INCOMPETENT OR SCAPEGOAT ?
DESPARD AT OHAEAWAI

by Capt. R.J. Taylor

(A story of the New Zealand Wars of 1845-46 in which our ancestor Pte. Jamie Sinclair was involved.
Published with permission from the Russell Museum, New Zealand.
Te Whare Taonga O Kororareka.)

.

"...the main causes of the Ohaeawai disaster, including the factors which deceived Despard about the effects of his bombardment and the chances of successlul assault, were measures taken by the Maoris." James Belich

The baffle of Ohaeawai (1845) was a substantial setback for British arms: Until the publication of James Bolich's revisionist The New Zealand Wars (1986), historians generally saw the performance of the British commander, Colonel Henry Despard, as the major factor of the defeat. Belich questions this view. He suggests that Despard was a better commander than the 'received version' (Belich's own phrase) has given him credit for, and that in fact the major cause of the British defeat was Maori military prowess.

While it is one thing to revise traditional interpretations of history, it is quite another to revise history itself. Clear analysis at the facts proves that Despard's incompetence and failings as a commander were the major factors in the British defeat at Ohaoawai.

What kind of man was Despard? He was commissioned into the British Army in 1799, at the age of 14. Posted to India with the 17th Regiment, the new subaltern eventually rose through the ranks to become Commanding Officer of the 17th. In 1842, the then 57- year old Colonel assumed command of the 99th Regiment, which was based in Australia on convict guard duty. From this less-than-glamorous setting, Despard was ordered across the Tasman in early 1845, to put down the Maori insurrection which had erupted at Kororareka In July 1844. By this stage, he had not seen active service for some thirty years.

The 'received version' suggests that Despard was an extremely stubborn man, with a hot and hasty temper. (Buick, p.149) During his short time in Australia, he had made himself unpopular by refusing to attend a ball given to welcome him to his new post. He also refused to modernise his drill to suit contemporary practice, which of course led to chaos on the parade ground. Such was the character of the new Commander of Her Majesty's forces in New Zealand.

Despard arrived In New Zealand on the Royal Sovereign on June 1, 1845, with reinforcements of men and artillery. Governor Fitzroy wasted no time in ordering Despard into the field, and on June 17, after a journey impeded by delay and bad weather, the British force arrived at the Waimate Mission Station, ten-and-a-half kilometres from Ohaeawai.

There he met Tamali Waaka Nene, a Maori chief who was supporting the Crown against Hone Hake and Kawiti. When Waaka Nene offered his services, Despard replied that “when he required the assistance of savages, he would ask for it.” (Buick, p. 149)

Despard's 880-slrong force (including 250 Maori allies and 80 Auckland Volunteers) and four cannons (two 6-Pounders and two 12-Pounders) left Waimate for Ohaeawai at 5 a.m. on June 23. The march was once again hindered by the rough terrain and weather, and the force took until sunset to reach Ohaeawai.


The Ohaeawai pa presented a formidable objective for Despard's force. It was approximately 80 metres long by 36 wide, with every wall broken by an angle or projection, so that any attacking force would be met by enfilade fire. The outer walls were made of puriri logs, each between 75 and 125 centimetres in circumference, and dug nearly 1.8 metres into the ground and protruding 3 metres above it. As added protection, the defenders had dug trenches and bombproof shelters.

The mastermind of this feat of military engineering was Kawiti. Yet once the construction had been completed, Kawati did little to take or hold the initiative (beyond launching a series of sorties against the British encampment), and instead allowed Despard to direct the course of events.

From the outset, Despard used the outdated tactics of the Napoleonic era against the Maori. Unfortunately for the British, Kawati was not schooled in the same tactics.

The bombardment commenced on the 24th, when the pa was shelled from a range of 350 metres. After the shelling was seen to be ineffective, the guns were moved 100 metres closer to the pa. No better results were achieved, and over the next few days the guns were moved around in order to force a breach, with one of the cannons eventually being fired from behind a breastwork only 60 metres from the stockade. Major Bridge, of the 58th Regiment noted that: “No practicable breach was made, owing, I think, to the shot not being directed all to one point and the fire not being kept up, half an hour elapsing between each shot on Colonel Despard's instructions.” (Buick,p.158)

On the 25th, and again on 30th, Despard resolved to try to storm the pa. On both occasions, only the forceful arguments of his subordinates dissuaded him from pressing on with his plan.

