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Once were Anzacs: The epic history of Māori soldiers in WWI

The Māori Contingent haka party performing in Egypt in 1915. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-000580-G colourisation Wingnut Films Productions LTD

The role of Māori soldiers in World War I has long been relegated to footnotes, but a major new work by historian Monty Soutar re-examines their service at Gallipoli and the Western Front.

The valleys and the ridges beneath Chunuk Bair on the Gallipoli Peninsula echoed with an unfamiliar sound in the early days of August 1915. As New Zealand and British soldiers swept up the foothills, clearing the ground for the later, doomed assault, the air was thick with blood-curdling Māori haka.

Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck, who was a medical officer with the forces) would later write of how “a burst of rapid gunfire” would be followed by “silence; then the British cheers followed by the Māori war cry … My heart thrilled at the sound of my mother tongue resounding up.”

Anyone whose skin has prickled at the sound of a full-throated haka being belted out on foreign soil can imagine what it must have seemed like to someone who had never heard one. The Turks in their trenches were bewildered, and a local newspaper reported in some alarm that “the Straits had to endure an attack by cannibals”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Almost three decades later, in 1943, as war again raged in Europe, the distinguished Ngāti Porou politician Sir Āpirana Ngata, then in the last of his 38 years in the House, recalled the conversations with colleagues “in front of the lobby fires” about the service of Māori in World War I.

“Returned soldier MPs,” he wrote, “qualified their praise by saying, with a mental shrug of the shoulders, ‘But of course, they were not in the front line.’”

Ngata had been instrumental in the establishment of the 28th (Māori) Battalion, which was at that moment earning undying fame for its exploits in Europe. But in 1914, he had also been active in recruiting the 500-strong “Native Contingent”, which later became part of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion (renamed the Māori (Pioneer) Battalion in 1917).

So the “shrug of the shoulders could not be dismissed merely as fireside chatter”, wrote Ngata. “The role of the Māori [in the first war] was defined for him against his own inclination and the call of his warrior ancestry.” He knew that Māori themselves, many of whom had wanted to serve as infantry, were right in the front line.

Monty Soutar: “What the story needed was a Māori lens.” Photo/Simon Young/Listener

For Monty Soutar, a senior historian with Te Manatū Taonga: Ministry for Culture and Heritage, that shrug was a challenge. In a remarkable new book, he follows the Māori soldiers day by day and virtually step by step, through campaigns at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and shows that they were in the thick of the action, even if they were not (though they sometimes were) fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Pākehā infantry.

In the book, Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E!: Māori In the First World War (the Māori, title translates roughly as, “Gird your loins and rise up!” and was a call to arms on recruiting posters), Soutar moves the Māori soldiers from bit-part players to centre stage.

In military parlance, the word “pioneer” has a specific meaning: pioneers, often called sappers, worked to establish fortifications, camps, bridges, roads – and to dig the trenches in which hellish battles of attrition were fought at the Somme, Passchendaele and elsewhere. Hence, no doubt, the dismissive comment that “they were not in the front line”.

But Soutar, whose maternal grandfather, George Maxwell (Hori Makiwhara), served in the Second Māori Contingent, is having none of it. “The pioneers didn’t go over the top on the bayonet charges, but we weren’t on the fringes,” he says, lapsing, perhaps unconsciously, into the first-person plural. “We were getting killed, too, even though we were digging drains and trenches. We were digging right up to the front line. I want [Māori] to appreciate that there is nothing to be ashamed of about being pioneers.”

Sitting down to speak to the Listener the day after the book’s launch, at Auckland Museum last month, Soutar had some sympathy for the suggestion that the country has been swamped by too many centenary publications about the war that HG Wells called “the war that will end war”.

“I suppose you could say that. But I am a military historian; it’s my bread and butter and it’s where [the ministry] invested all their resource, so I don’t knock it. All I’m saying is that, when you compare it with the amnesia about the New Zealand Wars, which happened in this country and not on the other side of the world, it doesn’t seem to stack up to me. And I think it’s because it’s uncomfortable.

Members of the Second Māori Contingent ready to embark, September 1915. Photo/ATL, 1/2-011079-F colourisation Wingnut Films Productions LTD

“Gallipoli was a huge loss for us; we got our butts kicked. Yet we mark that [almost as a heroic victory] and we don’t look at what happened on our back doorstep in the 1860s. We don’t understand that the way the country is today is the direct result of what happened in the 19th century.”

Soutar, 58, served in the Territorials, now called the Army Reserve, and then briefly in the regular force but, faced with the choice between “marrying the army” and marrying his sweetheart, Tina Phillips, he chose the woman. Three of his four children are in the military. I remark that the number of Māori veterans who had qualified as historians would be a short list.

“That’d be me,” he says, with a self-deprecating smile (on second thoughts, he adds Sir Wira Gardiner). “And that’s sad in some ways, because I’ve been looking to pass the mantle on to other up-and-coming young historians, but there are no young ones at the moment.”

