This memorial stands in the burial ground of St Catherine’s Church, 3 km south-west of Ōkaihau in Northland. Although its inscription does not explicitly say so, the memorial marks the mass grave of 12 British troops who died in the Battle of Puketutu on 8 May 1845.
The memorial’s inscription is technically incorrect. Like many early writers on the Northern Wars, the inscription erroneously refers to Hōne Heke’s pa as ‘Okaihau’. In fact the pa was named Mawhe and located at Puketutu, east of Ōkaihau. The engagement on 8 May took place on the eastern shore of Lake Ōmāpere.
The Battle of Puketutu took place two months after the sacking of Kororāreka. It was the first engagement between British troops and the faction of Ngāphui led by Heke and Ngāti Hine chief Te Ruki Kawiti. It was also the first time that British troops had operated inland from the Bay of Islands.
During the battle the British made several bayonet charges which inflicted heavy casualties; Ngāpuhi lost about 30 dead and 20 wounded. This was the first time Māori engaged the British in pitched battle in the open in the New Zealand Wars; they were seldom to repeat this mistake.
The British casualties numbered 15 dead and 40 wounded. The bodies of 12 British troops and two seamen were initially buried in a mass grave near the battle site. They were reinterred at St Catherine’s 45 years later, on 7 March 1890. This memorial cross was erected by the New Zealand government in 1891 to mark their final resting place.
A letter dated 28 May 1918 from Edith Statham, the Inspector of Old Soldiers' Graves for the Department of Internal Affairs, provides more detail. She reported that ‘the remains of the men were discovered when the township was being opened up, they were removed to the churchyard, given a military funeral and re-interred under the cross’.
Bad press may have provided additional motivation. R. Allan Wisht was in Ōmāpere as the remains were about to be relocated, and his article providing graphic detail of the sombre occasion was later published in several newspapers. According to Wisht, the remarks of a New Zealand Wars veteran to several English newspapers regarding the neglect of old soldiers’ graves may have prompted the government to act.
The two naval men, both of HMS North Star, were Royal Navy Able Seaman Henry Kill, and Royal Marine Joeph (Joseph?) Millard. The 12 soldiers included eight privates from the 58th Regiment; James Flemming, Andrew Larrett, John McMillan, William Moore, James Stevens, Thomas Summers, Samuel Wandrum, and Robert Yetts (Jetts). The other four soldiers, from the 96th Regiment, were Corporal William Kelly and Privates William Fowle, Christopher North and John Norman.
Amongst the 40 wounded at Puketutu were Sergeant James Godlager (also listed as Gallagher or Gallaghan) and Private Richard Turton, both of the 96th Regiment. According to a British casualty list, both men died in Auckland of their wounds; Turton on 21 May 1845 and Godlager on 11 June 1845.
The final resting places of Godlager and Turton are unknown. A memorandum attached to the casualty list, dated 13 November 1925, suggested that it was ‘reasonable to suppose’ that they were among 86 men who were buried in Auckland’s Symonds Street Cemetery. If so, they were likely to rest beneath or near the monument erected by the Victoria League ‘in memory of about 80 men whose names and graves were unknown’.
A memorial / to the brave men who fell / in the assault on Heke’s Pah / Okaihau, on May 8th 1845. / Erected by the N. Z. Govt. 1891.