First battle for Ma¯ori equality
There was no roaring chorus, celebratory sounds or large crowds to mark the end of World War I for the soldiers of the Ma¯ ori Pioneer Battalion, Te Hokowhitu a Tu¯ . For them, there was still more work to do in Le Quesnoy, where they were being billeted. A nip of rum from the stores, a shared prayer of thanks with locals in a church and it was back to work.
The experience of Ma¯ ori in WWI forms part of the Waitangi Tribunal investigation into the experience of Ma¯ ori in the military.
The tribunal’s own evidence suggests that, although Ma¯ ori and Pa¯ keha¯ relations improved because of the war, Ma¯ ori veterans did not receive the same benefits and entitlements as Pa¯ keha¯ servicemen. They also missed out on receiving equal medical and mental health support.
Despite their service, they faced discrimination before, during and after the war. Notably when the New Zealand Division was to supply troops to occupy Germany after the armistice. The Ma¯ ori Battalion was told they were going back to England.
‘‘They were stopped right on the border because they were dark-skinned troops,’’ says Ma¯ ori military historian Monty Soutar.
He says some of them didn’t think it was fair so they jumped off the train and disappeared for a week into Germany. ‘‘They got arrested when they came out, charged and court martialled. But at least they could say they set foot in Germany.
‘‘It was quite ironic after all of that they still weren’t treated as equals.’’
In the tribunal’s economic rehabilitation report, TJ Hearn says that, despite the government’s insistence that Ma¯ ori veterans had equal access to its rehabilitation scheme, they were, at worst, deliberately excluded from or, at best, inadequately provided for compared with Pa¯ keha¯ .
Hearn believes the Department of Lands and Survey displayed elements of racism towards Ma¯ ori veterans. ‘‘It seems reasonably clear the state, through its various agencies, was not geared towards reaching out to and engaging Ma¯ ori.
‘‘In short, the state failed to recognise the kaupapa of Ma¯ ori veteran rehabilitation.’’
Soutar is part of the tribunal’s expert panel that will hear claims against the Crown and make recommendations at a date yet to be finalised.
He has spent the past four years researching Ma¯ ori in WWI, compiling letters and diaries of servicemen to be released in a book in April next year. ‘‘I can see through my research they deserve more recognition than they got,’’ he says. ‘‘My grandfather was in the pioneers. I didn’t know anything really about what he did until I started delving into the research.’’
A total of 2227 Ma¯ ori and 470 Pacific Islanders are known to have served overseas with the Ma¯ ori Contingent. By June 1919, 336 members had died (including 27 Pacific Islanders and an unknown number of Pa¯ keha¯ in the Ma¯ ori units).
The 1st Ma¯ ori Contingent left New Zealand in February 1915 but was sent to Egypt and Malta on garrison duties. Ma¯ ori demanded they be sent to the frontline at Gallipoli instead. They landed there in July.
Soutar says they distinguished themselves during the August 1915 Battle of Chunuk Bair. ‘‘It’s at night, they’re doing the haka and then have to charge a trench. They’ve got no bullets in their rifles, just bayonets to fight hand-to-hand.
‘‘They were going up two ridge lines with a valley in between trying to take out the Turkish trenches. One lot started a haka on one ridge, the Ma¯ ori on the other side heard it. So when they were going to take a trench they’d do a haka also.
‘‘It was during the night and if you’ve never heard a haka before like the Turks, how frightening it must’ve been.’’
He says a Turkish newspaper reported on hearing the haka and used it as propaganda, saying, ‘‘We now have cannibals on Gallipoli, they’ll eat you if they catch you.’’
On the bloody battlefields of Gallipoli, Ma¯ ori and Pa¯ keha¯ relations began to change, respect grew as men worked together, fought and died side by side. The Ma¯ ori Contingent was disbanded and split up among the other units. Other than skirmishes later in the war, Gallipoli was the only combat the Ma¯ ori Contingent members fought in.
By the time they were evacuated in December 1915, just 130 able-bodied men were left of the 500 members.
In April 1916, the remnants and new Ma¯ ori reinforcements, including Pacific Island and
Pa¯ keha¯ troops, were regrouped into the Pioneer Battalion for a combat support role on the Western Front. It became the Ma¯ ori Pioneer Battalion while serving at Passchendaele in late 1917.
Soutar says the work of the pioneers has been undervalued and deserves more recognition. ‘‘They were experiencing what the infantry was confronting. The only difference was they weren’t getting to climb out of the trenches with a bayonet fixed and charge like the infantry.’’
Ma¯ori soldiers carry iron girders up a hill at Gallipoli circa 1915.