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 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.
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.
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.
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.