'War's a risky game. But apart from the times when you're up against it, the army's a great thing. You get comradeship you'd never find anywhere else. It's the sort of thing which makes it good to remember. I Claude Feakins was 83 in 1975 when he recalled the horrors and the good times of life as a private in the Gallipoli campaign, and others, of World War One. Later he was wounded twice in France, 'patched up' and sent back to the front. He was one of thousands of New Plymouth soldiers-and civilians-who have remembered the good and the bad about that and other wars. Fifteen years before the 1914-18 'war to end all wars' the town had sent volunteers and their horses to South Africa, to fight in the Boer War, which lasted from 1899 to 1903. And 40 years before that, war had come to the settlement itself. Between 1860 and early 1864 it had been a garrison town, beleaguered by hostile Maoris determined to drive the Europeans off their 'stolen' land. When martial law was declared on February 22, 1860, the settlers anticipated a briefwar, and Governor Browne a bloodless victory. That Sunday the town' presented the appearance of a fair; all the churches and chapels empty as preparations were made by the military to march against the Maoris.' Taranaki's civilian population at that time was about 2650, all of whom were crowded into the town except about 90 who occupied the Ornata stockade and the Bell Blockhouse. The usual town population was about 900. The commander of the garrison, Colonel C. E. Gold, ordered the inhabitants to have a candle or lamp at their front windows at night ready to light in case of alarm, and they were required by the police to 'secure their doors and lower windows'. 'An attack on the town is a possible contingency', the Taranaki Herald wrote. 'With perfect quiet and absence of confusion, with our knowledge of the details of the ground and the houses, and with the alleys and spaces among our houses occupied by our armed men, and, better still, barricaded off from the main thoroughfares and from the river, we might wait easy in our minds and rather in hopes that the insurgents may have audacity for the attempt, than in fear for the result.' This may have been intended to instill confidence in the civilian population, but there were other fears. Everyone realised the presence of British troops was a necessity, but for the soldiery boredom was often the enemy-and drinking the cure. Hotels did a roaring trade with troops stationed on Marsland Hill and Fort Niger. In the Masonic Hotel' they had to empty the rapidly-filled till with a quart pot, the money thrown into a corner of the landlord's private room until he had time to count it'. Fights, which usually started in hotels and spread into the streets, were common. Most resulted from arguments between soldiers and settlers. 'It was currently believed that there was more blood spilled in one field night in the Masonic Hotel than was spilled in the attack on the L-shaped pa. (At Waitara on March 17, 1860, Government troops captured a Maori position evacuated during the night after an afternoon of largely ineffective bombardment in the first 'official' encounter of the land wars.) Jingoism was as popular in 1860 as it was in later years. Private Matthew Fitzpatrick of the 65th struck a note echoed in the minds of many townspeople with his call to arms:
Come soldiers, march to battle; Let the rebel Maori dance To excite himself to fury While boldly we advance.
We care not for his savage yell, His tomahawk or spear; His shouts will be his own death-knell When British lions are near.
Come soldiers, march to victory. Let the rebel Maoris know 'Tis vain to put their trust in pas When Britain strikes the blow.
The cause of war rests not with us- 'Twas they provoked the fight. Then let us to the battle go- And God defend the right.
The most significant military engagement for New Plymouth in the 'land wars' which lasted from 1860 to 1869, and which are well documented (see bibliography) was the battle of Waireka, near Omata, on March 28, 1860. The main object of the expedition was to relieve Maori pressure on Omata settlers, regarded by the Maoris as 'neutrals', but it also sought to counter a possible attack on the town. Estimates put the Maori force gathered on Waireka at between 600 and 1500, many of whom were armed with double-barrelled shotguns and ample ammunition. The British had 88 officers and men of the 65th Regiment, 30 officers and men from HMS Niger, 160 Taranaki Rifle Volunteers and Militia armed with 30 rounds of ammunition a man. The naval force was equipped with rocket shells. For the Taranaki Volunteer Rifle Company, which had been formed in January, 1859, this was their baptism of fire. For the next 120 years, in spite of changes in titles and roles (it is now the 5 th Battalion (Wellington, West Coast Taranaki Regiment) RNZIR) the Volunteers jealously guarded their reputation and took part in many theatres of war. At Waireka, a battle which lasted from noon until after midnight, the Volunteers and Militia casualties were one dead and eight wounded. There followed much recrimination and criticism of the conduct of the military and political leaders of the day, but for the Volunteers there was nothing but praise. Captain Cracroft, whose storming of the pa at Omata with men of the Niger created a diversion which enabled the Volunteers and Militia to withdraw, said in his report: 'I cannot speak too highly of all engaged in this affair, and I should wish to recommend to your notice three of the Volunteers, who accompanied me, Messrs F. Mace and C. and E. Messenger.' Garland Woon, in his Journal of Events in the Taranaki Herald, wrote: 'Many were the narrow escapes experienced by the Rifles; some had balls through their clothes; another had the sling of his rifle cut in two; another has his bayonet nearly bent double by a ball ... the natives were completely routed and sustained great losses, and allowed the gallant band of Volunteers to make a good retreat after darkness had set in. The Volunteers were ably commanded by Captain Stapp. We speak the feeling of the entire corps when we say that no danger could be considered too great with such a leader.'