Battle of Gate Pah

Bit O' History: The Battle of Gate Pah

I want to tell you of a battle in history when superior man power, advanced weaponry and established battle tactics didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

New Zealand.


Map of New Zealand's North Island, 1864

The Tauranga Campaign was a 6 month long armed conflict at the Bay of Plenty between the British crown and the indigenous people – the Maori. It was part of the New Zealand wars that were fought over issues of land ownership and sovereignty.

Sir Duncan Cameron was sent to deal with several bands of Maori tribes who had joined forces and formed an uprising against British rule around the Tauranga mission, on the northern coast of New Zealand’s north island.

The British bought with them 1900 men armed with Enfield rifles, mortars, artillery guns and a 110-pounder gun (the first example of a gun that size ever being used against an indigenous people). The Maori were 400 in number and armed with their traditional Taiaha’s and double barrel shotguns.


Taiaha weapon used by the Maoris.


But the Maori had a talent that the British would struggle to counter. They were exceptional Sappers. This meant they could dig incredibly well-built forts, with winding trenches and layers of floors (yes, really) that they would fortify in unison when the British attacked.

​Once the enemy numbers became too heavy, the Maori would retreat, move back a few miles and dig another fort in a matter of hours to a couple of days. The Maori’s knew they couldn’t beat the British in all out combat, so they forced them to take positions that would cause heavy losses, thus slowly bleeding their enemy out.

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The Maori enlarged a trench between two large marshes and dug their Pah (the fortified encampment) on top of a 50-foot-high hill – goading the British into attacking them head on. The British saw a flag pole in the Maori encampment and began the battle with a massive artillery bombardment, sending more than 30 tonnes of high explosive shells at the fort. They assumed, however, that the flag was inside the encampment. It was on the other side of the camp and for 2 hours the artillery guns battered empty ground.

600 British troops were assembled to form a storming party to clear out the fort. They charged the encampment, yelling, cheering, adrenaline pumping. A few soldiers were wounded in the charge by a few dozen defending Maori, but only a few. At 100 yards before they reached the breach, the defending Maori ceased firing and reclined back into the fort. After making it to the other side of the breach, the British were in the enemy camp, expecting to find Maori bodies or resistance, but finding only a handful of wounded and nothing more.

5 minutes past with nothing happening. Their cheers were now heavy breathing and their adrenaline had subsided. Imagine their confusion. They simply thought the encampment had been abandoned. But the Maori were laying in wait in tunnels and rooms dug into the earth that lay either beneath their enemy or in the walls beside them. It was a trap. Simple yet effective.

When their leader, Rawiri Puhirake, gave the order, the Maori focused all of their fire on the British officers, killing most of them in the first volley. The British - without authority figures to give them orders - began to panic and split off from their squads, leaving them easy pickings when the Maori came flooding out of their lairs and attacked in one of one combat.

Illustration from
Illustration from


The fighting was brutal, and the element of surprise combined with superior hand to hand combat skills caused the British to withdraw and flee. That night, the Maori taunted the British, in English, telling them to, ‘Come back and have another go,’ and to, ‘try again without crying this time.’

It took the British three days to recuperated from their lose and lick their wounds when they sent a larger force of men back to encampment – only to find it had been abandoned days earlier and the Maori were long gone.

The Battle of Gate Pah was arguably the most important battle in the entire campaign and has gone down in history – and remains to this day - the worst ever defeat inflicted on a colonial power by an indigenous peoples.
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