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Coo-ee: Aussie troops in New Zealand

By Simon Ruppert

It has been said that Australians first saw combat in 1885 - in the Sudan campaign against the Mahdi.

It is true that the NSW Colonial Government sent a battalion to Sudan to help to rescue General Gordon.

Distrusted by the British, these troops were used for guard duties.

In reality, Australians saw overseas combat 20 years earlier.

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They saw combat in New Zealand, beginning in the 1860s during the New Zealand Wars against the Maori.

Beginning in 1845, the British Army repeatedly had fought Maori warriors embittered by the seizure of their land.

Uniquely among Queen Victoria’s many little wars fought for her Empire, the British Army lost as many battles as they won.

To defend settlers, the New Zealand Government often asked for assistance from the British Navy of Australia Station.

The Royal Navy provided Naval Brigades to fight in battles including Gate Pa and Ruapekapeka. Both battles went badly.

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Enduring heavy bombardment, Maori warriors survived to kill British troops and then evaporated like smoke from their bomb-proof Pa.

The crew of the gunboat, Her Majesty’s Colonial Steam Sloop (HMCSS) Victoria, also served as part of the Royal Naval Brigade during these earlier campaigns.

By 1864, the Imperial Government had pressured the New Zealand Colonial Government to adopt a policy of self reliance. The British Army would leave.

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The British settlers and their Maori auxiliaries would defend their country. Sod’s Law then came into play.

The Second Taranaki War broke out on the west coast of the North Island around the same time.

Then the Waikato War broke out along a navigable river in the centre of the North Island.

After that, Te Kooti, a fugitive from a prison island, killed a religious minister on the east side, thus beginning a campaign that lasted years in the unmapped mountains of the North Island.

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Titokowaru began another war on the west coast in 1868. A prophet of the extremist Maori Hau Hau religion, Titokowaru never lost a battle despite being outnumbered 12 to one.

To assist its minuscule army, the New Zealand government began recruitment in Victoria.

More than 2500 Australians volunteered for service in four regiments of the Waikato Militia.

Victoria contributed most of the volunteers – 1784 Victorians enlisted in the colony, 822 for the first Waikato Regiment, 119 out of 295 for the third Waikato Regiment and 230 of 379 for the fourth Waikato Regiment.

Another 500 Australians enlisted in Taranaki for service as military settlers or served with the Company of Forest Rangers as bush guerrillas.

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Each recruit was offered confiscated Maori land at the end of their service.

Service in the dank forests of New Zealand was arduous and the fighting brutal. Most Forest Rangers wore blankets as kilts to avoid trousers rotting and snagging.

Few volunteers saw major battles, but they endured repeated ambushes and skirmishes during their "scorched earth" policy. Fewer than 20 Australians were killed in action.

The New Zealand Wars spluttered on until 1916.