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A young Māori man's daring act in the last days of World War I

First up? Winiata Rewi Tapihana. Photo/Tapsell family collection

Winiata Rewi Tapihana from the Bay of Plenty was one of the first to breach the walls of Le Quesnoy before the famous NZ victory. 

His letters home reveal a youthful fearlessness, but the role a 26-year-old Maketū man played in the liberation of the historic walled town of Le Quesnoy in northern France remains unclear.

Winiata Rewi Tapihana (Tapsell) was a farmer, labourer, drainlayer and keen rugby player (he went on to play for the Māori All Blacks) from the Bay of Plenty. He was just 22 when he, his father, brother and six uncles answered the call to “commence hostilities against Germany”, sailing to the Dardanelles to fight at Gallipoli.

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As he wrote to his sister, Ira, “The men-of-war were firing their big guns into the enemy’s trenches, and when they ceased firing the word was passed along the lines that the Te Arawa and East Coast Māoris with a company of Pākehā were to charge. I got the same feeling I always got in the football field at Te Puke, with the fate of the game depending on the way I played.”

He played well but was injured and invalided back to England. From there he was sent to the Western Front where, on November 4, 1918, as part of the Māori Pioneer Battalion, he took part in our most famous victory.

Here the story gets murky. Historians say after a fierce day of fighting, Leslie Averill, second lieutenant in the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, led his battalion up a single ladder to the top of the inner ramparts to take control of the town with no loss of French lives. Family members, including his son Petera, believe Tapihana was first over the wall and his role has since been overlooked. A report in the Waikato Times in 1919, by war correspondent Malcolm Ross said, “One of the first men, if not the first man, up the ramparts was a Māori from the Pioneer Battalion, and his rifle was thrown up after him by a salvage officer.” The journalist then identifies that man as Winiata Topihana (sic).

War historian Christopher Pugsley believes Tapihana was one of the party that managed to enter Le Quesnoy briefly through the Porte de Valenciennes, the northern gateway into the town. By then, the Māori Pioneer Battalion was attached to the 2nd Battalion, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Leonard Jardine. Their goal was to inch across the causeway to enter the town through the gateway. “The defenders anticipate this,” writes Pugsley, “and blow up the causeway arch nearest the gate. Nevertheless, one man gets across on a plank and shoots one of the garrison, but is forced back. This happens to be one of the Māori Pioneer Battalion working with the engineers, Private Winiata Tapsell.”

Tapihana’s granddaughter, Katie Paul Tapsell, has been hunting through the archives and talking to family members to discover the role her koro played in the liberation of Le Quesnoy. She believes on the night before the capture of the town, her grandfather sneaked away from his unit. The men were hungry; he needed to find some food.

“He found his way through the wall and acquired some chickens. He came back and cooked them for his group, including the officer, who wasn’t too impressed. But while he was filching food he did discover where the German positions were and was able to report that back.”

However, rather than a medal, Tapihana received 14 days’ Field Punishment No 2 for absconding.

He returned to Maketū at the end of the war and died on June 17, 1974. His granddaughter says he never talked about the war and his medals were buried with him, but he will be one of the many soldiers honoured at the new museum and visitors’ centre in Le Quesnoy.

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.