17 October 1914 is a significant date on the Maori calendar. One hundred years ago, just a day after the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force had sailed from Wellington, 500 volunteers for the Maori Contingent began arriving at Avondale Racecourse, Auckland. The first was a detachment of about 30 men from the Kaitaia and Mangonui regions and some 15 to 20 men who enlisted in Auckland. Tribal detachments from all over the country followed with the last group arriving on 22 October.
The Contingent was the embodiment of the first organised effort by Māori to represent themselves in an overseas theatre of war – hence why the October date has significance for Māoridom.
Detail of Maori Contingent recruits from the Avondale Camp perform a haka at Auckland Domain. Auckland Weekly News, 19 November 1914.
In the earlier Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) the government declined Māori offers of service on the understanding that Imperial policy at the time was not to employ ‘native’ troops in a ‘white man’s war’. At the outbreak of the First World War a request for a unit based on ethnicity was not at first permitted, although Māori could enlist for service in other units within the NZEF.
When it was learnt that Algerian and Indian troops were on their way to the seat of war, Māori parliamentarians made a second appeal in the House. This time they were successful, Prime Minister Massey reminding Parliament, “Our Maori friends are our equals in the sight of the law. Why then should they be deprived of the privilege of fighting and upholding the Empire.”
Ministry for Culture and Heritage historian Dr Monty Soutar is currently writing a book on the Māori soldier in World War One and says that it was this Maori Contingent that ended up at Gallipoli as part of the Anzacs. His book is part of a series of authoritative histories on New Zealand and the First World War that the Ministry is producing in partnership with Massey University, the New Zealand Defence Force and the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association.
Soutar has spoken to several families holding diaries and letters belonging to Māori ‘diggers’ in an attempt to piece together the Māori story. “I’m surprised with what families still have at home. The condition in which they have kept these mementos even after a century is remarkable,” he says.
Soutar needs no prompting when it comes to the First World War. His grandfather served on the Somme and at Passchendaele. “I think the Māori story in World War One deserves more attention than it has had in the past,” he says. “That story has been overshadowed by the focus on the 28th Maori Battalion in the Second World War. But when you are aware of what the Maori Contingent did at Gallipoli, for example, the Māori ‘diggers’ story is no less worthy of recording.”
One of his goals in writing the book is to inform New Zealanders of this influential period in history. “As far as I am aware, the only event that will commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Maori Contingent arriving at Avondale will take place in Gisborne on 15 November,” he says. “when 60 young Māori men will dress in WW1 period costumes and provide the guard of honour at the opening of the C Company 28th Maori Battalion Memorial museum.” He thinks the reason that this is the only commemorative event to mark the anniversary is because most Māori don’t know the date is significant. “Hence, the reason I am writing this book,” he says.
Readers who have material they wish to contribute towards the book are welcome to contact Dr Soutar through the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
Updated on 23rd July 2015