by James Graham
The battle of Rangiriri proved to be the most important battle in the New Zealand Wars. The Maori incorporated many innovative techniques into its construction in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the British advance.
Rangiriri while uncompleted was still a formidable position when the British attacked it on 20 November 1863. The Maori did however have time to complete the pa's critical defences before the attack. These were the main trench 1000 yards long and a substantial parapet running parallel to the trench and a further trench behind the parapet. The trenches stretched from the Waikato River to Lake Waikare and were too wide to cross without planks. Maori bunkers were also present throughout Rangiriri. The key to the whole position was a central redoubt towering 21 feet above the bottom of the ditch. This redoubt was relatively small and so incorporated into the defences that General Cameron made the comment that "the strength of this work was not known before the attack as its profile could not be seen from the river or from the ground in front." The important point here is though the central redoubt was 21 feet high it was only 10 feet above ground level with the ditch making up the remaining height. The parapet around the redoubt was also of significant strength and was of significant width. Additional rifle pits were constructed to block a force landed from the river and to strengthen the left of the Maori position. The unfinished defences to the south of Rangiriri consisted of rifle pits which as can be seen in the top plan were quite isolated from the main works. Rangiriri was designed by its supervising engineer Te Wharepu a chief of the Waikato tribe and to him the innovations can be credited.
The battle of Rangiriri occurred just three weeks after the Meremere army had broken up. The garrison defending it as such was small numbering only 500 warriors. In the battle the Maori had to abandon the works on the river side of the central redoubt and focus their resistance around the redoubt itself. From the redoubt the Maori repelled no less than eight British attacks. In the night the main body of defenders evacuated the pa with most of the important chiefs and the wounded. The British subsequently captured the pa and took prisoner its occupants through what James Belich describes as abuse of a flag of war.
The Maori fared far better than the British in the actual fighting. The British lost 130 men killed or wounded while the Maori forced suffered around 50 killed and wounded. It was however the 180 prisoners captured which hurt the King Movement the most and gave the victory of Rangiriri to the British.
Rangiriri is proof that innovative Maori fortifications were not enough on their own to assure the Maori of victory over British forces. The Maori were out numbered by three to one and it was this factor that ultimately lost the engagement for the Maori. The Maori left was a heavily fortified position but there simply were not enough warriors to pull the triggers when it was attacked. They were instead concentrated on repelling a series of attacks on the central redoubt. Maori reinforcements were on their way to Rangiriri and some even arrived the day after the battle. With another 500 warriors the Maori could have easily defended Rangiriri but ultimately their tribal economy could not afford to lose so much manpower so soon after the heavy concentration at Meremere. Rangiriri delayed the British advance only momentarily and the King's capital Ngaruawahia was occupied only weeks after the battle. In all the British captured thirty miles of Kingite territory before their own supply problems brought their advance to a sudden halt.
Rangiriri through skilful engineering was made into a strong defensive line which physically blocked the British advance. It was however not enough to prevent the relentless British army marching deeper into the Waikato. In the end the Maori population was not large enough and its social organisation to stretched to comprehensively defeat a professional army.