Monday, May 16, 2011

Preparing for war at Western Springs

 Image by Bukvoed, from Wikipedia

In December 1862, the government took advantage of the large, 127-acre rifle range reserve at Western Springs to send a battery of Armstrong guns, some adept model-makers and troopers to test how best to blow up a Maori pa or two, as war clouds gathered at the Waikato. Captain Henry Mercer, as an oddity, died not while commanding his pa-destroying guns at the battle of Rangiriri in 1863, but as a result of being ordered to rush at the pa with his men.

Our readers may not generally know that artillery practice, with shot and shell, commenced at Point Chevalier on Thursday, and will be continued every day during the ensuing fortnight. As there is considerable danger to persons boating or fishing on the Waitemata, from the balls, which are sometimes propelled upwards of a mile beyond the ordinary range, we understand that Captain Mercer, R. A., in command of the C Field Battery of Armstrong guns, will hoist a large white flag with three black bull's eyes in the centre, in addition to the ordinary red danger flag, during the time of practice. Persons on the river, seeing this signal, will in future give the point a wide berth, and so keep out of harm's way.

The target practice on Thursday was splendid, after the range had been accurately obtained. The first shot fell a little short. The target was literally riddled at 800 yards, few shots missing. The result of the fast days practice was to demonstrate the immense superiority of the Armstrong guns over the heavy field ordinance, which till recently, were solely in use in our army.

Yesterday practice was resumed, when solid shot was fired at a range of 900 yards, and the whole of the shots with very few exceptions struck the target. Five splendid bull's eyes were made— being one tenth of the number of shots fired. With reference to some half dozen shots which did not strike the target, the furthest from the target could not have passed more than a foot distant, the average being six inches on each side The practice was deeply interesting but we look forward with pleasurable anticipation to the exhibition of a still more exciting test of accuracy next week. We hear Captain Mercer intends to build a section of a pah, both with solid trees and double open rails, and the erection will be proceeded with as soon as the timber can be procured. 
Southern Cross 13 December 1862

The Royal Artillery. — Owing to the wet weather on Saturday, the battery of Royal Artillery, under the command of Captain Mercer, did not continue the practice with Armstrong guns, at the faucets elected at Point Chevalier.
Southern Cross 15 December 1862

Royal Artillery. — The C field-battery of Royal Artillery, under the command of Captain Mercer, continued their practice with the Armstrong guns yesterday, at Point Chevalier. The range was increased by 300 yards over the distance fired on Friday — 900 yards— thus forming a range of 1200 yards. The whole of the shots struck the target, with the exception of some half dozen, which ricocheted over it after striking the ground immediately in front. There were two or three beautiful bull's eyes, and the practice, taken altogether, was most exciting and highly creditable to the proficiency of the gunners of the battery. We must inform our readers that the projectile used by the Armstrong battery for practice is a solid shot, coated with lead to take rifling; and we observed that some of the holes in the target were cut clean away— so distinctly, in fact, as to show the rifling of the shot as it passed through. We look forward with interest to the projected experiments with the Armstrong shell to notice its effects, and to observe its action when used with time and concussion fuses The elongated shell has 49 segments, which on bursting are scattered with the pieces of the shell and iron burster, &c, thus forming a terrible shower — if we may so call them— of angular bullets. We hear that practice will be continued this day at a range of 1,600 yards, and which will be followed up on the succeeding day by firing at a mile's distance.
Southern Cross 16 December 1862
This C Field Battery of Armstrong guns, under the command of Captain Mercer, continued their practice on Friday at Point Chevalier. The range was extended by 400 yards from the previous day's practice, making 1,600 yards. The accuracy of aim was surprising: two or three shots penetrating the bull's eye; more than half of the shots fired striking the target; and the remainder passing close over or by the side. The last few rounds discharged were shells filed with concussion fuses, at the distance mentioned above. The practice was in every way most satisfactory — the shells bursting immediately in front of the target, on its face, and in the target itself, which upon near examination practically showed the destructive effect of the missiles. There was a strong W/NW wind blowing during the greater portion of the time whilst the firing was being continued, and which at the long range fired had a sensible effect upon the parabolic course of the projectiles, and consequently making it more difficult to strike the target. We have had the pleasure of examining some of the fragments of shell, after being burst upon the face of the target, and which must prove fearfully destructive when exploded amongst squares or bodies of soldiery.
Southern Cross 22 December 1862

Last Saturday the practice at 900 yards, by the C Reid Battery of Armstrong guns, was resumed on the sections of the north and south pahs, erected at Point Chevalier. Lieutenant-General Cameron, CB, attended by his staff, rode on to the ground about three o'clock, and proceeded to inspect the pahs and targets before practice commenced.

