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 seems little more than another piece of 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 pa 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 no more than 400. The pā itself was garrisoned by around 140 Ngāti Maniapoto warriors. 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 take account of in planning his assault.

Around 7 am the howitzers began their work and confident that a sufficient breach had been made Nelson ordered the advance. ‘Soldiers and sailors vied 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 rifle pits dug 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 was met not only with raupō swamp land but heavy resistance from the defenders and was routed. The wounded were left where they lay as the British were forced to retreat. 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. Nelson may have felt that they were not needed such was his confidence. When Gold and his reinforcements attempted to reach Puketakauere they were thwarted by 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 following the questions asked about the Imperial soldiers conduct at Waireka. Jane-Maria Atkinson, a prominent Taranaki settler perhaps summed up settler opinion when in reference to Gold spoke of there being ‘something so touchingly dense in his stupidity that you can view him as a gigantic baby.’

Nelson claimed that between 130 and 150 Māori were killed while more reliable sources put the number of Māori at between 5 and 8. These inflated figures reflected the assumption that ‘Māori must have paid an enormous price for their victory’.

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