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The Maoris in the Great War


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With centuries of military traditions behind him, it was natural that the Maori should have been eager to shoulder rifle alongside his Pakeha compatriots in the Great War. He knew what it was to give up all for a cause, an idea. In the olden Maori polity the tribe came first; the tribe had first claim on the strong arm of the clansman, and the tribe stood behind every one of its members. No freeman of the hapu or iwi could suffer injury from a member of another clan and appeal in vain to his kinsmen for help in exacting justice. The whole strength of the collection of families which formed the tribe was at the disposal of the paramount chief and the war-captains once a certain line of policy had been decided upon. Here was Empire in miniature. It was easy for the modern Maori to appreciate the importance of united action in defence of the congeries of great families called the British Empire. He was quick to perceive the truth of the motto that unity is strength, and to realise that his duty as a citizen of the Empire was to come into alignment with his white brothers and cousins against the common danger. But a still more powerful impelling force was the thought that flashed from tribe to tribe that here at last was the great opportunity of showing what the present-day Maori could do in the field of battle.

For many years after the end of the last New Zealand wars the Maori had regarded his race as a dying one, doomed to extinction, as he phrased it, like the huge moa bird of his ancestors' days—Ka ngaro i te ngaro o te moa. Government statistics for a time went to support this melancholy belief. But the tide turned; the census showed an unexpected increase in native population. This increase became more marked each year under the new health regime established by the State health officers, notably Dr. Pomare and Dr. Te Rangihiroa, and page 2 the Maori took up heart again. In 1914 the Maori people numbered approximately 50,000, and the latest estimate of population is over 54,000. The Maori is adapting himself to the requirements of the Pakeha civilisation, and being socially and politically the full equal of the Pakeha his confidence in himself and his future is reinforced by a determination to acquit himself like a man in company with his British fellow-citizens.

There were those who, in their ignorance of the race, professed to doubt whether the modern young Maori was as good a man as his fighting father and grandfather. The Maori we used to see, the tall, straight-backed old athlete, tattooed to the height of the moko art, alert and active even in his old age, the old scout and bush warrior skilled in all the work of entrenchment, ambuscade, fort-storming and forest tactics, was for all purposes a perfect fighting man. A very few of these survive, in the villages of the King Country, the Urewera, the Bay of Plenty Coast. But the modern Maori, reared in a semi-Pakeha environment, college-bred, interested more in the new ways, new tasks and new amusements, thinking too little of his ancestral traditions—would he acquit himself as well as his grandfather on the field of battle? Some said no. But we who had known the Maori from earliest years, who had had Maori playmates at school and had lived and worked and travelled with native friends, knew better, knew that the hereditary love of war and the national traits of pride and courage had not been extinguished by a few years of non-necessity for exertion in ways military.

That the young Maori was no degenerate, softened by the peaceful life, was quickly made manifest when the First Contingent went into action at Gallipoli in 1915. Not merely were the native New Zealanders superior to all the coloured troops—a distinguished General said that the famous Ghurkas were but children as compared with the Maoris—but they proved superior to many of the white troops in directions which suited the genius of the race. They were as grim and thorough as any Highland regiment in attack work with the bayonet, and they proved themselves equal to the tremendous nerve-test of sustained shellfire, the greatest test of all. They were the only page 3 native troops who hung out the whole of the bitter trench work in France in 1916-18. They were fully the equal of their forefathers in fortitude and endurance as in dash and energy. They were most willing workers. A New Zealand officer who watched them in France said, “They did everything with a rush and immense determination; everything seemed a pleasure to them.”

Coming of a race of fort-builders, the Maori soldier was a natural military engineer, and he entered into his work of entrenchment-making in France with the utmost interest. Not only did he work more quickly at the toil of digging-in than any other soldier of the King—this was the observation made by British officers—but he took a scientific pride in the construction of his field works. This was to have been expected of a people famous for their skill in pa-building in the olden wars. The grandfathers of some of these men had constructed the great stockades in the Bay of Islands country which had withstood British artillery—such as it was in the Forties—, the kinsmen of some had laid out the elaborate system of trenches which had baffled General Cameron at Paterangi, in the Upper Waikato, in 1864; those works, by the way, were pronounced by a British officer to be stronger than the Redan in the Crimea. There is a field-work at Puraku, near Rotorua, built in 1867 by a Ngati-Raukawa war-party, which bears a most remarkable resemblance in the details of trenches to the fighting-saps and communication trenches cut by our men in France and Flanders in 1916-1918. Field-engineering, in fact, came easy to the Maori; he could and did in many cases improve on the work of the British Army men.

