- A force of approximately 250 Maori had established an earthwork fortification on a ridge of land bounded on either side by swampland.
- The British force of approximately 1700 set up artillery and shelled them heavily for several hours after which they launched a charge into the fortification with a force of approximately 600.
- They found no resistance in the fortification and perhaps assumed that the Maori had withdrawn earlier (a tactic often employed by the Maori).
- After a lull of approximately 5 minutes during which the charge formation had broken up into smaller groups, the Maori opened fire from concealed underground fox-holes and bunkers, killing most of the British officers. Intense hand-to-hand fighting broke out in the confines of bunkers and trenches.
- In panic, the British retreated back to their base camp having suffered relatively heavy losses compared to the Maori.
- The British force only attacked again a few days later and found that the fortification had by then been abandoned.
I found this account very interesting indeed. I tend to enjoy reading accounts of asymmetric warfare where one side appears to have many of the odds stacked in their favour and yet victory is seized by the apparently weaker side. It is not terribly common to see this happening. I enjoy these accounts because a self-defence situation is most often an asymmetric fight. Generally, serious self-defence situations which cannot be avoided involve defence against aggressors with criminal intentions. These types of situations are often ambushes of some form or other and involve some form of planning by the aggressors. As such, the aggressors will usually try to ensure that the fight is asymmetric in their favour by employing numbers, tactics and weapons. It is thus a good idea to understand the tactics used by weaker forces who effectively dealt with stronger ones.
In the case of Gate Pah, the over-arching strategy used by the Maori really stands out to me as a classic example of the central combat principle of traditional Wushu, which is ‘Soft overcomes hard’. It is so much a part of true traditional Wushu that it affects everything that we do, from punching and kicking to stepping and basic movement. At Gat Pah, the Maoris allowed the British to storm their fortification. They expected to be breached, their strategy was built around the certainty of being stormed. Instead of attacking the British head-on, which is what the British expected, they hid themselves and did not engage for a full five minutes after the British had breached the fort. This planned lull was an absolutely brilliant tactic. They gave the British invading force a full five minutes to wander around, get lost and confused, have their adrenalin levels reduce and the inevitable post-adrenalin fatigue to start kicking in before they retaliated. And it was a decisive retaliation. There was no messing around. The Maoris killed many of the officers in that retaliation. They effectively cut the head off the invading force in one fell swoop. What a triumph of a supposedly weaker and less well-equipped force over the arguably stronger British force.
As I mentioned before, it is good to understand the tactics used by weaker forces to defeat stronger ones. In this case, the Maori did not meet the charge of the British head-on. If they had done this, it is unlikely that they would have survived, let alone won. Instead, they allowed them through their apparent defences before attacking decisively in an unpredictable way at a tactically advantageous moment. In actuality, what appeared to be the Maori’s defences were components of a carefully-constructed trap designed to maximise their effect in retaliating against a successful breaching force.
In traditional Wushu, one of the principles that we practice which is an extension of, and refinement of ‘Soft overcomes hard’, is the principle of ‘No collision of forces’. This principle is very far reaching in application but is most easily understood when applied to dealing with an opponent’s force. If an opponent attacks in a particular way, it is best to sense the nature of their attack and gently deflect or move around their force vector without resisting ‘head-on’. Head-on resistance is what most attackers expect, and their tactics are structured around this conventional response to an attacking force. What they do not expect is a gentle acceptance and nullification of their force by drawing it past the point where our bodies were a moment ago followed by a decisive and brutally effective fight-stopping attack or series of attacks.
In fact, Chang Hong’s master Chen would often say that your opponent should actually feel as though they have hit you without actually allowing them to hit you. They should feel as though their attack was successful. This strategy is essentially what the Maori used at Gate Pah. Give the appearance of drawing your opponent into your defences only to counterattack in an unpredictable and decisive way at a tactically advantageous moment.
Of course, this principle of ‘No collision of forces’ can be applied to our precursory actions and words before the actual physical fight begins. We may be able to apply these soft tactics to eliminate the threat of combat before it even begins. I am reminded of a very wise piece of advice. “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” Leave the heroes and bad-asses where they belong: on the silver screen for our entertainment.
Fights are best avoided if possible.
Written by SiFu Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia