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First in Arms

New Zealand Colonial Fighters, Taranaki War 1860-61
by Murray Moorhead


Reviewed by Howard Chamberlain
December 2005 

Over the last few years Murray Moorhead has built a solid reputation as a researcher of early Taranaki History. In this book he not only details the history of the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers but also explains how they earned their title and honour “First in Arms”. This they gained in action at Waireka against Maori warriors, just a few miles south of New Plymouth, a title carried over to units descended from this brave, partially trained but almost reckless group. The outcome of the Waireka affair was a lucky escape for a very raw unit as the reader soon discovers. More incidents that could have easily turned into an absolute disaster and possibly resulted in the departure of European settlers from New Plymouth, are linked together to become a much talked about local victory.

The difficulties faced by the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers in this formative period, as they tried to build their unit and military skills, are recounted with numerous extracts from correspondence by New Plymouth residents and members of the volunteers woven into the story. Through these extracts the reader absorbs the feeling of disinterest by Governor Gore-Brown, the lack of action from the local military commander Colonel Gold, and warms to the frustrations felt by the volunteers. The lack of uniforms, weapons, rations, training, and leadership, the constant day and night guards in appalling weather (while regular troops remained in warm barracks) and the separation from families who were evacuated principally to Nelson, all sapped the interest of the unit members. Quotes from participants’ letters plainly show that it was only the chance of action on a number of occasions that held them together.

For those who have read James Cowan’s New Zealand Wars in the Pioneering Period and other books related to the New Zealand Wars, Murray Moorhead’s “First in Arms” broadens the events in Taranaki and provides a greater understanding of the progress (or lack of progress) in the Taranaki War. The one disadvantage is the lack of an index, but “First in Arms” is an interesting and readable account, a welcome addition to the bookshelf of those interested in the growth of European Settlement and its effect on Maori.



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