With the exception of the Waikato, Taranaki and Urewera districts, the Maori tribes were denuded of their young men during the war. As in the Highland glens, the English shires and on the New Zealand farms, the native villages were deserted by the able-bodied: it was a matter of shame to be found lagging behind. Alike on the cocksfoot-grass slopes of Akaroa and the maize paddocks of Auckland, the women and girls at harvest took the place of the men. In Rotorua there were scarcely any but the older people, the women and the children; every Arawa who could pass the doctor and look fit page 4 to carry rifle and swag went into camp to train for the great adventure. The age limit was liberally construed. There is a young Maori at Matata who enlisted with the Arawa in the First Maori Contingent, fought at Gallipoli in 1915, was invalided home, married an Arawa girl, and volunteered for further service abroad, when his wife stopped his wandering by informing the authorities that he was only seventeen. But it was the custom of the Maori to enter the firing line in the early teens. Many a man of the old generation went on his first war trail at the age of twelve. Rihara Kou, a venerable Ngapuhi warrior at Kaikohe, who farewelled his youthful kinsmen—29 young men went from Kaikohe to the Front—was only thirteen when he helped to defend Ohaeawai and Ruapekapeka stockades against the British troops seventy-one years before. In some cases father and son joined the Contingent. One of the grandsons of the early-days Danish trader Philip Tapsell and the chieftainess Hine-i-turama of Maketu, Bay of Plenty, took his two sons with him when he enlisted and the three fought in the bayonet charges on the blood-reddened slopes of Sari Bair. That celebrated pair of Maketu, by the way, founded quite a tribe; their descendants number about a hundred, and of this little halfcaste clan, called Te Whanau-a-Tapihana (‘The Offspring of Tapsell’) 28 men served in the Great War. Another small clan of the Arawa, the Ngati-Manawa, living at the Rangitaiki river, on the western border of the Urewera country, lost five young men in the war. The Ngati-Manawa had ever been noted for their pluck and enterprise in war. In the Sixties of last century, when they fought gallantly on the Government side under the Mair brothers and their own chiefs against the Hauhaus, they could muster only about forty fighting men, and some of these were young lads, but they were all reliable and fearless fellows. The young and able-bodied of Ngati-Porou, too, joined practically to a man.

Many times there had been suggestions to send Maoris overseas for military service on distant shores. The military genius of the race was recognised a full century ago, and this recognition was first manifested in a very curious way in the days when the Maori was, in war-time, a ferocious and dreaded page break
Lieut.-Colonel Wm. O. Ennis, D.S.O. Served as Captain with the First Maori Contingent, Gallipoli, 1915; Major Pioneer Battalion, Western Front, 1916-1918. Commanded the Battalion, November 1918 till the return to New Zealand. Staff Superintendent, New Zealand Railway Department. Accidentally killed at Auckland, February, 1926, aged 55 years.

Lieut.-Colonel Wm. O. Ennis, D.S.O.
Served as Captain with the First Maori Contingent, Gallipoli, 1915; Major Pioneer Battalion, Western Front, 1916-1918. Commanded the Battalion, November 1918 till the return to New Zealand. Staff Superintendent, New Zealand Railway Department. Accidentally killed at Auckland, February, 1926, aged 55 years.

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Major H. Peacock, N.Z. Permanent Staff. Major Peacock was in command of the Training Camp near Narrow Neck, Devonport, Auckland, from 1915 to the end of the War. Died at Paeroa, 1924.

Major H. Peacock, N.Z. Permanent Staff.
Major Peacock was in command of the Training Camp near Narrow Neck, Devonport, Auckland, from 1915 to the end of the War. Died at Paeroa, 1924.

page 5 raider who not only killed but ate his enemy; his principal item of commissariat was his foe's body. In the year 1829, according to Mr James Bonwick in his book, “The Last of the Tasmanians,” a project was brought forward by Mr Horace Rowcroft and seconded by Major Gray, at Hobart, to introduce a number of New Zealanders into Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was then called. It was contended that as the Maoris would sell slaves for a musket each they would be quite willing to catch blackfellows at the same rate. “Their great intelligence, their crafty policy, and their warlike bearing, with the use of weapons better adapted than ‘Brown Bess’ to forest contests, made the plan acceptable to many.” Mr Rowcroft added a plea of “benevolence,” as Mr Bonwick called it. It was truly Pecksniffian benevolence. The Maoris were then regarded as about the greatest savages and cannibals that the world could furnish; so, without reflecting upon the consequences of contact to the Tasmanians, he declared that “much good would result to the New Zealanders by their intercourse with us, and would probably sow the germ of civilisation among an energetic and enterprising people.” But the humane Colonel Arthur feared the massacre of his black subjects and rejected the proposals. The colonists and officials of Tasmania, in the end, succeeded in exterminating the poor aboriginals without the help of Maori musketeers.

