Peter Kramer

Peter Kramer
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Von Tempsky

Our stories. Vicki Price.
From New Zealand Herald
Von Tempsky - artist, musician, but a master of guerilla warfare.

Wednesday marked the 143rd anniversary of the death of one of New Zealand's most well-known soldiers of the Land Wars.

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was killed by gunshot in a South Taranaki skirmish, ending the career soldier's life, which had seen action through many lands.

Maori respected his bush-warrior skills and named him Manu-rau, meaning "a hundred birds" or "the bird that flits everywhere". It was testament to his uncanny ability to appear from nowhere in many parts of the country's thick bushland.

Von Tempsky was born in Prussia-Poland and served in the military there, but the boredom of routine saw him travel in search of adventure.

He found it in the jungles of Central and South America where he learned guerrilla warfare and the value of the Bowie knife, a long knife shaped especially for stabbing.

From Australia, the lure of gold brought him tto New Zealand with his wife Emilia and young children. The family began life here in the Otago goldfields, but the freezing weather drove them to goldfields in the Coromandel.

Eventually the persistent news of fighting over land sales and confiscations throughout the country, particularly around the Waikato and Taranaki, proved too much of a lure. Von Tempsky the soldier was about to make a lasting impression here but he would be dead within just six years of arriving.

In one of his more famous exploits in the Waikato, von Tempsky laid low in a flax swamp for 48 hours without food and fresh water, at times surrounded, unseen, by hundreds of warriors.

Together with MacDonnell of the defence corps, he had started out on a secret mission to explore the "front" during the Land Wars in 1863.

A party of Maori spent the day pigeon shooting within speaking distance of the hidden men and later dogs belonging to the tribe yelped through the swamp after a pig. The men had their knives ready to kill the dogs that came near and threatened to give away their cover, but they were soon saved by the heavy rain that brought an end to the hunt and it continued until night when they stole away.

The wars that occurred in North Taranaki had resulted in the government confiscating large amounts of land. This in turn led to rebel conflicts in the south of the region, as Maori there resented the government's actions. Major von Tempsky led one of the assaults against Maori in May 1865.

He and his men had camped near Kakaramea for several days. After some of his men fell in with a group of Maori on the left bank of the river, von Tempsky assumed their pa must also be there. Smoke alerted him to the fact that it was actually on the right side of the Patea River on a flat surrounded by tall thickly forested hills.

Von Tempsky set out to explore a path some distance to the pa and later took a group of 48 forest rangers and 16 Waikato militia and various men of military rank with the plan of attacking the pa at night. They left at 1pm on a Saturday, but the plan was ruined by the difficult terrain. At one point, in order to cross a 45m cliff, the men were forced to use supplejacks and flax ladders to make progress.

They then lost their way and after trying two different tracks which didn't lead them to the pa, they found one that did. By now their would be no surprise attack, it was 6:30am.

Another track led the men to a high hilltop group of whare, which had recently been deserted, the fires still warm. A neighbouring hill now had large plumes of smoke drifting from it and the troops headed there. The pa site was a clearing surrounded by dense bush and a gully. The whole perimeter was barricaded and within the fences were about 30 flax whare and 80 people.

Von Tempsky and his men peered through the gate and crept around the barricade to see if there was a way in, but their only option was to make a noisy forced entry. Instantly the men faced a volley of fire but no-one was hit. By returning fire, they managed to force those in the pa back and into the thick bush behind the clearing. Casualties soon mounted on both sides.

One soldier, Ensign Whitfield, was hit by a bolt which went right through his right arm and a bullet which penetrated his liver. Private McBean was shot in the head and Captain George had the top of his right thumb blown off. Six to eight of the pa inhabitants were killed during the battle.

The steep hilltop position, thick surrounding bush and one path entry, gave the tribe an advantage. Von Tempsky, concerned at the enemy calling up reinforcements, decided to retreat. McBean died on the way back to camp.

Von Tempsky's eventual death came later after returning to Taranaki from fighting in the Auckland and Waikato areas.

A bungled retaliatory attack at the pa of warrior leader Titokowaru, Te Ngutu o-te-manu, saw 24 European settlers killed along with their fearless leader. Von Tempsky was shot in the head as he tried to help one of his fallen men.

Von Tempsky was a man of high regard, not only for his daring exploits, strong optimism and leadership skills, but also for his almost heroic air. He craved glory and honour along with fortune. He was a man of culture who spoke four languages, painted, played music and wrote. His demeanour was described as gallant with an air of defiance and adventure. His grey eyes had a "bold, fearless look" and his chin "spoke of determination and strength of will".

With tall boots and a curved sword at his side, von Tempsky looks every bit the dashing soldier. His thick dark hair and clean-shaven face made him a handsome man. But he was a soldier without much care for the politics of a war. His favourite tool was his Bowie knife, which he could "throw with deadly accuracy". While descriptions of him often sound romantic, there is nothing romantic about war.


1. Taranaki Herald, May 27, 1865, page 3; 31 October 1863, page 3; January 30, 1869 page 3; NZ Truth, July 21, 1906, page 7; New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 6, 1 March 1900, page 37.

2. Rhonda Bartie, Major Von Tempsky - Soldier of Fortune, http:/




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