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The Maoris in the Great War

Chapter VI. — Formation of the Pioneer Battalion

Chapter VI.
Formation of the Pioneer Battalion.

page 70

By New Zealand Divisional Orders (February 20th, 1916), the formation of a New Zealand Pioneer Battalion was authorised. The Battalion was to consist of officers and other ranks drawn from surplus of N.Z.M.R. From the Otago M.R., and the whole of the Maori Contingents (two) then serving in Egypt with the New Zealand Infantry Brigade. At this time, the remnants of the original Maori Contingent, together with the whole of the 2nd Maoris, were divided up by tribes among the various battalions of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade and were in camp at Moascar, Ismailia. The Otago M.R. were also at Moascar as Divisional mounted troops, but owing to the decision of headquarters that Divisional cavalry were in future to consist of one squadron only, they were equal to the strength of two squadrons and headquarter's details available for transfer to form the nucleus of a pakeha half-battalion of the Pioneers. The balance of the pakeha officers and other ranks were drawn from the N.Z.M.R. then in camp at Serapeum (Suez Canal). The original Maori Contingent consisted of two companies and headquarters, but during August, 1915, they were divided up at Gallipoli as follows:—

Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons (Ngapuhi and Waikato) to Auckland Battalion; Nos. 3 and 4 Platoons (West Coast of North Island, Wanganui and Wellington) to Wellington Battalion; Nos. 5 and 6 Platoons (Arawa, Bay of Plenty, Ngati-Porou, and East Coast, Taupo and South Island men) to Canterbury Battalion; Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons (Poverty Bay, Wairoa, Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa) to Otago Battalion. The 2nd Maoris who had joined the 1st, on January 19th, 1916, had been divided up as above and attached to the original Contingent. The principle of this tribal distribution was adhered to throughout the organisation of the Pioneers except in a few cases where the numbers would not fit in.

The Pioneer Battalion was organised in accordance with the wishes of the G.O.C. N.Z. Division as follows:— page 71
  • A Company—Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons Maoris, Nos. 3 and 4 Platoons pakehas (7th Squadron).
  • B Company—Nos. 5 and 6 Platoons, Maoris, Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons, pakehas (5th Squadron).
  • C Company—Nos. 9 and 10 Platoons, Maoris, Nos. 11 and 12 Platoons, pakehas (12th Squadron).
  • D Company—Nos. 13 and 14 Platoons, Maoris, Nos. 15 and 16 Platoons, pakehas (N.Z.M.R.)
Officers were appointed as follows:—

The C.O. and Adjutant reported at Divisional Headquarters for duty with the Battalion, and were instructed to lay out a camp south of the aerodrome at Moascar. This was done. The Maoris marched into camp on March 6th, and started the erection of tents and cook-houses. The camp was soon complete and things squared up. Fatigue duties and drill occupied the newly-constituted unit until the 15th, when orders were received to pack up camp and move east of the Canal. Camp was quickly struck and the Battalion marched at 10.30 a.m. with transport, baggage and tents. The Canal was crossed by pontoon bridge at Ferry Post, and after a halt for lunch on the east bank the corps marched on to the Reserve Camp and pitched tents just east of the Second Infantry Brigade camp and on the south side of the road. Here the Battalion was joined next day (March 16th) by the Third Maori Reinforcements, under Lieut. Sutherland, and other officers, 2nd Lieuts. A. L. Melles, S. Moore, A. McDonald, G. R. Fromm, E. Goodwin, and R. Karauria. The reinforcements consisted of 112 Maoris, 125 Niué Islanders, and 45 Rarotongans, total 282. These new-comers landed at Suez, and came on to Ismailia by train; they were met by the C.O. and Lieut. R. J. Dansey and were marched into camp. As there had been an outbreak of measles during the voyage, the recruits were put into isolation camp 400 yards west of the Pioneers' camp. Fifteen Niué Natives had been left behind in hospital at Suez. On the 17th, General Sir A. J. Godley inspected the Battalion at work, and addressed the reinforcements. On the 18th, a very hot day, with a desert gale blowing and the air full of sand, Major Buck, with twelve officers and 447 Maoris of all ranks, marched from camp with camel transport and took over maintenance of a section of the trenches about six miles east of the camp. The C.O. followed with a detachment, and after a very trying march, reached the trenches. Camp was made alongside the 10th Squadron (Auckland M.R.) who were holding the line. On the 20th, Major Buck was ordered to return to the Reserve camp owing to an alteration in the plans, and with seventy page 73 camels for baggage the Maoris marched back again, reaching the camp at noon. It was hard going under the tropical sun trudging those burning sands, but all stuck to it well and no man fell out. Orders were now received for the Battalion to return to Moascar, and on the morning of the 21st, the camp was cleared up, all the other New Zealand infantry units were also moving. At 10 o'clock the Battalion, in hollow square, was inspected by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, and various other officers. After the inspection the Ngati-Porou, under Lieut. Kohere, entertained the Prince with a rousing haka. Soon afterwards the Battalion was on the move, and crossing the canal, marched into Moascar and took over the old camp ground. The tents did not arrive till next day. The 3rd Reinforcements, having now been released from isolation, were allotted to the various Companies.

