When war was declared in August 1914, Maori asked to be sent to assist with the fighting. Initial feeling from England was that 'Maoris [sic] should not take part in the wars of the White Race against a White Race.' This matter was quickly reconsidered as troops from India and Algeria went to fight in France. New Zealand Prime Minister Massey reconsidered the embargo against native forces serving and on 1 September 1914 delivered a speech that said, 'We must not forget that our Maori friends are equals in the sight of the law. Why then should they be deprived of the privilege of fighting and upholding the Empire when assailed by the enemy?' (1. Pg21)
It was agreed that 500 men could join the forces, with 250 to go to Egypt and 250 to proceed to Samoa. Numbers would be allocated from the different Maori Districts. It was later decided that the whole of the force should go to Egypt. On Saturday 17 October 1914, the first men arrived at the training camp at Avondale, two days later on the 19th, 36 men arrived from the Hauraki region.
From July 1915 Maori soldiers were trained in New Zealand at the Narrow Neck Camp in Auckland. Used previously for cadets and territorials, the facility met with approval by the soldiers who were involved with the development of the facilities.
The motto of the Maori Contingent was ‘Te Hokowhitua A Tu,’ meaning the seventy twice-told warriors of the war god. The name given by the Wi Pere of the East Coast. (2)
Not all Maori waited to join the Maori Battalion, and many took the opportunity to enlist in the general New Zealand forces, in units such as the 6th Haurakis. Later 'Maori soldiers were encouraged to transfer to the Maori Pioneer Battalion, but many elected to stay with the battalions in which they first enlisted.' (1. Pg52)
Initial Maori losses were great, with 17 killed, 89 wounded during the battle of Chunuk Bair. (1,2) The Maori contingent men were split amongst four battalions of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, a decision that was not well received and later when the a 2nd Maori Contingent was to be raised, it was requested that the Maori unit should be reformed.
While not all Maori were in favour of becoming involved in the war effort, there is no indication that this was the case in the Thames area. It was reported in the New Zealand Herald 5 July 1917, that Chiefs from various iwi (including Ngati Maru) had met to discuss the 'proposed' introduction of conscription. The discussion pointed out that not all felt the same as the Waikato tribes, and that many men had already enlisted. The concern was that under the Treaty of Waitangi, 'the Government could not force conscription on the native race.' The group met again on 13 September and decided that 'the Chiefs of the various tribes should select a certain number of suitable men from the respective tribes, and that this system should be continued until the supply of eligibles was exhausted.'
Conscription caused some discussion in March 1917 in the local papers. The question of half-caste versus full Maori status was raised by a returned Maori soldier of the first Maori Contingent. At that time Maoris were exempt from conscription, some were querying that the half-caste should not be exempt as he had the privileges of the pakeha in things such as voting. Men who were balloted were saying they were Maori to get out of service.
'He has announced that he is white, but for the purpose of war he has strangely enough, become brown again.'
(Thames Star 7 March 1917)
The men came from all over the Coromandel Peninsula and across the Hauraki Plains area, many with tribal connections to multiple areas. Brothers, cousins and whanau all joined the forces –not always fighting within the Maori battalions but included in other regiments in New Zealand and Australia. (At present the Maori who fought outside the Pioneer Battalion have not been identified)
There were many examples of ‘fighting families’ amongst the Hauraki recruits. The Hovell’s of Coromandel had five members who served in World War One, two of them serving in the Maori Contingent.
Another was the Savage family who had close connections to Thames and Hikuai. Again four brothers served, two were in the Maori Contingent. Both families lost sons in the war.
A potential injustice was brought to Parliaments attention in July 1915. There was concern that widows of Maori soldiers weren’t able to get pension payments because they had been married under native custom. (3) A month later, this was rectified with an amendment passed to the War Pensions Bill.
The Ohinemuri Gazette of 20 December 1915 reported back to local readers that Maori troops were performing with distinction on the fields of Gallipoli. High praise is given to our Maori troops at the front by Captain F. M. Twistleton, in a letter to a friend in New Zealand. He wrote:
'Twice I had Maoris [sic] under me and in rather ticklish places, and I have also seen a lot of them in action, and I must say they are good stuff. A man need not wish to lead better material into action, no matter how desperate the fighting might be. I should say they are amongst the best bayonet fighters in the world, and they are perfect sentries. As trench fighters you can't beat them. I haven't seen them under shelling in the open, but with a leader they trusted, I am quite sure they would stand anything. As soldiers, officers and men are a credit to their race and their country, and I for one hope to see a strong unit kept at fighting strength till the end of the job.'
The local papers also included letters from the men away or their friends, not all included good news. In November 1916, a letter was published that had been sent by Nurse Bridge of King George’s Hospital in London. (4) The letter sent to the Coromandel Postmaster, with the request that he pass onto relatives, letters and news concerning the death of Private S [G] W Hovell of B Company, Maori Contingent. Nurse Bridge wrote:
'…He was with us for the last 12 hours before he died. He had been wounded in the head and had been operated on prior to leaving the hospital ship from the Dardanelles…His end was very peaceful.'
