Maori soldier in the Apex trenches at Gallipoli, 30 November, 1915
At the outbreak of World War One Britain drafted the standing Army of India into the conflict but although a number of indigenous communities declared their loyalty and allegiance Britain refused to recognise the indigenous populations in its other Dominions as potential soldiers.[i] However by 1915, and as the casualty list mounted, Britain started to make requests to the government of each of its colonies look at whether it could ask indigenous peoples to volunteer or alternatively draft them into the army.[ii]
As it turned out the Maori Battalion would be the only indigenous group, apart from India, to have their own combat unit, and as a result was the first to have a history written about it; James Cowan’s The Maoris in the Great War. The five hundred and eight members of the Maori contingent arrived in Egypt 26 March 1915 for training. On the 4 April they were sent to Malta and although the ANZAC landing included indigenous troops from India, Asia and Senegal the Maori were not initially included in the ANZAC contingent.[iii]
However by the 8 May the New Zealand Brigade in Gallipoli had suffered over 2,000 casualties and was feeling the pressure to send reinforcements. This appears to have been the main reason for mobilising the Maori Contingent.[iv] This group of around 500 men was formed into a Pioneer battalion as it was not large enough to form an Infantry battalion, especially given that there was little prospect for reinforcements. One reason for this was that volunteering had slowed considerably back in New Zealand, often as a result of Maori elders advising their young men not to volunteer to fight for a country that had treated their own land claims so poorly.[v]
In World War One ‘Pioneer Battalions’ were support troops organised to primarily to do minor engineering tasks (laying communications wire, building trenches etc.) around frontline trenches and when not doing this are employed in the same way as other infantry battalions. They were not support troops like the entrenching battalions, railway or tunnelling companies and when the 477 strong Maori contingent landed at Anzac Cove 3 July 1915 they had to wait till 6 August before being committed to combat at Sari-Bar.[vi]

However after this experience, they like many other units suffered exceptionally heavy losses, 17 killed, 89 wounded and 2 missing between 6 and 9 August. As a result it was decided to incorporate the battalion into other New Zealand Brigades. It was around this time that Captain George Mills, from Parramatta, wrote a letter to the Cumberland Argus in which he describes fighting with the Maori placed alongside them in the Light Horse Regiments at Gallipoli … the Maoris were divided up between each unit. Those with our boys fought like devils.[vii]

One other reason for the breaking up of the battalion was the British and Pakeha officers in charge felt the Maori Officers were not obeying orders and that the officers themselves were not picked for their understanding of the intricate workings of the European military. On 3 September 3 Maori Officers were sent back to New Zealand while a fourth was medically discharged (they were later reinstated) and the time of the evacuation there were only 60 Maori active at Gallipoli.[viii]

In December 1915 at the behest of the New Zealand Maori Committee all Maori were invited to join a reformed Maori Contingent and on 20 February 1916 the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion was formed.[ix] This consisted of two companies of Maori soldiers organised according to tribal (iwi) affiliations and two companies of Pakeha soldiers from the depleted Otago Mounted Rifles and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.[x] When the 3 Maori Contingent arrived to reinforce the battalion 140 Niue Islanders and 47 Rarotongans were added to the Battalion. Timothy Winegard in his book on Indigenous peoples in the First World War also notes that Samoans, Fijians, Norfolk Islanders, Tongans, Hawaiians Society Islanders, Tahitians, Chatham Islanders, Kiribati Islanders, Ocean Islanders, Penryhn Islanders and Tuamotus Islanders were also included in Army lists as coming from Niue and Rarotonga.[xi]

On 7 April 1916 the 976-strong Pioneer battalion set out for France from their training camp in Egypt and on the 15 May were sent forward at Armentieres in Northern France.[xii] In August 1916 it was the first New Zealand battalion to move forward to the Somme front and before their first real engagement a number of Maori were killed as a result of gas attacks and bombardments.[xiii]

Their first real action in France was at the battle of Flers-Courcelette 15 – 22 September 1916 and this resulted in 52 Maoris being either killed or wounded. The Perth daily news contains an article outlining the hand-to-hand fighting in the taking of Flers and also mentions the … magnificent work done by the Maori Pioneer Battalion in constructing saps in the newly captured ground.[xiv]The troops in this engagement were accompanied by some of the first tanks used in the field of war.

In January 1917 the arrival or Maori reinforcements saw the battalion reformed into 3 Maori and 1 Pakeha unit. That winter they were at the battle of Messines (7-14 June) mainly charged with trench digging and light rail construction, even so they suffered 155 casualties before being removed from the line on 29 June. Finally 1 September 1917 there were enough reinforcements to create an entire Maori battalion and this remained the case until the end of the war.[xv]

It was this battalion that was involved in the Passchendaele and German offensive in spring 1918. In the final allied offensives from August to October 1918 the battalion suffered 207 casualties.[xvi] One of the long-term casualties from this engagement was a New Zealander of Maori descent named James Birch who 20 years later was still suffering from the terrible wounds he received as a result of gas at Passchendaele. In 1939 he was in the Prince of Wales Military Hospital, Sydney, after have his second operation to repair his stomach.[xvii]

 

Geoff Barker, Research and Collection Services Coordinator, Parramatta Council Heritage Centre, 2015


[i]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.2
[ii]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.1
[iii]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.101
[iv]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.102
[v]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.102
[vi]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.104
[vii]Cumberland and Fruitgrowers Argus, 6 October, 1915, p.2
[viii]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.105
[ix]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.107
[x]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.107
[xi]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.108
[xii]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.110
[xiii]The Mercury Hobart, 25 September, 1916, p.5
[xiv]The Daily News, Perth, 19 October, 1916, p.5
[xv]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.156
[xvi]Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.160
[xvii]Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, 28 August, 1939, p.8