On the 27th, Despard sent for one of the 32-pounders from the Hazard lying at anchor off Keri Keri. Its arrival and commitment to the bombardment brought immediate results, as its first few shots ploughed into the northern pallisading. Now, at last, it seemed that the artillery must prevail.

Yet it was not to be. Kawati sent forth a sortie against the British encampment, temporarily driving Waaka Nene's force from its lines, and capturing Nene's flag. Despard, having been forced to retreat with a haste unbecoming of a senior British Officer, now had to endure the added humiliation of seeing his allies flag hoisted on the pa flagpole. His impatience and bad temper, which thus far had been barely kept in check by his subordinates, finally got the bette of him.

Furious at this affront, Despard decided to attack the next morning, July 1. This time, his subordinates were unable to to change his mind. Despite the fact that the 32-pounder had loosened the pallisades on the northern flank of the pa, Despard chose to direct his attack against the north-west corner, justifying this on the grounds that this corner lay nearer the bush, which would conceal the attackers' forming-up place (Ward, p. 115). The north-western corner, however, boasted the thickest logs in the stockade, and was covered by two salients, each of which contained a 6 Pounder.

Whatever his rationale for the direction of the attack, it is significant that the decision to attack was based not on a clear rational analysis of the situation, but was reached as a result of a fit of temper. Belich does not address this.

Seeing that Despard would not be dissuaded, Waaka Nene offered to deliver a feint attack against the south side of the pa. Despard refused the offer, apparently fearing the confusion which would arise from friendly and hostile Maoris fighting within the pa. Belich does not even discuss, let alone give credence to Nene's low opinion of Despard's ability as a commander, despite it being clear that Nene was a better tactician than either Hone Heke or Kawiti.

The assault was doomed from the start. The Redcoats, advancing in the elbow-to-elbow fashion of an earlier era, met a devastating hail of fire from the well-protected defenders. Those who reached the pa were unable to breach its stockades, as the necessary axes, ropes, and scalling ladders had been left behind. By the time the bugle finally sounded the Retreat, 40 of the attackers had been killed, and another 80 wounded. They had scarcely been able to see the well-protected defenders, let alone engage them.

Despard must accept the blame for what happened at Ohaeawai. His on-again, off-again decisions to attack, his misuse of his artillery, his unwillingness to accept advice from those with more experience, and his total lack of imagination and inflexibility in ordering a close-knit frontal assualt all serve to paint a picture of an inept Commander, scarcely in control of himself, let alone the battle. It is unlikely that there could be a more fitting finale to the disaster than the following incident: “Despard watched the carnage with horror and amazement. In the frenzy of his despair he lost his self control. He ordered the bugle to sound 'Retreat', and immediately afterwards demanded to know who had given the order. “You your self, Sir, did this very minute”, answered Ensign Symonds.” (Buick,p. 171)

The despair that Despard felt from a distance could scarcely have compared with the feelings of the soldiers caught up in the fray. One of the survivors, Corporal William Free, later claimed: “Nothing was explained to us before we charged. We just went at the strong stockade front under orders from a Colonel who did not know his business and who had a contempt for the Maori” (Buick,pp. 168-9)

In his post battle report, Despard attributed the disaster on the failure of the pioneers to carry axes and scaling equipment (Lieutenant Phillpolts had ordered the pioneers to leave the equipment behind (Buick,p.167) correctly reasoning that it would be quite useless against the pa's defences (Wards,p.156)) while at the same time praising the performance of these same soldiers! This report, and the indecision evident, is not even mentioned by Belich.

Afraid that the Maori would cut his supply lines, Despard now proposed to bury whatever ammunition he could not carry and return to Waimate. His Maori allies argued strongly against this course of action, but before a decision could be made Kawiti abandoned the pa.

