A big contribution from a small group
By Roger Childs
Monty Soutar is an expert on this subject and spoke to over 100 people at the June Culture and Heritage talk.
A delightful feature of the session was the inclusion of Maori songs which date from the time.
He started by providing some context from the 1910s: New Zealand had about a million people, Maori numbered about 50,000, Auckland had 100,000 people, it was time when there were no flush toilets or refrigerators and few people had access to electricity or phones.
The Maori Pioneer Battalion
This was formed after Gallipoli and about three quarters of the members were Maori with the rest being whites and Pacific Islanders.
The casualty rate for Maori had been high at Gallipoli, and back in New Zealand parents became reluctant to see their men go off to war. Another issue which caused resentment was that three Maori officer were sent home from Gallipoli for being not up to command. Maori MPs at home made it clear that would not support recruitment until the officers were reinstated. This was done and the officers later served with distinction.
The Pioneers in theory were expected to suffer less casualties than front line soldiers, but the reality was that were involved in dangerous tasks, such as
~ widening trenches after an advance
~ building roads
~ laying out barbed wire
~ rescuing wounded soldiers from no-man’s -land.
Recruitment, action and fund raising
Distinguished Maori MPs such as James Carroll, Maui Pomare and Apirana Ngata worked hard with the tribes to recruit Maori. The Pioneers first saw action in the Battle of the Somme and out of the 100 strong battalion, 200 were killed, missing or seriously wounded.
One of the Maori MPs, Tu Henare composed a song in October 1916 called A noble a sacrifice and this was used in the recruitment campaign. The message given to Maori was that under the Treaty of Waitangi they were citizens of New Zealand and with those rights went obligations such as fighting in the war.
From 1917 Maori entertainers were used to encourage Maori to join up. Paraire Tomoana composes songs such as Come when duty calls and Blue Eyes to further the cause.
On the home front money was raised for the war effort and to ultimately help returning soldiers set up farms after the war.
Lady Heni Materoa Carroll was a key figure in the fund raising and ($2 million in today’s money) was raised on East Coast alone. By the end of the war in late 1918 this had climbed to £50,000. In later years the fund had its ups and downs and it wasn’t until 1952! that the first grants were made to veterans.
Problems over setting land aside
The government by 1918 had 500,000 acres put aside for returning Maori soldiers. However, many non-Maori soldiers were unhappy about this and some claimed that Maori made poor farmers.
Many tribes were keen for Maori land to be provided for the veterans, but there wasn’t enough and some leaders just wanted financial help to make their existing lands more productive.
Debate raged over a large area known as the Guthrie Block, and how it would be distributed. In the end the Minister of Lands divided it between Whites and Maori. However support for veterans on the rehab blocks was inconsistent. A Maori officer, Captain Vercoe, pointed out that while White veterans received financial help money was not available to Maori and that was a bar against him improving it.
The Maori Battalion’s baptism of fire
On 1 September 1917 the Pioneers were now called the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion with a new badge.
They were transferred to infantry units in time for the disastrous Battle of Passchendaele where, like all New Zealand units, they suffered heavy casualties.
The conscription disaster 1917
Conscription just applied to Whites after it was introduced in 1916. Pomare wanted Maori to be included and in mid 1917 it was extended to the Western Maori electorate.
However there was a protest in the Waikato which led to eligible Maori being forcibly rounded up.
Some of the resisters ended up in Mt Eden Jail.
Some Maori were settled on rehab blocks after the war.
But many veterans returned from the war to find that they were landless and over 600,000 acres had been sold and in some cases the money was wasted on frivolous purchases. One leader had bought three cars!
One positive step in the 1920s was that the government began the process of looking at the injustices of the past, especially the confiscations carried out during the New Zealand Wars.