Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky

Gustavus von TempskyThis issue of the Record of Service is about Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky who served with a very early group of irregular soldiers known as the Forest Rangers.

The Forest Rangers date back over 140 years to the New Zealand Wars where they proved the worth of their guerrilla type warfare. There were other Ranger groups dating back to the NZ Wars but none so elite or feared as the Forest Rangers.

The formation of the Forest Rangers came in 1863 when Lieutenant William Jackson began recruiting at Papakura. His second in command was Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky who gained a fearsome reputation for his commando type irregular warfare expertise and later commanded a company of his own. Von Tempsky was a very hard lean man with dark eyes and a fierce look to go with them.

Guerilla warfare comes from the Spanish word guerrilleros describing the irregular warfare behind enemy lines against the French in Spain from 1809 to 1813.

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was born in Leignitz, Silesia in 1828 and had a military influence in his upbringing form the start with his father being a lieutenant colonel in the Prussian Army. Following in his father’s footsteps he signed up at the Berlin Military School and by age sixteen received his commission in the Fusiliers of Prussia.

In 1848 he resigned from the Fusiliers and headed along with some of his friends for the adventures of setting up a settlement in Mosquito, South America. It was here that Von Tempsky faced an introduction to a hostile native population and tough living conditions. When the settlement failed he once again joined the military, this time the Mexican Confederation and was commissioned as a captain.

He gained considerable leadership experience commanding a guerrilla force in Nicaragua and then joined up with British Forces in the area.

He spent 1850 in search of Gold in California with little success before returning to Mexico and signing up on an expedition into the interior covering thousands of miles of very rugged and hostile territory around Guatemala and Salvador.

Some two years later he married Emilia Bell the daughter of a British resident and on the completion of his time on the expedition they headed for Scotland.

His next adventure came in 1856 when he and his wife headed for Australia and he began farming in Victoria.

Forest Rangers EmblemFrom Australia he then followed the gold rush to New Zealand but found the cold of the Otago South less than favourable and moved North to the Coromandel. He worked as a war correspondent and befriended Captain Jackson and other members of the Forest Rangers going on patrols with them even before he had enlisted. He was given British citizenship on August 26th 1863 and officially joined the Forest Rangers. His previous irregular warfare service proved invaluable at this time during the Waikato Maori wars.

Within several months of service with the Rangers he had impressed his British superiors with his irregular tactics and commitment. Such was his enthusiasm and commitment to the Rangers that he used his own money when it came to equipment needs of his Rangers. November 10th 1863 the Forest Rangers were disbanded and on the same date Von Tempsky was promoted to Captain and asked to establish a second company of Forest Rangers under his direst command.

On the 4th of April 1864 he was promoted to Major and in 1865 was placed under arrest for refusing to serve under the command of an officer junior in promotion to himself.
When a new defence minister was appointed he was taken back when he withdrew his resignation.

Von Tempsky applied his irregular commando tactics against the Maori with much success and he received special mention in the New Zealand gazette on January 26th 1866.

His service took him to the Hunua Forest, Orakau, Kakaramea, Nukumaru and Weraroa, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Whenuakura and Otapawa.

Von Tempsky was a fan of the Bowie knife originally invented by an Arkansas blacksmith and made famous by Colonel Bowie. Von Tempsky had similar knives made by an Auckland knife maker of the time and taught his men how to use them in combat in the same way he learned to use it in his days in Central America and Mexico. Only Von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers were issued with these knives.

Von Tempsky Bowie Knife

After receiving land grants August 1866 he returned to the Coromandel gold mines and then to Auckland at which time he was asked to command the number 5 Division of the newly formed Armed Constabulary. On the 7th of January 1868 he was promoted to the rank of Inspector.

Von Temsky was a pioneer in New Zealand commando type irregular warfare and was not only respected as a soldier but was also an excellent instructor of such skills and tactics in armed and unarmed combat to his troops. It has been said that he would train his troops with revolver in one hand and bowie knife in other.

Up until his death he was feared and respected by the Maori and he inflicted severe casualties upon them in their own habitat.

Contrary to the romantic belief that the native Maori weapons were a match for the British soldier of the time armed with firearms, it was not a traditional weapon that took the life of von Tempsky but a firearm. Von Tempsky was killed at Te Ngutu o te Manu on September 7th 1868. He was standing waving his sword when he was shot in the forehead and his body was not recovered. It was reported that his body was cremated on a funeral pyre. It has been written that it is possible that he was eaten by Maori because of the great mana his body possessed.

Von Tempsky was named by the enemy Maori Manu-Rau, which means “a hundred birds” for his ability to move from one place to another as if he was a swarm of birds and not just one man.

Private James Shanahan wrote:  “I had not gone far when a man in our Company was shot.  The Major went to his assistance and was shot, the bullet entering the top of his forehead.  He fell dead on top of the man to whose assistance he was going.  That was how von Tempsky died.”

Following the death of von Tempsky many of his troops refused to serve under any other commander and by the end of September the 5th Division of the armed constabulary was disbanded forever.

Von Tempsky was a very talented man in many ways and apart from being a fine soldier he was also an author, artist, reporter and well versed in bush survival as well as being able to speak several languages. His paintings spanned his life time and depicted places he lived and his expeditions as well as the Maori Wars. He wrote an early book titled Mitla that was published in England and on his early travels.

There is a Kennett Watkins romanticised painting of von Tempsky at the Alexandra Turnbull library in New Zealand.

Death of Major Von Tempskey at Te-Ngutu-o-te-Manu, New Zealand
Watkins, Kennett 1847-1933
Death of Major Von Tempskey at Te-Ngutu-o-te-Manu, New Zealand, 7th September, 1868 / W P lith; [from a painting by Kennett Watkins] Wanganui, A D Willis [1893]
Reference No: C-033-006.

Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Von Tempsky was a professional soldier who even before joining the Forest Rangers offered to recruit and train a volunteer group of Gold miners in irregular warfare.

1955 the New Zealand SAS was formed by the NZ Army and was attached to the British 22 SAS Regiment. In 1959 it became a separate corps and in 1963 it was renamed the 1st Ranger Squadron identifying with the founding of the forest rangers one hundred years earlier.

The Forest Rangers were involved in 34 major engagements against the Maori between 1863 and 1869 and only nine Forest Rangers died in action or as a result of their wounds and only another nine Forest Rangers were wounded. They received 84 NZ medals and another 33 medals were issued to Forest Rangers while serving with other units.

The Forest Rangers totalled 365 men and no more than one hundred at any one time.
Between 1860 and 1869 there were 1646 Maori killed in total by all colonial forces including the Forest Rangers.

Richard Stowers book, 'Forest Rangers', was the source for much of this information and is an excellent read on the subject.

Article written by Fight Times Editor