Puketakauere battle scene today

British forces suffered their worst defeat of the Taranaki War at Puketakauere pā near Waitara on 27 June 1860. Like many sites associated with the New Zealand Wars, Puketakauere today appears to be no more than farmland. There are few obvious reminders of the carnage that took place when 30 British soldiers were killed in a failed attempt to storm the pā.

During June the Te Ātiawa chief Hapurona began work on strengthening the old sites of Puketakauere and Onukukaitara. These pā were within full view of Camp Waitara. Major Thomas Nelson led 350 men out from Waitara on the morning of 27 June determined to ‘teach the troublesome natives a lesson they would never forget’.

The Māori force at Puketakauere numbered 400 at most. The pā itself was garrisoned by around 140 Ngāti Maniapoto. The rest of the Māori force took position in rifle pits in front of nearby Onukukaitara pā and in the gullies on each side of the approach to Puketakauere. This was the real stength of their position and something Nelson failed to notice when planning his assault.

The howitzers began firing around 7 a.m., and when he was confident that a breach had been made Nelson ordered the advance. ‘Soldiers and sailors vied with each other to get in first’. Their optimism was quickly shattered. As the attackers reached Puketakauere they were cut down by a ‘withering fire’ from the concealed rifle pits in front of nearby Onukukaitara pā and from the gullies on each side. Nelson’s frontal attack was repulsed. A militia force at the rear led by Captain Messenger struggled in a swamp against heavy resistance and was routed. The wounded were left where they lay as the British retreated. This was viewed as an act of great cowardice and earned the British military leadership even greater criticism from the settlers.

Nelson had failed to signal Gold - as agreed - and his reinforcements that the assault had commenced. Such was his confidence, Nelson may have felt they were not needed. When Gold and his reinforcements attempted to move forward they could not cross the swollen Waiongana River. Nelson blamed the lack of reinforcements for the defeat. Gold was an easy scapegoat, especially given Nelson's popularity with his men and the questions raised about the troops’ conduct at Waireka in March. Jane-Maria Atkinson, a prominent Taranaki settler, wrote of Gold that there was ‘something so touchingly dense in his stupidity that you can view him as a gigantic baby’.

While Nelson claimed that between 130 and 150 Māori had been killed, more reliable sources put the number at between five and eight. Europeans had to believe that the ‘Māori must have paid an enormous price for their victory’.

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