The north pah consisted of two rows of tree palisading, about a yard apart, each row strongly bound together by transverse beams and flax. The timber used was puriri and manuka, the trees being of large growth, and so firmly fixed in the ground that the concussion of the shot and shell did not materially, if at all, affect their stability. Behind this double protection, a white target was placed, of large dimensions. The target rested against the face of the earthwork (which was about nine feet high), at the rear of the palisading. The south pah was divided from the north by the breach, some eight or ten feet wide, which had been affected by the Armstrong gun practice of Thursday. The splinters of the last day's practice had been removed, and the damaged or shaken portions of the pahs carefully repaired in the interval. The section of the south pah was formed of split timber, so closely bound together as to present an unbroken surface to the eye. Behind the second row of the south pah a white wooden target was placed, as in the north section. We should add that the sections of both the north and south pahs appeared to us to be about equally strong, although of somewhat different construction. Their strength was such that, if vigorously defended, no troops in the world could take them by storm unless aided by artillery.

The General and party having examined the pah, retired for shelter, and orders were given by Captain Mercer, R. A., to commence firing. In a few seconds a small cloud of smoke was observed at the battery, and a twelve pound solid shot whistled through the air, instantly passing through the heavy timbers of the north pah and the centre of the target, and lodging in the earthwork behind. A second shot soon followed, striking the pah about a foot from the ground, and passing through the lower section of the target almost in a straight line with the first shot. The third shot plunged through the upper portion of the woodwork of the pah, tearing off a few splinters. It then passed through the target, cutting an oblong piece clean out of the upper section, and rising, sped onwards to the river, with a singing noise. The range was thus satisfactorily obtained, every shot telling. The fourth shot struck the bottom of the target, after passing through the pah. The fifth shot appeared to tell well. It hit the centre of the pah, tearing away large splinters, and doing serious damage to the target. The sixth shot passed through the pah, and struck the top of the target, ploughing through the earthwork at the rear.

The order to cease firing was then sounded, and General Cameron and staff proceeded to examine the effect of the six rounds of solid shot upon the pah. The destructive effect of the projectiles was far greater than appeared to spectators at a short distance. The shots passed through the woodwork of the pah, tearing off large splinters, which were piled against the earthwork, and lying between the lines of defence. The target was very much battered. By this inspection the perfection of the practice was shown, the firing appearing to have been concentrated on a section of about two feet in width of the face of the pah. The toughness of the puriri was also manifest. Although the shots passed through the puriri pales, it was with difficulty that a sharp-pointed wedge of wood could be inserted in the rent. The manuka likewise appeared to offer great resistance. At the same time, the quantity of splinters lying about made it pretty evident that little security to life would be afforded by the pales to a defending party who had not, likewise, the protection of earthworks.

Firing with solid shot was again resumed, but this time the guns were discharged in salvos. The first intimation those under cover had that the firing had recommenced was the rushing, singing sound of the six conical shots, fired simultaneously by the battery. Their velocity could be measured by the ear, and with care timed, but the eye could not distinguish the shots. In about a second from hearing the sound the six shots struck the pah, dashing splinters in all directions, knocking the light section of the target to pieces, and raising a cloud of dust from the earthwork. A second salvo followed, and again the crash of broken timbers and a cloud of dust at the earthwork. This salvo appeared to have told with wonderful effect. The target was destroyed, and a breach effected in the face of the north pah.

The older to cease filing was sounded, and a minute inspection of the pah took place. It was at once apparent how much more destructive the two salvos had relatively been than the six single shots. The heavy timbers were battered and torn, several pieces were cut off within about eighteen inches of the ground, and splinters were piled up in heaps. The inner row of pales appeared to suffer far more damage than the outer defence.

Firing was. renewed, and three salvos were then fired. The third salvo was well directed, but the fourth did not seem to have been so effective. One of the shots of the fourth salvo rose, and passed over the earthworks to the river. The fifth salvo was decidedly successful. A breach was effected, which British soldiers, properly led, would no doubt look upon as practicable.

Again the order to cease firing was sounded, and General Cameron and a number of military gentlemen who were on the ground went up to the pah to make a further inspection. The damage done to the wooden defences by the last three salvos was easily recognised by the accumulation of splinters, broken pales, and the breach just mentioned. When firing was again resumed, the gunners seemed still to concentrate the fire on that section of the north pah in which the breach had been made. The sixth salvo sent the splinters from the outer and inner row of pales flying about; one or more of the shots rising and flying off river-wards. The seventh salvo widened the breach considerably, a portion of the south section of the pah falling outwards. One of the shots ploughed through the earthwork, and by the sound, fell in deep water. The eighth salvo was fired; and the order to cease firing was again sounded. One of the shots of the last salvo struck the ground about ten yards in front of the pah, and ploughed up a few feet of earth, when it appeared to rise again and strike the pah.

