The Battle of Ōamaru

Easter 1886
               The whole town, ‘thousands of spectators – [a] queer thong of rich and poor, old and young’ had perched itself on the hills above the harbour. Families with picnic blankets, sweet vendors plying their trade and enthusiasts with telescopes all looked down towards the harbour where ‘the white buildings of the town, relieved here and there by a few trees and plantations on the hills formed an appropriate background for the picture.’

               Thousands of men milled about in the sweltering hot weather, like tiny industrious ants willed on by the sounds of pipes and drums. These were men of the Volunteer Corps, summoned to battle at the Oamaru Encampment, a ‘military spectacular never before seen on this island’.  Batteries of cannons were erected on the shores and seven boats were loaded with detachments from as far north as Petone and as far south as Bluff.

               All was very still until the Fleet returned at 1 o’clock having disappeared a number of hours earlier. Admiral Scott demanded a large sum of money, provisions, and coal, but having been refused by the ‘warlike people of Oamaru he threatened to bombard and pillage the town’. A day long battle erupted with the shore batteries firing incessantly and the ships returning fire. A torpedo boat sped up the harbour weaving to avoid the hail of bullets from on shore, aweing onlookers with its speed. Then a ‘cry of surprised escaped the lips of the onlookers as a little vessel disappeared in a vast column of water that shot high up into the air for 200ft or more.’ The invading fleet put up a good fight but the shore defenders laid down a withering stream of gun and cannon fire, forcing Admiral Scott to beat a hasty retreat away from the indomitable defences of Oamaru.

               Despite such a spirited display of combat prowess, not all New Zealanders were particularly happy with the exercise. One describing the afternoon as ‘A ridiculous display of misdirected energy.’ The idea of having a volunteer force was in of itself a controversial one. With discussions circulating about the potential threat that had just erupted from Russia and what the future held for the Dominion, exercises such as this prompted varying responses. Some were overtly political with statements such as ‘Militarism is an offence to a free people like the colonists of New Zealand’, others took a different tone.

               The drama and exuberance of the display resulted in some tongue in cheek letters to the paper. One read ‘The cat is at last out of the bag. The two commanders had arranged it all beforehand.’ The playfulness of the format however belied a real criticism of the purpose of such an exercise, other than public delight. ‘All of the land forces were supposed to be in ambush and yet so exposed to fire as to have been annihilated by the attacking party. Here is a pretty kettle of fish. The troops being in ambush are of cause under cover and being under cover would have protected from fire, and yet the fire would have annihilated them because they were not under cover and not protected from fire and argal, not in ambush.’ The fictional characters lambasted the display further ‘The attack was on Oamaru, on a shore where there is not an atom of natural cover and on which the noble general had not constructed a shred of artificial cover. Was then the attack on Oamaru as it is or on Oamaru as it isn’t?’ Resulting in a situation where ‘George and his mates’ had come ‘to loggerheads; because some of them say that in the attack ought to have been on Oamaru as it is, to show the real Oamaru might be attacked and defended; while George says (he always sniggering at everybody) that the two commanders were playing a game at soldiers, so that Oamaru itself oughtn’t to count.’ 

               The question as to the viability of a Volunteer Corps would eventually be settled as it morphed into the Territorial Force in 1909 in the face of a need to develop a more sophisticated structure for the defence of the Nation.

               The Battle of Oamaru however would be fondly looked back upon by the populace that looked down from Cape Wanbrow upon a battle scene that New Zealand would never see again.


Henry Buckenham