A wargamer’s pedantic view of the Battle of Ruapekapeka (1845/46)


As with most wargamers, I am a bit pedantic about the minutiae of military history. So I get peeved when the media or films get some minor detail wrong, even if these are too small and unimportant to affect the overall history.

Just something as trivial as a novel set in the mid-18th century talking about the ‘gleaming helmets of the cavalry’ can put me off the whole story (most cavalry wore felt tricornes or caps – shining metal helmets didn’t appear until the 19th century, with the dragoons and cuirassiers of the Napoleonic Wars).

A week or so ago, our national news site Stuff reported that the remains of twelve British soldiers from the New Zealand Wars had been uncovered at a significant battle site in Northland.

ruapekapeka-7 (1)

Ruapekapeka Pā was the site of a siege and battle between Māori and British forces that took place in 1845-6. In the above painting by John Williams (Alexander Turnbull Library / nzhistory.net.nz), you can see the fortified pā on the slopes of the hill behind the British camp.

Anyway, when I saw that this media story was proclaiming that the bodies of twelve ‘soldiers’ had been located, I went into full pedantic mode. Colonel Despard’s despatch after the battle shows in fact soldiers were the smallest proportion of the twelve British men known to be killed – most were sailors. An important distinction in my view – certainly any sailor would bridle at being described as a soldier!

Of the remaining five, even two of those were ship-based marines rather than soldiers as such.


Since first seeing the Stuff article, and making a comment about the correct occupations of these men (see the comment from Arteis_01), I note the article has been changed to describe them as soldiers and sailors. I don’t know if it was my comment that spurred this correction, but I like to think so!

Notwithstanding the confusion between soldiers, sailors and marines, it is sad that these men have become no more than numbers. It was apparently unimportant in those days to list the actual names of those killed or wounded.

I thought I would try to correct this omission. I soon found that one of the marines at least is known by name. William Minifie was a Royal Marine from HMS Calliope. His name is on in a memorial stone in Bolton Cemetery, Wellington.


The ship’s log for HMS Castor is said to list the names of the seven seamen killed, as well as ten of the seamen and two of the marines who were wounded. So far I have not been able to see this document, as it is kept in the Public Records Office in the UK (ADM 53/2218), and hasn’t been digitised. Apparently some of the Admiralty documents are on microfilm at National Archives here in Wellington, so I must take a look there one day.

Whilst most of the British casualty names are proving hard to obtain, Lindsay Buick’s New Zealand’s First War published in 1926 lists the names of twelve Māori ‘chiefs’ killed at Ruapekapeka. He gives no source, however.

maori losses

The Stuff article also stated that the graves had last been seen in 1851. However, the Parliamentary Debates of 8 November 1884 showed that the location of the burial ground was still known at that time.

Parl debates 8 Nov 1884

Further, an article in the New Zealand Herald one year later on 14 December 1885 indicated that  the location of the graves was ‘said to be’ known, albeit they were now covered in crops.

NZ Herald 14 Dec 1885

As I said, all unimportant details in the greater scheme of things (apart from, of course, for the men themselves and their families and friends). But nevertheless it is good to set the record straight.


As wrote Alexander Whisker of the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot a few weeks after the battle:

It was on the 10th of January to fight we next did go
We had large guns and mortars and Rocket tubes also
they being in there strongest Pah and well secured all Round
We fired on all sides of them in hopes to Break it Down
We made 3 Breaches in the Pah and scattered it about
We kept the fire up all night but could not get them out

When early the next morning to Breakfast they did go
Into the huts outside the Pah not thinking we would know
When 50 men from each stockade they strove with might and main
they kept them all outside the Pah to more assistance came
We fought from 8 that morning to it was nearly 3
When with many killed and Wounded they were forced to run away

Upon our side but 12 were killed and wounded very few
On the next day we burned the Pah before that we withdrew
We Buried our comrades upon that very day
And we planted willows on there greaves before we came away
So now the war is over and we have saved our lives
So let us join in Drinking to our sweethearts and our Wives

I recently posted about a Radio New Zealand video about this battle, which is well worth a look if you want a brief overview of what happened, with some excellent animations and reenactments.


PS: Remaining in pedantic mode, I must point our that the picture of my 3D-printed model pā by Printable Scenery at the top of this page isn’t purporting to be Ruapekapeka Pā , which in fact looked more like the Radio NZ computer graphic above.

11 thoughts on “A wargamer’s pedantic view of the Battle of Ruapekapeka (1845/46)

  1. Hi Roly, a belated Merry Christmas. Thank you for the research you have done – most interesting and I have learned new stuff 🙂


  2. Hi Roly – great post, and absolutely it’s important to get the details right about Ruapekapeka. ‘Stuff’ seems to be so slack these days they can’t even proof for proper grammar! To me, the biggest misconceptions about the battle remain Belich’s slightly odd constructions, which as far as I can tell are still taken as the unassailable truth by non-military historians. My own efforts to present matters otherwise merely led to my being unsubtly excluded from opportunities to publish and to be funded, and in Belich openly getting angry and swearing at me on National Radio a few years back. None of this has much to do with history, but it’s the reality of the field for those trying to write and publish in it and underscores how in-crowd mythologies, once entrenched (as it were) can be almost impossible to dislodge.

    1. Are you talking about Belich’s ‘first to use trench warfare’ statement? This is clearly untrue, as even students of Roman history could tell you.

      To me, the real question is did Maori build on the kete of mankind’s existing knowledge brought back by the many Maori travellers, or did they develop the whole concept independently from scratch themselves? They certainly did innovate, for example the loopholes at ground level rather than the more common style of firing through or over the top of the walls as done by most other nations.

      One of the studies I have found most interesting is Richard Taylor’s thesis about the forgotten effect of logistics (‘the tedious tasks of supply’) on this campaign. When the heavy artillery was finally brought up, and with sufficient ammunition, the pa was quite easily breached. Until then the rockets, mortars and light artillery had been ineffective – but that was no surprise as these weapons were never designed to knock down walls. And even when the big guns did arrive, they remained ineffective until sufficient ammo could also be brought up for a sustained rather than sporadic bombardment.

    1. I saw these for sale as hard-copies at the NZ Army Museum a couple of weeks ago – but at $30 each the trilogy was going to be too expensive. I thought I might see if the library has a copy first, to try one out. Shame they used that totally unrealistic (albeit dramatic!) ‘Look and Learn’ image for the cover …

  3. Can’t vouch for the accuracy, but I happened across this list in ‘The White Ensign in New Zealand”. Page 41.

    “The Naval casualties were Midshipman Murray of the Castor, and nine men killed with 16 wounded. Their names were:

    William Mcdonald
    James McDonald
    Frederick Gladding
    Thomas Dawson
    Thomas Miller
    Henry Collyer
    Edwin Hutchin

    These men were all seamen of Castor, but we have no record of the names of two others killed that day, one of whom came from North Star and one from Calliope.”

    Interesting description of the burial as well.

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