The inspection that followed, by the General and party, must have satisfied them of the superiority of the Armstrong guns over the old field batteries. The section of the north pah on which the fire had been directed was almost destroyed. The order to commence firing was now given, and six salvos were discharged at the pah. Every shot of salvos nine and ten told. The effect of the eleventh salvo was still more apparent by the falling outward of two large pales, which were among the main supports of the work. One of these shots passed over the pah to the river. The twelfth salvo was not as effective. One of the guns hung fire, but a few seconds after the salvo, the single shot struck the top of the broken timber, and rising passed onwards to the river. The thirteenth salvo was marked by the occurrence of a similar incident, which is accounted for, we understand, by the fact that bad fuses are not unfrequently issued. Indeed, it seems to be impossible to prevent this, when the immense quantity of ordnance stores, daily issued by the heads of the department, is taken into account. The fifteenth salvo was most effective.

The order "cease firing," was then sounded, and another inspection made. That a practicable breach was now formed there could be no doubt, and it was quite evident that an Armstrong field battery, such as that which was at practice at Point Chevalier on Saturday, could breach the strongest pah for a storming party in about an hour's continuous and rapid firing. After the inspecting party had again retired, firing was resumed, to demolish the remaining portions of the north pah. Salvos sixteen, seventeen , eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one were then fired, the practice being all that could be desired ; and General Cameron and party paid another visit to the pah. The solid shot had done all the execution that was to be expected from them; and it was now determined to try the effect of shell as a demolishing process. Eight salvos of concussion shells, at the range of 900 yards, were then fired, when the breach which the shot had opened was perfectly cleared. The shell practice was beautiful, most of the shells bursting after passing through the first row of pales. The wooden splinters, and fragments of these shells must render the tenure of any pah against which their fire is directed, an undertaking that a very short practice (when the range has been obtained) will suffice to prove perfectly hopeless.

The evening was now tolerably far advanced, as the practice had been purposely slow to give an opportunity for observing the effect of each salvo. But the south, or rail pah remained untouched. As the result of solid shot had been seen on the tree pah, it was deemed expedient to endeavour to effect a breach in the south pah with concussion shells alone. The guns were again fired in salvos, the range being accurate from the first. In all, twelve salvos were fired, at the first of which the target inside the second palisade was dashed to splinters. The shells did great execution, and at the twelfth salvo the face of the pah fell, leaving an easy breach of about fifteen yards.

The practice then terminated, and General Cameron and staff left the ground. The C Field Battery of Armstrong guns is under the command of Captain Mercer, with Lieuts. Hunt and Pickard. Judging from the practice at Point Chevalier for the last fortnight, the most interesting features of which we have reported, it is fair to express the conviction that if the Armstrong guns had been brought to bear upon the various pahs, which gave so much trouble during the Taranaki war, and if they had been as efficiently served as they were on Saturday and at their previous practice, there would have been little difficulty in rendering the pahs untenable, or at least in making adequate breaches for storming parties in a short space of time. As the result of these experiments we look upon the breaching of the strongest pah to be comparatively easy, notwithstanding what has hitherto been said to the contrary. If the practice had been oblique, the result would have been more speedily apparent, but the destructive effect was wonderful with a direct fire at such a distance. We would like very much to see an hour's practice of Captain Mercer's battery at long range, at rifle pits on a hill side, constructed after the most approved Maori model. Although it would not accord with the usage of the British army to take rifle pits from an enemy by assailing them only with the shot and shell of field artillery, yet after the memorable "long sap" of General Pratt, and what it led to, we believe it would give the timid a little more confidence were it demonstrated that rifle pits are not more invulnerable to a well-served Armstrong battery, than a tree or rail pah, however strong. 
Southern Cross 29 December 1862

Captain Henry Mercer, of the Royal Artillery, obtained his captaincy on the 23rd February 1852. In 1855 he served at the siege of Sebastopol, and received a medal and clasps, and a Turkish medal. He arrived in this colony in 1860, in command of the first battery of Armstrong guns sent here, and he rendered good service with them during the last Taranaki war. His more recent services are well known and appreciated; and his loss (at the early age of thirty-eight years) will be deeply regretted by all who knew him, whether in the capacity or an able officer or as an amiable and upright gentleman.
 Southern Cross, 23 November 1863

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