Thursday, April 27, 2006

Darcy Jones: Maori fervent to fight at Gallipoli

Some of the assertions of Dr Danny Keenan cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. He writes: "In 1914, Maori were initially recruited for garrison duties. But, after the losses at Gallipoli, when New Zealand 'came of age', Maori were recruited for combat."

Is Professor Keenan implying that only when the New Zealand authorities realised what a dangerous business this war was did they begin recruiting Maori for combat?

In fact the opposite is true, as a fairly cursory reading of The Maoris in the Great War would show.

While it is correct to say that the original Maori contingent left New Zealand for garrison duty, it was never their wish to remain out of the firing line and in early July 1915 they proceeded to combat on Gallipoli alongside their Pakeha countrymen.

They greatly distinguished themselves there, but suffered severe losses from sickness and combat.

On October 3, 1915, they were evacuated from Gallipoli and sent to Egypt.

In 1914, after decades of decline, the Maori people were said to number approximately 50,000.

The race could not afford a military disaster to its tiny population of young men.

This fact was well understood at the time and, after Gallipoli - with the exception of one or two attempted raids - the Maori contingent was never used again in an offensive operation.

When the Maori survivors from Gallipoli were combined with later reinforcements, in Egypt, they could still not muster sufficient Maori personnel for more than two companies.

At that stage an equal number of Pakeha platoons were added and a Pioneer Battalion was formed.

In September 1917, after further Maori reinforcements from New Zealand had arrived, the remaining Pakeha were sent to infantry units and the Pioneer Battalion became a totally Maori unit.

The rigours and danger of the construction work they performed in the frontline resulted in many casualties. Of the 2227 of all ranks who served, 321 died and 734 were wounded, making total casualties 1070 - nearly half the total number sent overseas.

Professor Keenan wonders about the reasons they went and "what direct interest Maori have ever had" in Gallipoli.

Britain was pretty important to both us and Australia, so we tended to take her side.

She took almost all we could produce, was almost our sole market, and gave us a system of law and order that, while not perfect, was better than the club and musket and protected us from even more rapacious nationalities.

There was even pride, yes "pride", in being a part of the great British Empire at that time.

Sir Maui Pomare wrote: "The rush of the Maori to offer his life in the nation's service not only gave proof that his hereditary fighting temper was as strong as ever at the call of danger: it enabled him to exhibit the supreme qualities of citizenship, a larger patriotism than mere clanship: endurance, valour and self-sacrifice in the highest degree."

It gave them adventure and mana, and they wanted that. Their efforts earned them respect and respect for the Maori race, as did the efforts of the Maori Battalion in the World War II.

They knew they could not just stand aside from the conflict and watch their friends and relations go.

So mourn but honour those Maori who sacrificed their life in European wars, along with their Pakeha countrymen, as their families do.

* Darcy Jones is a Herald reader from Hamilton with an interest in history.

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