When Despard inspected the pa, after the evacuation, “he was convinced that one of the Europeans from Hokianga must have been involved in planning it. Burrows (Robert Burrows, a local missionary) had observed it being built and could refute this, but the Colonel doggedly maintained his opinion,” (Wilson,p.276)

For his part, Bridge had a more complimentary view of the fortifications, and of those who had built them: “This will be a lesson to us not to take too lightly of our enemies, and shows us the folly of attempting to carry such a fortification by assault, without first making a practable breach.” (Barthop,p.109)

Such was the extent of Despard's obstinacy that, not only would he refuse to admit that the Maori were capable of building such effective defences, but he also refused to learn any lessons from what had happened at Ohaeawai. When he returned to Waimate in September, he found that Bridge had ordered the construction of earthworks around the camp. Despard ordered that they be filled in, much to the chagrin of Bridge (and, no doubt, the soldiers who had actually done the digging) saying: “I could never admit that a European force of between 300 and 400 men, well supplied with arms and amunition and four pieces of cannon, required any rampart to defend them in open country against a barbarian enemy who could never have brought at the utmost more than double that number, without artillery, against them.” (Buick,p. 197)

Unfortunately, there was little about Despard to commend him as a Commander or even as a man. He was indecisive, ill-tempered, given to prejudice, obstinate, and inflexible. As a tactician, he was totally unable to adapt to, and overcome, new challenges.

In seeking to downplay Despard's incompetence, and thereby give pre-eminence to the role played by the Maori defenders, Belich cites the approval shown by two of Despard's superiors (General O'Connell in Australia, and the Duke of Wellington) for Despard's handling of the battle, while failing to mention that their opinions were primarily based on reading Despard's own report. At the same time, Belich dismisses the critism of a soldier who actually took part as being made “a mere seventy four years later” (Belich,p.48) (and, ipso facto, unreliable). A number of contradictions are at once apparent in Belich's argument.

The first is that the Duke of Wellington's comments were those of a detached 77-year old. Beyond the twenty years different in their ages, there was much in common between Despard and Wellington. Both were products of the Napoleonic era, and neither had seen active service for more than thirty years. Further, neither understood the Maori as an enemy: indeed, Wellington would probably have employed the same tactics as Despard.

Belich makes great play of the fact that Despard was subsequently appointed a Commander of the Order of Bath. However, he ignores the fact that Despard was a member of that echelon of British society which traditionally provided the British Army's elite, to whom such awards were an inevitable result of loyal (and not necessarily successful) service to the Crown.

Belich's cynical dismissal of Corporal William Free's opinion of Despard (“...who did not know his business...”), on the grounds that Free's comments were made seventy four years after the event is, at best, unfortunate. Unlike Wellington and O'Connell, who had primarily based their opinion on Despard's reports, Free witnessed the carnage outside the pa as a participant. As one who subsequently rose to the rank of Lieutenant and commanded men during the Taranaki War, Free would have had a far better grasp of events (and of Despard's incompetence) than either Wellington or O'Connell. That his comments were made after further service against the Maori should give weight to, rather than detract from, the importance of his opinion.

Few would dispute that Kawiti was a shrewd leader. Yet in truth, beyond building a strong pa and allowing the British an unhindered advance to attack it, Kawati did little to direct the course of events, and much less to win the battle.

In light of the foregoing, the 'received version' must prevail. The British set back at Ohaeawai was primarily the result of Despard's incompetence, rather than Kawati's prowess. Kawati did not win at Ohaeawai: Despard lost.

Acknowledgements

Michael Barthop, To Face The Daring Maoris, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1979.

James Belich, The New Zealand Wars, AucklandUniversity Press, Auckland, 1986.

T. Lindsay Buick, New Zealand's First War, Government Printing Office, Wellington, 1926.

Lt. Henry McKillop, Reminiscences Of Twelve Months Service in New Zealand, Capper Press, Christchurch, 1973 (Reprint).

Ian Wards, The Shadow Of The Land, Government Printing Office, Wellington, 1968.

Ormond Wilson, From Hongi Hika To Hone Heke, John McIndoe Ltd, Dunedin, 1985.

A Master graduate in Politics and History from the University of Waikato, Captain Richard Taylor is Director of Public Programmes at the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum.

Five months after Ohaeawai, Jamie also fought in the Battle of Ruapekapeka, where the British were again defeated.

Back to top

Back to Home page