Nearly thirty years later there was another Maori Contingent suggestion. Governor Gore Browne, in 1858, gave approval to a proposal made by Captain Charles Brown, of New Plymouth, that a Royal Maori Corps of from 300 to 600 men should be raised to serve at the Cape of Good Hope against the Kaffirs. The Governor sent the proposal to the British Government, but it was discouraged by the War Office and nothing more was heard of it. It is not likely that many Maoris were eager for such an enterprise; indeed, I believe Captain Brown's pretty scheme was really put forward and supported by a number of colonists because if accepted it would comfortably dispose of some hundreds of fight-loving brown neighbours who would otherwise be a possible source of trouble in New Zealand.

In a despatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies page 6 in 1849, Governor Grey said that the Maori, in the opinion of experienced officers, was infinitely superior to the North American Indian in weapons, in knowledge of the art of war, and in skill in planning and perseverance in carrying out the operations of a long campaign. The Natives were, in fact, even better equipped than the British corps for the warfare of the country. That was written after experience of three small campaigns—the war with Ngapuhi at the Bay of Islands, the fighting at the Lower Hutt and at Pauatahanui and Horokiwi, Wellington, and the Whanganui war of 1847. More formidable campaigns were to come, the wars that began in 1860 and lasted for more than ten years, and the experience of these wars, in which the Imperial and Colonial troops far outnumbered their opponents, thoroughly justified Sir George Grey's early respect for the Maori as a soldier and a tactician and strategist.

On several occasions Britain's wars, during the last forty years, inspired the Maori with a desire for overseas service. One of these offers had a touch of comedy. The news that an Australian contingent of troops was being despatched to Suakim, on the Red Sea, to aid the British forces in the Soudan War, in 1884, prompted a Ngati-Haua warrior, Hoté Tamehana, to volunteer the services of himself and a party of his tribe to fight the iwi mangumangu in North Africa. Hoté was the son of a celebrated patriot, Wiremu Tamehana Tarapipipi, the Maori “Kingmaker,” and brother of Tupu Taingakawa, the present head of Ngati-Haua and leading man in the old Kingite cause. Hoté had fought against the Queen's troops in the Waikato and Taranaki wars. Fired by new-born loyalty, he rode in from his raupo-thatched village at Korakonui and entering the telegraph office at Kihikihi township, on the King Country frontier, wrote a telegram to the Government offering himself and twenty of his young men of Ngati-Koroki and Ngati-Haua for the Soudan campaign. “Twenty men!” said a settler to whom he showed the message before handing it in; “Why not make it two hundred?” “Ka pai, ka pai!” Hoté exclaimed, “That's good, very good. I'll make it two hundred men,” and two hundred the telegram made it. The Government did not accept the offer, but Hoté got into trouble with the page 7 members of his tribe for committing them to foreign service without consulting them.

In the year 1896 the Arawa tribesmen, who had fought gallantly for the white Queen against the Hauhaus in the campaigns of the Sixties and the 1870-72 expeditions, discussed the matter of volunteering for service in South Africa. It was in the days of the Anglo-German crisis following on the invasion of the Transvaal by the Chartered Company's force under Dr. Jameson and its defeat and capture by the Boers. A meeting was held in the tribal meeting-house “Tama-te-Kapua” at Ohinemutu to consider the question of “the difficulty which has arisen between the Queen of England and other tribes,” and many speeches were made for England and against all England's foes. Several speakers exhorted the Arawa to enlist for South Africa, but as there did not appear to be any call for their services the tribe contended itself with expressions of loyalty to the Crown. “My country right or wrong” was the sentiment of the meeting.

During the South African war there were many offers from Maori volunteers, but although numerous men of part Maori and part English blood served in New Zealand Contingents it was not thought necessary to enlist a Maori Contingent. Conspicuous among those who were eager to serve was the Ngati-Porou chief Tuta Nihoniho, a man of true soldierly instincts and training, who had fought against the Hauhaus on the East Coast from 1865 to 1871. To relieve his disappointment he sent a present of a greenstone mere to Lord Roberts. In the mid-eighties, when there were alarms of possible war with Russia, Tuta raised and commanded a Maori volunteer corps, the Ngati-Porou Rifles, which was in existence for four years.