His military background served him well in talking to veterans when he wrote Ngā Tama Toa: The Price of Citizenship, his history of the 28th Māori Battalion’s C Company, published in 2008. “They would share with you things they wouldn’t share with a civilian.”

And the exploits of Māori in World War I captured his attention because he wanted to tell the story “for Māori”. It had been told before in James Cowan’s 1926 Māori in the Great War, which was commissioned by parliamentarians. Based on the battalion’s war diaries, it is “probably not in the language or the flavour that Joe Public wants”, says Soutar. Christopher Pugsley’s 1995 Te Hokowhitu a Tū: The Māori Pioneer Battalion in the First World War was “similar material, but had a lot more photographs”.

“I thought that what this story needed was a Māori lens and a Māori approach. I’ve always got in mind my colleagues and peers, making sure that it’s to a high academic standard and is accurate and factual. But how many people are going to read that sort of stuff? I saw some good stories that you could convey to young people who are really looking for some role models and some positive stories about identity. Sharing these with them would help make them feel better about themselves.”

Not every man who served is pictured in the book – not every photo Soutar collected was usable – “but every name of every Māori who served in the Pioneer Battalion or Māori Contingent is listed in there”.

Pioneers near the Somme village of Colincamps, April 1918. Photo/ATL, 1/2-013083-G colourisation Wingnut Films Productions LTD

“At the launch, I saw people’s faces beaming because I had put their grandfather’s photograph in the book. They would bring up books to sign and they weren’t buying one book, they were buying five for the whānau. That’s how Māori people buy books. This book took me five years to write and there are close to 1000 photographs in it. I don’t think many authors would make the effort to search them out, to create the relationship with whānau so they would trust you with those images and know you would respect them.

“I knew the photographs would be the way to get a Māori audience to read it. They can sample it by reading the photo captions; if those hook them, they will go back and read the text.”

Soutar’s history of the Māori in World War I begins at home, in a country that had been elevated from the status of colony to dominion only seven years before the outbreak of hostilities.

The Māori population was only 50,000 (from a total New Zealand population of one million) and the difference in life expectancy was stark. European men and women could expect to live to 61 and 63 years respectively; the Māori figures were a sobering 35 and 30. (It was these imbalances, among other factors, that drove the authorities’ benevolent decision to keep Māori out of the front lines.)

Land grievances were simmering and Māori were appealing to the Native Land Court against rating legislation that had compounded the injustices of confiscation. In one of the many piercing ironies that litter Whitiki!, on the very day – August 4, 1914 – that Britain declared war on Germany, Te Rata Mahuta, the fourth Māori King, was in London, having just presented King George V with a petition asking for the restoration of lands.

Nevertheless, Māori leaders from all over the country (with the exceptions of Taranaki and Waikato) offered their young men and by mid-October, the Māori Contingent (500 men) entered training camp at Avondale Racecourse. (Christmas dinner was a cracker: four hāngī accommodated “500lb of fresh pork, 500 eels, 250 chickens … and so many potatoes and kūmara that it took half a dozen sturdy men to lift them”.)

Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck). Photo/Roger Dansey Family Collection

The troops left in February 1915. At first, they were assigned to garrison duties in Egypt and Malta, before Māori leaders demanded they be sent to the front line. Te Rangi Hīroa said the soldiers “would be ashamed to face their people … if we are to be confined to garrison duty”. A famous whakataukī (proverb), about how it is better to die like a thrashing shark than a lazy tarakihi, was mentioned. And so, in July, three months after the landing that has become part of our national story, they reached Gallipoli.

Here, though dogged by illness and injury, they dug tunnels and trenches to form an advancing front line. They ached to see fighting but, said one officer, “the greatest enemy we have to fight is dysentery”.

At last, a year almost to the day after Britain’s declaration, they joined the so-called “August stunt”, an assault to capture the foothills below Chunuk Bair, fighting not as a unit but as a series of small platoons assigned to different mounted rifles regiments. Soutar remarks that the Māori “would not have been utilised in this way if the regiments’ commanders had not had confidence in them”.

For three days, the contingent continued the fight below Chunuk Bair, where 17 died and 89 were wounded. That was a quarter of those who started and, though less than the casualty rate in other units, it attracted the praise of Pākehā officers who spoke of a bravery “fully worthy of the traditions of their race”. Another Pākehā soldier marvelled that “in hand-to-hand encounters, they fought like demons, using the butts of their rifles [silent attacks were often called for] with deadly effect. Every trench they tackled, they cleared.”

Yet not all exulted in their warrior status. One private soldier wrote to his mother in Māori, “What a frightening work war is, the flash of the gun … I have cried much and I have been depressed all the time since leaving home.”

The Māori at Gallipoli were decimated by wounds and disease: of the 480 who landed, only 140 emerged fighting fit three months later. Meanwhile, at home, a second Māori contingent was training in camp at Narrow Neck, followed by a third, which included 170 recruits from the Pacific Islands.

