Plan of attack on Gate Pā

Map by G. Pulman showing the disposition of the British forces just before the attack on Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) on 29 April 1864.

After pounding the Māori position for eight hours with the heaviest artillery fire of the New Zealand Wars, the British commander, Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron, ordered the 300-strong assault party forward at 4 p.m. Another 300 men were held in reserve, and men of the 68th Regiment were stationed behind the pā to block any attempt to escape by the defenders. Almost immediately the attack struck trouble as Māori firing from concealed trenches inflicted heavy casualties. Some of the defenders appeared to flee but were driven back inside by the soldiers to the rear. The battle raging within narrow confines became even more confused when Cameron ordered the British reserves forward. Hundreds of men trying to force their way through a narrow gap into the interior of the pā became mixed up with others who were attempting to flee.

The British retreat soon became a rout, and the dead and wounded were left where they had fallen. The 35 British killed and 75 wounded were twice the estimated Māori casualties.

Cameron had assumed that the artillery bombardment had annihilated the garrison. The fact that those in the pā fired virtually no shots reinforced his confidence. Though the Māori fighting flag had been placed 50 m behind the pa in an attempt to fool the gunners, this ruse had worked only briefly. The real problem was that the assault by a composite force was poorly coordinated. To make matters worse, the reserves were sent in too soon, creating a deadly bottleneck that was ruthlessly exploited by the pā’s defenders.

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