The parcel of letters was safely delivered to his father who resided in Coromandel town.
The tragedy of war and the losses the area faced became a reality in November 1916, when a military funeral took place in Thames. (5)
'James Tepene, a returned Maori soldier, who had died in the local hospital from lung trouble, was taken to his last resting place, Totara Point Cemetery. The cortege left the hospital, headed by the 6th Hauraki Reg. Band, playing Handel's Dead March. The firing party consisted of High School Cadets under S.M. Swears. A large number of relatives and friends of the deceased soldier followed the hearse to the grave side, where the Rev. A. J. Bec_ performed the last sad-rites for the dead.'
Private James Tepene was recorded as being 19 years of age when he died on 10 November 1916. However, when he signed up for the Army in June 1915, his age at enlistment was given as 20.
On 7 February 1918, The Thames Star reported that the Military Service Act had been changed and that conscription now also applied to Maori. The first ballot would be held at the end of the month.
During WWI Thames and surrounding communities were all busy with patriotic duties, such as raising funds for food and other items to be sent to the soldiers overseas. The men of the Maori Pioneer Battalion were not forgotten. April 1918, the Thames Star reported the Annual Report for the Maori Soldiers’ Fund. (6) A fund supported throughout New Zealand, made up of 44 committees. During the past year they had despatched thousands of items to the Maori soldiers. Including: 4737 parcels, 2000 tins of toheroas, 140 tins of dried pipis, 4050 mutton birds (another 6000 ready to go). Plus hospital comforts, sweets, knitted items (many knitted by Maori schoolchildren). Forty Pounds was also given to Narrow Neck Camp in Auckland towards the soldiers’ Xmas. It was also noted that: 'during the summer some of the committee will dry pauas and pipis. The committee are now packing 1000 parcels for France, and 100 for Rarotongans in Egypt each month.'
With Maori now included in the ballots, it was necessary for an appeal system to be implemented. The Maori Military Service Board heard the first appeals in July 1918.(7) It was responsible for appeals in the Waikato and Thames district. The chairman was Judge MacCormick (Native Land Court), Mr John Ormsby (of Otorohanga) and Mr Pitiera Taipua (of Otaki). Twenty-nine appeals were heard at the Thames Courthouse on 2 August 1918. One case was for Rev. Honi Karaka. 'This appeal was supported by the Rev Mr MacWilliam of the Anglican Mission, who stated that the appellant was a clergyman and would shortly be required as a chaplain. The appeal was allowed.'
Key to above:
* Roll of Honour, classified as a war death.
Of the 84 Hauraki soldiers so far identified as having served with the Maori Pioneer Battalion, there were 19 who were classified as official war deaths. These deaths occurred on the battle field, or as a result of wounds received, or from illnesses and diseases contracted during active service. The Roll of Honour men are: James Clune, Bennie Edmonds, Remihana Hekiera, George Hovell, Tauiti Kingi, Dennis Murphy, Raika Murray, Fredrick Nicholls, Tiki Whatapu Oneroa, Charles Savage, Joseph Slade, Hirini Taiwhanga, Rameka Taupaki, Mikaera Te Moananui, James Tepene, Pareiha Tuati (aka David Stewart), Moa Wahia, Taylor Walker and Walter Whyte.
Special mention was made to at least three Hauraki soldiers. Edward Tingey was Mentioned in Despatches (MID) and was awarded the Military Cross. Richard Angel was awarded the Military Medal and Charles Hovell was MID.
The members of the Maori Battalion were given a heroes welcome around the country, beginning in Auckland 6 April 1919. After disembarking from the Westmoreland, they marched down Queen Street and onto the Domain for a formal welcome. The following morning, at 7am on 7th April, the men from the Thames and Paeroa district boarded trains to take them back to their homes and whanau. Thames men named in the paper as being aboard the Westmoreland were: Privates W Anderson (Kopu), W L Hillman (Thames), R Huta (Parawai), W Karati (Thames); Lieut-Major S Martin (Thames) and Lance Corp T Matu[i] (Parawai).(9) Sydney Martin served with the 2nd Auckland Battalion and was transferred to the Maori Battalion on 2 December 1918. R Huta not yet identified, it may be R Hira of Coromandel. Other Hauraki men known to returned on that voyage were: R Hira, C H Hovell, T Karewa, W Mangahia, H Mihingarangi, S Ngapo, H Piahana, R Roto, R Royal, W Taylor, S Te Moananui, E Tingey, W Waru and P Wharetamatera.
With the majority of the men now home in Aotearoa, the hardest part for many had just begun. After years away the journey of repatriation had just started.
As part of the WW100 project at The Treasury in Thames, information was collected on the men who served in the Maori Contingents. Let not their stories be lost and the valuable part they played in World War One. If you have anything to add or that you would like included in the collection – please contact The Treasury.
Information for this webpage was compiled by Althea Barker.