Maori battalion terrified the Turkish at Gallipoli
As the dominions prepared for war in 1914, New Zealand set about raising a wholly Maori battalion after initially hedging, on the curious ground that native troops should play no part in a war between white races.
This contrasted with Britain dispatching Indian and Gurkha soldiers and France taking its disparate colonial armies to war.
In the face of initial reservations, Maori MPs persisted and the government relented. There was actually substantial community support, mixed with a touch of imperial paternalism.
"I would not be afraid to trust the Maori in war. He will be truly British," said one supporter at the time.
Iwi were asked for volunteers but not all willingly complied.
With a longstanding grievance over loss of their lands in the land wars half a century earlier, Waikato iwi steadfastly refused.
They provided few volunteers, proving so obdurate that in 1917, the government implemented conscription, with no more success. In the end not one conscript went off to the war and at least a dozen went to prison.
There were plenty of volunteers from other regions who underwent four months of basic training before departing for Egypt in mid-February to join New Zealand Pakeha units.
Dr Monty Soutar, historian with the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, said the 500-strong Maori battalion was subsequently lauded as the fiercest fighters on the Gallipoli Peninsular.
But that didn't come easily - after a week in Egypt, they were packed off to Malta on garrison duties and could have missed the Gallipoli campaign entirely.
The soldiers weren't at all happy, telling their commanders they could not go home and face their people without seeing service like other NZ soldiers who landed at Gallipoli on day one.
Their pleas, coupled with the high rate of casualties on Gallipoli, worked and the Maori battalion landed on July 3. They were just in time for the August offensive, a major series of attacks intended to break the Gallipoli stalemate by seizing high points on the Sari Bair range.
The main attacks were directed at features called Chunuk Bair, Hill Q and Hill 971, with two seized but held only briefly. By August 10, the offensive had failed.
The Maori unit was to play its part, advancing in silence with fixed bayonet but empty rifles on a position known as Old No 3 Post.
Soutar says six times that night they uttered a tremendous haka to terrify Turkish defenders as they charged.
"They thought `this will get em'. It did," he told the Gallipoli 100 Years conference in Canberra. "When they reached the first Turkish trench, there was nothing in it."
Attacks on the foothills on August 6 were the only successful aspects of the assault on Chunuk Bair and a large part of that was due to the Maori unit, he said.
"We got our blood up that night. We went right up and into it with the steel. Hand-to-hand fighting was the thing. It was like the days of our forefathers," recounted one soldier in the 1926 book The Maoris in the Great War.
In the desperate attack on Chunuk Bair on August 8, New Zealand units seized the summit.
But it proved untenable in the face of massed Turkish fire and a counter-attack which overwhelmed British units which had relieved the decimated New Zealand battalions.
Maori soldiers supported this attack throughout, losing 17 dead, 89 wounded and two missing. One Maori machine-gun team lost nine out of 16 men in 20 minutes.
The Maori unit participated in the Battle of Hill 60, the last major assault of the Gallipoli campaign which raged from August 21-27, then withdrew from the peninsular on October 3.
For a new small unit, they had performed well and many Pakeha said so in letters home.
Soutar cited a letter from a New Zealand officer.
"They fought beside me on the peninsular and by jove they are marvellous fighters. I don't think I shall ever see better. In New Zealand I never gave them a single thought. I have changed."
The Maori soldiers continued to serve throughout WWI with more than 2500 enlisting. But on the Western Front, they formed a Pioneer Battalion, performing engineering tasks in the trenches and conducting the occasional raid on German trenches.
source: newshub archive