The Pioneers’ badge. Photo/Auckland Museum

“They reverted to a pioneer force,” says Soutar, “because the [Māori] population couldn’t stand that level of loss. The higher command wanted to protect them. When the New Zealand Division was created in France, in March 1916, they thought, ‘Well, we’re going to need a pioneer battalion,’ and the Māori politicians back here were saying they wanted the Māori kept together. This was a way of achieving that.”

And so, by April, the three contingents had joined up and were on the way to northern France. The hell on Earth that was the Somme, Messines, Ypres and Passchendaele lay ahead.

It is difficult to overstate – and Soutar is at pains to record – quite how significant the Māori pioneers were to the fighting men in the mud and blood of France and Belgium. He quotes Gunner Arthur Stanton from Dunedin, who was with the field artillery transporting ammunition to the guns. On a road that “was just deep mud … impossible for us to get through … there was something unusual about the way this gang was tackling the [repair] job. Then I realised it was our Māoris at work. They took little notice of the shells bursting in the mud, but just slogged on with their work.

“I was wet, cold and very empty … [but] as I watched came a feeling of pride to be a New Zealander with the Māoris. All thoughts of danger and discomfort just vanished. What do we call that? – Morale Boost!!!”

This occurred against a background of sustained attacks on Māori morale by Pākehā officers, driven by a racist ignorance of how important it was that they served as Māori soldiers, not just as soldiers. A culture clash, in August 1915, with the contingent commander, Lt Col Alfred Herbert, over the splitting up of the contingent, undermined the Māori troops’ confidence in him, not least because of his demeaning comments about them, which had almost sparked a mutiny. A letter to the Poverty Bay Herald, signed simply “Māori”, said that the troops would be better “under the care of Māori officers” … “There is always the chance of a snobbish white officer treating the Māori as a ‘nigger’”, and found it “curious” that “not one word of praise [from those officers] has found its way to the Māori people or press”.

Cook Islander William Marsters buying cakes in France, 1916. Photo/AWMM, PH-ALB-418 H32 colourisation Wingnut Films Productions LTD

A more substantive clash was over the introduction of conscription. It is tempting to wonder why Māori had volunteered in such numbers to fight a white man’s war in Europe when war in this country was so fresh in the memory. The last shot of the New Zealand Wars was fired only 32 years before 1914 – only as long ago as the sharemarket crash or the first Rugby World Cup are today.

Soutar says – and here’s another of those bitter ironies – that Māori commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi explained their support for the war. Article 3 of the Treaty conferred “the rights and privileges of British subjects” and “with citizenship comes responsibility”.

“In 1914, patriotism for the British Empire was huge, and for a lot of Māori, the Treaty was a covenant – the Māori word for the Treaty was ‘Te Kawenata’. They understood that to break a covenant between Māori, the Crown and God was to bring disaster on yourselves. So, when the war came, a lot of Māori were signing up to honour their forefathers’ commitment to the Treaty.

“Despite what happened to them and what they could be angry about, it was the signatures that their tīpuna had put on that Treaty document that mattered.”

But that Māori support was not unalloyed, as became clear when conscription, introduced in August 1916, was extended to apply to Māori the following June. Waikato and Taranaki iwi had suffered most in and as a result of the Land Wars (and memories of the 1881 invasion of Parihaka were still fresh in Taranaki minds), so volunteer rates among those iwi had been lower.

In huge numbers they ignored results of the ballot that ordered their enlistment, and when police arrived at a gathering at Mangatawhiri to arrest the defaulters, Princess Te Puea, the de facto Kīngitanga leader, stood in defiance.

A Pioneer mans an anti-aircraft gun at Bayencourt. Photo/ATL, 1/2-013417-G colourisation Wingnut Films Productions LTD

“These people are mine,” she said. “I will not agree to my children going to shed blood … You can fight your own fight until the end.”

In all, 14 Māori draft resisters were court-martialled and imprisoned – they languished in captivity until six months after the war’s end. Soutar reports that “this regrettable saga” caused a breach between Waikato and the Crown that “was not healed even by the Waikato-Tainui Deed of Settlement signed in 1995”.

But opposition to conscription had “a less obvious positive outcome. After the war, the Government began for the first time to seriously consider the long-standing grievances about land loss, denial of access to resources and the associated poverty, which had underlain resistance to enlistment.”

In telling the story – and the stories – of these soldiers, Soutar found himself dispelling many fondly held family illusions. “I spoke to people who believed their tipuna was at Gallipoli, but I showed otherwise.

“They would be surprised when they believed he was wounded at the Somme or Passchendaele and their personnel file showed that was not the case. But nobody’s taken me to task. I just point them to the record.

“But I want to communicate, too, about the futility of war and the waste of life. These guys got killed, just like infantry. But so many lives were wasted because of decisions that were made that they had no control over.”

WHITIKI! WHITI! WHITI! E! Māori in the First World War, by Monty Soutar (Bateman, $69.99).

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.