THE PRO PATRIA PROJECT
ODGERS, William
Royal Navy

Born 14 February 1834, Falmouth, England
Died 20 December 1873, Saltash, England
Burried St Stephen's Churchyard, Saltash

Little else has been established about William Odgers before he joined the Royal Navy as a Boy 1C (first class) in August 1852 on HMS Vulture.
When he reached the rank of Ordinary Seaman on January 1st 1854 he signed on for 10 years Continuous Service Engagement.

His service record describes him as 5' 7'' tall with a dark complexion, black hair and grey eyes.

On the 8 April the Vullture sailed into the Baltic with 48 other vessels to prevent the Russian fleet leaving port at the start of the Crimean war.

This war had been sparked off by a dispute over the holy places of Jerusalem but Britain feared a direct attack.

It was Finland that was to bear the brunt of the Baltic Fleet's presence. Finland was then part of the Russian Empire with a large merchant fleet and, incidentally, was a major supplier of the tar for shipbuilding imported into Britain. A curious conjunction of circumstances indeed.

On the 7 June 1854 (May 26th in Finland at that time) the Vulture steamed to Kokkola and an infamous episode began, later known as the Skirmish of Halkokari* (the then major port at Kokkola). Around 200 men from the Vulture and the Odin disembarked in 9 oared boats*to destroy shipping materials. The British were ambushed by men hidden at the dock and a fight lasting about an hour took place. The Vulture lost 52 men, killed, wounded or missing. One of their boats was captured and is still on display in the town. William's precise role in the proceedings is not known. This embarassing defeat did not seem to depress the crew of the Vulture for long. Two months later they were dancing on their deck with a party of French soldiers*.

A year later, on August 9th 1855, the Vulture was involved in the Battle of Sveaborg*, the sea fortress associated with Helsinki. The action was really limited to a bombardment of the fortress, the city being unharmed. The engagement is thought to have been a political gesture to appease the British public.

A huge squadron of British and French warships formed up* about three miles south of the fortifications, the Vulture anchored behind the line of mortar vessels for support and supply. The gunboats were moved into action, within firing range of the fortress for high calibre shells. At 7am the bombardment began. The people of Helsinki were able to watch the spectacle from hills nearby.

The fortress responded for the first few hours but were unable to hit the fast moving gunboats. The fortress was soon on fire. Little damage was done to the allied ships, although a rocket exploded in the pinnacle of the Vulture wounding nine men. On the 13th August the ships just sailed away. William Odgers received the Baltic medal for his service. 

William Odgers later received the Second China War medal with Fatshan and Canton clasps.

After initial skirmishes in February 1860, Brown declared martial law in Taranaki and initiated the sale of the land block.

On 4th March Browne ordered the commander of the British troops (65th Regiment) , Taranaki Militia, and Rifle Volunteers, Colonel Gold, to occupy the block and prepare for surveying. On the night of 15th March King's Maoris built a Pah, or defensive stockade, on the land; this became known as the 'L' shaped Pah. On March 17th, without determining whether the Maoris had the right to build this defensive fort, Gold ordered his men to open fire on the Pah, using shot, shell and rockets. One mounted volunteer was killed that evening, when approaching the Pah. The following morning the place was found deserted - this was considered a moral victory for the Maoris; moreover, under Maori law, the aggression of Gold established him as the wrongdoer and allowed support for King from warriors from further afield.

Around 500 marched on the New Plymouth area and built and entrenched a stockade near the Waireka river called Kaipopo Pah* about 6 miles south of New Plymouth. The murder of five settlers nearby on 27th March induced panic in New Plymouth, with settlers flocking into the town from outlying farms.

At about 1pm on the 28th a large force of around 300 troops, volunteers, and riflemen, set off south west from the town towards the Waireka river area, about 5-6 miles distant, to bring any stragglers from the settlers back to safety in the town. Gold ordered his troops, under his second in command, Lt-Col. Murray, to take a route by the South Road*, whilst the remainder went by the coast. In this way he hoped to cover the area around the river, near Omata*, where the settlers were thought to be. Murray was given orders to return before darkness fell.

Captain Cracroft in HMS Niger had just returned from Auckland to New Plymouth after picking up supplies, and was anchored off the town, in fine weather, when he heard the 1pm guns from the barracks signalling the departure of the British force. He anticipated that this signal meant that an attack was under way, so he and a force of 60 'blue jackets' went ashore as soon as they could to render assistance. Gold asked Cracroft to take ammunition and to reinforce Murray's band.

They responded immediately to this request and made their way, initially, to the Omata blockhouse on the South Road to await the supply of ammunition. As it happened, they found here two wounded men from the Niger; these were from a small party that had been left to support the troops when the Niger sailed to Auckland. One of the wounded was the much admired Lt. Blake who had taken a musket ball in his chest.

