned above, Maxwell’s great strength is his lively writing that brings the period to life, and his way of putting the Wars into narrative context.

      I’m going to experiment with the ‘Sharp Practice’ rules for wargaming the New Zealand Wars, as you’ll have seen in some of my previous posts.

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