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Gustavus von Tempsky

Gustavus von Tempsky (1828-1868) was an East Prussian adventurer, artist, news paper correspondent and soldier.

Born into a military family, von Tempsky left Europe for a Prussian settlement on the Mosquito Coast in Central America in 1846. He travelled to the California goldfields in 1850 but did not strike it rich. He wrote a book about his journey back to the Prussian colony, Mitla, which was published in England. He married an English woman upon his return.

Following the collapse of the Mosquito Coast colony von Tempsky travelled to the Australian goldfields around Bendigo. From there he travelled to New Zealand in 1852, settling on the Coromandel, as a goldminer and newspaper correspondent.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1863 von Tempsky moved to Drury just south of Auckland. Here he quickly struck up a friedship with Captain Jackson and the officers of the Forest Rangers and was soon invited to accompany them on their patrols. Soon afterwards, on 26 August, 1863, Governor Grey responding to a suggestion by Capt Jackson granted Von Tempsky British citizenship and made him an officer of the Forest Rangers

The Forest Rangers were an irregular force intended to take the war into the bush and to fight the enemy Maori on their own ground. Jackson was a cautious officer who was determined to give his men a thorough training. Von Tempsky relied more on dash and elan; he was also a tireless self publicist, avid for glory and admiration.

In Novemeber of 1863 the Forest Rangers were disbanded, not because they were unsuccessful but because their period of enlistment was finished. However Jackson was immediately authorized to form a new company along similar lines. A few days later Von Tempsky was promoted to captain and also commissioned to raise a second company of Forest Rangers. From then onwards he and Jackson were always in competition for men, resources and glory.

During the early stages of the Waikato War The Forest Rangers were used to protect the army's supply lines from maraudng Maori, patroling mainly in the Hunua Ranges soth of Auckland and trying to intercept enemy war parties before they reached the Great South Road. It was during this time that Von Tempsky emerged as a very effective leader who was able to inspire great loyalty in his men.

Later the Forest Rangers were moved to the front and took part in the siege of Paterangi. It was during this period that they were involved in a dramatic rescue of some soldiers ambushed by the Maori while swimming in the Waikato River. Both Jackson and Von Tempsky received an honourable mention in dispatches and Von Tempsky later painted a well known water colour showing himself in a very dramatic light. However it was another officer, Charles Heaphy, who was awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of his bravery in this action. It was later said that Von Tempsky felt slighted by this and determined to win a Victoria Cross for himself, a decision that may have caused his subsequest unnecessary death.

The Forest Rangers were involved in the siege of Orakau and then heavily implicated in the massacre which followed the break out of the defenders.

By 1865 Jackson had resigned his commission and Von Tempsky, now a major, was in command of the Forest Rangers. They were soon involved in the Second Taranaki War. This was a frustrating period because of the conflicting loyalties and objectives of Government forces. The commanders of the British Imperial Troops had had enough of fighting what they saw as unnecessary wars on behalf of the New Zealand Government. On the other hand the New Zealand raised units such as the Forest Rangers wanted to pursue the war with all vigour. The deadlock was only broken when Governor Grey personally took command of the New Zealand forces. Von Tempsky however missed the subsequent action being laid low by rheumatism.

After a brief holiday in Auckland Von Tempsky somehow got himself involved in the Tauranga Campaign and was present at the siege of Opotiki. From there he sailed to Wellington and resumed command of the Forest Rangers who meantime had mutinied and were refusing to embark and sail for the East Cape War. Finding that when he got there he would be expected to serve under an officer he considered junior to himself Von Tempsky joined the mutiny and refused to accept any further orders.

He was arrested and court martialled. The outcome could have been serious but a fortunate change in government brought new personalities to the scene and Von Tempsky was given a second chance. While the bulk of the Forest Rangers went off to the East Cape Von Tempsky and the other mutineers were allowed to return to Wanganui where he took part in McDonnells and Chutes later Taranaki campigns against the Hau Hau.

The Forest Rangers were finally disbanded in Te Awamutu in mid 1866. Von Tempsky was immediately invited to take command of No. 5 Division of the Armed Constabularly. When Titokowaru's War broke out in 1868 Von Tempsky and his division were very soon drafted and sent to the front.

On 12 July 1868 there occured an incident which is still a matter of controversy among New Zealand historians. While in command of the fort at Patea Von Tempsky was told that an unfinished redoubt about seven kilometers away was under heavy attack. Giving his second in command strict orders to hold the fort he immediately rushed off on foot to join the battle. By the time he arrived ten of the defenders were dead and another six injured while the attackers were able to escape. Had he chosen instead to send out the mounted troopers he had available they could have arrived on the scene in time to prevent some of the deaths. But that would have meant the glory going to someone else.

The Government was anxious for a quick end to the conflict and they pressured McDonnell into making a premature attack on Titokowaru's main Pa, Te Ngutu of Te Manu or The Bird's Beak. The defenders were ready and waiting when the militia arrived and they came under heavy and accurate fire. Wisely McDonnell very soon decided to withdraw, he would have been very well aware of the futility of trying to attack a defended Maori Pa. This was too tame for Von Tempsky, he protested and then began to advance on the Pa. Within a few moments he was dead, killed by a bullet through his forehead, one of the fifty or so killed and wounded in the engagement. His contemporaries said later that it was his hunger for glory and particularly his desire to win the Victoria Cross which drove him to attack in such a desperate situation.

This may seem to be a harsh judgement but Von Tempsky had written earlier

 "Heaphy has the Cross and I want it." 

Following the loss of their leader his unit fell apart. Many of the men mutinied and then deserted refusing to serve under any other commander. At the end of September the 5th Division of the Armed Constabularly was disbanded and never reformed.

Further reading.