The Native Contingent at Gallipoli
The first Māori unit in the First World War, known as the Native Contingent, had Māori junior officers, but Pākehā filled the higher ranks. After completing training at Avondale racecourse in Auckland, the contingent sailed for Egypt in February 1915.
Writer James Cowan described the Māori attack on a hill called Table Top at Gallipoli: ‘The Maoris went into that splendid attack, their first battle with the bayonet, in a mood of savage determination and delight. This was their chance for fame. They went grimly for those Turks, bayoneted them in their lines, they burst into a tremendous haka when they had cleared the trenches – “Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora!” – then silence as they pressed on to the next point.’1
Intended as a garrison force (a body of troops detailed for defence), the contingent was stationed on Malta when the landing took place at Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey. Following the severe losses at Gallipoli, the unit landed at Anzac Cove in July. The contingent, originally 16 officers and 461 ordinary ranks, soon suffered heavy casualties. By September only 60 men remained on the peninsula. By December, when the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) forces were evacuated, unit strength stood at two officers and 132 men. Numbers had been boosted by the return of men who had recovered from wounds and illness.
Many Māori soldiers had been at Gallipoli from the outset, having volunteered for the provincial infantry battalions. One was Wātene Moeke (who served with the Auckland Regiment as William Moeki), the first Māori casualty of the war, who was killed during the 25 April landings. Some Māori also served in the Australian Imperial Force, while a few enlisted with the British Army.
Māori Pioneer Battalion
After Gallipoli the Native Contingent, along with the shattered Otago Mounted Rifles, was re-formed into a pioneer battalion, participating in the rest of the war in a support role. They were responsible for digging trenches, building roads and other duties behind the front line, and were expected to have fewer casualties than the infantry units. In spite of this, the unit suffered heavily in France, its duties consistently carrying the men into the trenches. From early 1916 the Māori reinforcements were supplemented by Pacific Islanders, including Rarotongans, Tongans, Niueans and some Samoans. By August 1917 there were adequate reinforcements to fill the battalion so on 1 September it became the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion with its original badge restored.
The first Māori VC
Second Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first airman to receive a Victoria Cross. Born into a wealthy English family, Rhodes-Moorhouse was the grandson of Wellington settler William Barnard Rhodes and Ōtahui of Ngāti Ruanui. Rhodes-Moorhouse received his VC for a bombing attack in April 1915 on the rail junction at Courtrai, Belgium. He died the next day from wounds inflicted during the raid.
When the armistice was signed, the battalion was heading towards the German border to become part of the Rhine garrison. However, the British high command decided not to use ‘native troops’ to garrison Germany. Although they resented this attitude, many of the Pioneers were pleased to be heading home. In March 1919 the unit sailed for New Zealand aboard the Westmoreland.
The Māori contingent received a rousing welcome with parades and receptions throughout the country. A Māori Pioneer rugby team toured the country for a series of provincial games.
Throughout the war the contingent and its reinforcements drew more than 2,500 men overseas, including 470 Pacific Islanders. Casualties included 336 men killed on active service, and over 700 wounded.