At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of 20 November 1863, three Armstrong guns opened an attack on a Maori redoubt at Rangiriri. In command of the attacking force, comprising 850 officers and men of the British Army and a Naval Brigade, was Lieutenant General Sir Duncan Cameron. Commodore Sir William Wiseman was in command of the Naval Brigade, made up of personnel from HMS Curacoa, Harrier, Miranda, and Eclipse.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of 20 November 1863, three Armstrong guns opened an attack on a Maori redoubt at Rangiriri. In command of the attacking force, comprising 850 officers and men of the British Army and a Naval Brigade, was Lieutenant General Sir Duncan Cameron. Commodore Sir William Wiseman was in command of the Naval Brigade, made up of personnel from HMS Curacoa, Harrier, Miranda, and Eclipse. Part of the force had marched from Meremere with the remainder being brought to Rangiriri by the New Zealand Gunboat Pioneer, the steamer Avon, and the armoured barges, Ant, Midge, Chub and Flirt.
For two hours the guns bombarded the position supported by small arms fire from the gunboats. The earthworks, comprised a bank from the Waikato River to Lake Waikere. There was a central redoubt on the ridge, the remains of which can still be seen today, composed of two banks and a ditch. On the ridge were entrenched positions and in front were rifle pits. From the bottom of the ditch to the top of the ramparts was about six metres.
The 65th Regiment, supported by the 14th made the first assault and were able to take the first line of entrenchments and the rifle pits with the points of their bayonets. Although scaling ladders had been brought with them, the soldiers were unable to take the central redoubt because the ladders were too short to reach the top of the parapets and the few men that did manage to reach the top were either hurled back or shot down.
An extraordinary attack was then ordered to be made by the Royal Artillery, armed with revolvers and swords. Captain Mercer led 36 of his men into the attack, which was repulsed and he mortally wounded, while 600 British infantry watched.
Although late in the day General Cameron ordered a further assault to take place. This time the Naval Brigade was to make the attempt. Captain Mayne of HMS Eclipse was in command of the 90 sailors and marines who dashed straight at the ramparts with pistol and cutlass. Few reached the top of the parapet. One of these was Midshipman Watkins of Curacoa, who fell, shot between the eyes. After the failure of this attack Commander Phillimore of Curacoa led a small party to the base of the ditch which threw hand grenades into the redoubt, but without altering the situation .
Midshipman C.G. Foljambe of Curacoa later wrote :
The General then sent a message to the Commodore saying that the natives were caged up and firing from behind their fern on our men and that the soldiers could not go in; so he sent for the blue-jackets without rifles and armed only with cutlasses and revolvers. We went straight up to the redoubt and charged them … [the Maori] only showed their heads for a second and then bobbed down and let fly at us without taking much aim …I made a rush through the fire and jumped into the ditch. We made several attempts to get over the earthwork, but failed. We also threw hand grenades in amongst them…
Darkness was now falling and the General decided to break off the action until the next day. Throughout the night the engineers worked to place a large mine under the redoubt, but the fuses had been mislaid. However, shortly after daybreak a white flag was shown by the defenders, which was taken as a token of surrender. There is some doubt whether or not the Maori actually intended to surrender, however, the redoubt was occupied and the defenders made prisoner.
The dead were buried in what is now a cemetery at Rangiriri, although the officers were taken to Auckland and interred in Symonds Street Cemetery. The Europeans were buried in individual graves and the Maori in a mass grave. Only the grave of General Cameron’s orderly is marked. In 1896 the Regimental Association of the troops engaged erected a monument to the soldiers and in 1927 the New Zealand Government erected one to the naval personnel.
By 1996 the naval memorial had deteriorated to the point that it required to be replaced. This is a function of the Department of Internal Affairs and the Auckland Regional Officer of the War Graves section contacted the Navy Museum about a replacement memorial. The Museum’s involvement included helping select the actual stone, checking the accuracy of the names (undertaken by Commander A.L. Peppercorn RNZN then on New Zealand Defence Staff, London, at the Public Records Office), designing the inscription and even being party to the consultations with the local community. On 20 November 1998 the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Honourable Jack Elder unveiled the new memorial, which was blessed by Navy Chaplain Lyn Lawton. A guard of honour from HMNZS Philomel was also provided.