The Battalion was put through some more solid infantry training, and was inspected on the desert by General Godley.

The question of the suitability of the South Sea Islanders for coming work in a cold climate was discussed, and the G.O.C. instructed that all Niué men unlikely to stand conditions in Europe would be left in Egypt. A very careful inspection was accordingly held (March 30th), and all the more delicate-looking natives were weeded out and sent to the Base Details Camp en route to Gizeh, Cairo.

Steady training was continued during the early part of April. The Pioneers made a good showing in a parade of the whole Division held in the rear of the aerodrome on the 3rd, for inspection by General Sir Archibald Murray. Next day the General inspected the Maoris at their camp, and the customary hakas of welcome were performed in his honour. A haka party, under Lieut. Kohere, was drawn up in the hollow square formed by the other platoons. The Ngati-Porou and Arawa tribes gave a vociferous song and dance of greeting. This was followed by a dance and chant by the Cook Island Natives, who also sang a lively marching song.

Major Buck, on behalf of the Maoris, addressed a speech of welcome to the General, who replied briefly and expressed satisfaction at the appearance and bearing of the Battalion in page 74 the previous day's review. Generals Godley and Russell and the G.H.Q. Corps and Divisional staffs were present at the ceremonial.

The Departure for France.

On April 5th, the long-expected orders were received for the exodus from Egypt to the great theatre of war, and the succeeding two days were spent in preparing for the move. The evening of the 6th, was a lively time in the big camp. All the canteens were raided and burned by the troops. As soon as the disturbance was reported Major King paraded the whole of the Battalion and had the roll called. No one was missing, so that the Pioneers stood clear of any share in the row. On April 7th, the Battalion was on the move on the first stage of the journey to France. Tents were struck, the camp cleared up and all hands, except the baggage guard, went down for a last bathe in Lake Timseh. That night the Battalion, in two train loads, numbering altogether 28 officers and 948 other ranks, travelled to Port Said, where they embarked early next morning on the transport “Canada.” This troopship also took the Second Canterbury Battalion of infantry, under Lieut.-Col. H. Stewart, who was O.C. on the ship.

At five o'clock in the morning of April 9th, the “Canada,” steamed out of the harbour bound for Marseilles.

For the voyage up the Mediterannean, the usual danger-zone precautions were taken. All hands were told off to boat stations, and were practiced in standing to the boats. All the Lewis machine-guns were mounted in commanding positions and gun crews were told off in 4-hour reliefs by day and 2-hour reliefs by night. Look-out men (50) were told off to watch for submarines and were arranged in reliefs under Captain Twisleton. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the 11th, an enemy submarine was sighted, about 800 yards away, on the port side. The ship's course was altered and the steaming rate increased, and nothing more was seen of the raider. The “Canada” carried enough boats to accommodate all on board, but in most cases they were three deep on the davits and there would have been very small chance of launching them all in case of emergency.

page 75

Malta was passed at 5 a.m. on April 12th, and next day the coast of Sardinia was in sight. This day gas helmets and pockets were issued to all ranks, two per man, one to be carried in the satchel, and one in the pocket sewn in the skirt of the jacket.