From the blockhouse Cracroft had a commanding view of the whole Waireka area*. He could see the Kaipopo Pah*, its three flags, and the gunsmoke emanating from the rifle pits. The whole region seemed filled with 'the rattle of musketry' from the exchanges between the Maoris and the various groups of volunteers* in and around the river and the Jury's farmhouse*.

Having sent the ammunition to Murray, Cracroft called his men together to set out his plans. Most of them, of course, knew nothing of their enemy and Cracroft explained the Maori methods of fighting and praised their courage. He then asked his men if they would support a direct assault on the Pah.

By now it was 5.30 pm and darkness was already falling. The men, no doubt much affected by the injuries to their comrades, were unanamous in their wish to move against the Pah. They set out, soon passing the spot where the five settlers had been murdered previously. The bodies of their slain bullocks still remained by the South Road.

Near the village of Omata Cracroft set up a rocket tube at about 800 yards from the Pah. Having fired 6 or so rockets without effect in the half light, a messenger arrived from Murray informing the Captain of his decision to return to town and advising Cracroft to do the same.

The Captain was now faced with the most difficult of decisions. Whether to attack a heavily fortified Pah in the darkness, without support, and with a band of men who were generally unfamiliar with the nature of their opponents, or to turn and to follow Murray back to town.

He must have reasoned that his crew were experienced in close combat fighting from their battles in China, and that the cover afforded by the darkness might actually be in their favour giving the opportunity of surprise.

He gave the order to advance upon the Kaipopo Pah.

Before reaching the Pah two of his men were wounded in a Maori ambush; but this only served to spur his men on, and the whole party rushed up to the Pah and over the stockade. Leading Seaman Odgers was the first over and pulled down the Maori flags. Cracroft later noted with satisfaction his conspicuous gallantry . The blue jackets discharged their muskets and revolvers as fast as possible and later used their cutlasses to good affect against the Maori tomahawks.

Large numbers of Maori fled the Pah during the attack, and two days later,on March 30th, the Governor requested the Niger sail 20 miles south to destroy the stockade at Warea Pah where the fugitives were thought to be encamped.

After considerable difficulty finding a suitable anchorage near the Pah, the Niger opened fire at 2000 yards sitting in a heavy swell. A first shot using a 68 pounder dropped close and the Maori fled the Pah. The second 24 pounder shot fell into the Pah and seemed to set the stockade on fire. The ship's position being critical, the Niger then raised anchor and steamed back to to Taranaki.

In the London Gazette of 3rd August 1860 (readily available online) it was announced that the Queen had conferred the Victoria Cross on William Odgers for;

'On the 28th of March, 1860, William Odgers displayed conspicuous gallantry at the Storming of a Pah during operations against Rebel Natives in New Zealand; having been the first to enter it under a heavy fire, and having assisted in hauling down the enemy's colours.'

He was also promoted to Captain's Coxwain from 12th July 1860 and Quartermaster from 15 th August, according to his service record.

It has often been said that Cracroft promised £10 to the first person into the Kaipopo Pah; no such payment is recorded on his service record, but there is a note to the effect that a payment of £50 was made in the relevant period.

William only served on the Niger until September 1861; he then returned to England to serve on HMS Cambridge, training naval ratings in the use of naval guns. The Cambridge was originally moored at Plymouth but was moved at sometime to a position at the mouth of St. John's creek, Torpoint.

As seemed to be the common practice with sailors nearing the end of their CSE commitment, William was posted to the Coastguard service on 11 March 1863.

The Coastguard Service, March 1863 - May 1865
William's exemplary service record throughout his career continued in the Coastguard Service where his expertise was once again used in the training of young naval recruits. During the course of his two year service he served as Boatman at Fowey, St. Mawes and Portland.

He completed his service for pension requirement in May 1865 and effectively retired, although the timing may have had something to do with the fact that his wife, Ann, died at the end of February and he had children to look after.

This might seem to be the end of his naval service, except that in February 1867 he joined HMS Rodney for her trip to Kobe, Japan, the first foreign ship to enter the port in over 200 years. He was the Admiral's Coxswain for this flag waving exercise - a model of the Rodney may be found in Kobe to this day.

CITATION
HER Majesty has also been graciously pleased to signify Her intention to confer the Decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned Seaman of the Royal Navy, whose claim to the same has been submitted for Her Majesty's approval, in consideration of an Act of Bravery which he performed to the recent operations against Rebel Natives in New Zealand, as recorded against his name ; viz. :

William Odgers
Leading Seaman of Her Majesty's Ship Niger
Date of Act of Bravery
28th March, 1860

On the 28th of March, 1860, William Odgers displayed conspicuous gallantry at the Storming of a Pah during operations against Rebel Natives in New Zealand; having been the first to enter it under a heavy fire, and having assisted in hauling down the enemy's colours.

AWARDS
Victoria Cross
NZ Maori War Medal

NOTE
ODGERS VC and NZ Maori War medal are located in the Sheesh Mahal Museum