The 1902 Māori Coronation Contingent asked Premier Richard Seddon to present their address to the new king concerning equal rights and the British refusal to allow indigenous troops to fight in South Africa. (Wairoa District Museum, 96/115/83)

This extract from Monty Soutar’s new book Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E! Māori in the First World War focuses on the New Zealand that Māori knew when war broke out in 1914. It begins with this edited foreword by the former Governor-General, Sir Jerry Matepaere:


Monty Soutar’s Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E! helps to tell the story, and the stories of the men, of the Māori Contingent at Gallipoli and the Māori (Pioneer) Battalion on the Western Front. As the saying goes: “It wasn’t all beer and skittles”, although there was some of that.

In all, 2227 Māori and 458 Pacific Islanders served with the battalion. Of those, 336 men were killed or died overseas, and a further 24 died in New Zealand of injuries sustained during the war.

It is stating the obvious to observe that New Zealand in 1914 was significantly different from contemporary New Zealand — technologically, socially, culturally and attitudinally. Good, sad and appalling things had occurred since the signing of the Treaty of Waitingi in 1840.

When war was declared in August 1914, it was only four months since veterans of the last major battle in the Waikato campaign had gathered at Ōrākau to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

There had been many other battles and transgressions and so, although some iwi were keen to support the momentum of “the Empire to the rescue”, some were opposed to sending their young men to fight in a European war. Nevertheless, there was a groundswell of support, and young Māori men keen to join for the fight enlisted, with the first 500 departing for the Middle East in February 1915.

Coming from warrior traditions, much was expected of the young men. The book traces the experiences of the Māori contingents through Egypt, Malta and Gallipoli to Europe, and finally their homecoming in April 1919.

After the Gallipoli campaign, and with doubts that Māori could sustain a frontline battalion, it was decided that the Māori contingent would be redesignated as a Pioneer battalion. In some quarters, the term “pioneer” has been associated with second-class soldiering. This book shows clearly that that was not the case — three Distinguished Service Orders, nine Military Crosses, four Distinguished Conduct Medals, 29 Military Medals and 39 mentions in despatches attest to that.

From the spine-chilling haka the contingent performed before it went into its first fight below Chunuk Bair in 1915, to the Māori soldier who defied orders and was among the first to enter Le Quesnoy in November 1918, these men set the standard for Māori and Pākehā alike, and especially for their sons and nephews, who would carry their mantle into the Second World War.

This book is part of the First World War Centenary History series produced jointly by Manatū Taonga (the Ministry for Culture and Heritage), Massey University and the New Zealand Defence Force. The publications cover the major campaigns in Europe and the Middle East, New Zealanders’ contributions in the air and at sea, the experiences of soldiers at the front and civilians at home, the Māori war effort, and the war’s impact and legacy.

Monty Soutar’s Whitiki! tells the story of Māori and Pākehā, and of Cook Islanders, Niueans, Fijians, Sāmoans and Tongans, transported to unfamiliar climes and locations. It is a story of elation and despair; of candour, evidenced in the words of the men — much of it expressed in their first language, Māori; and of their courage, commitment and comradeship. The disdain of Māori women denied the right to fight alongside their menfolk, as they had done in previous wars, is a reminder of different norms in different eras. This book adds much to our knowledge of our place in the world.

Sir Jerry Mateparae,

GNZM, QSO, Governor-General of New Zealand (2011–2016), 

March 2018.

King Te Rata Mahuta, Tupu Taingakawa (the king’s tumuaki/spokesman), Hori Paora, and Mita Karaka in 1914. They left New Zealand in April, witnessed the proclamation of war in London and returned to Auckland in September. (Auckland War Memorial Museum / Tamaki Paenga Hira, GN672-1n18.)

The Outbreak of War

A four-man delegation led by King Te Rata Mahuta of Waikato was in London when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. The party had visited Buckingham Palace to present King George V with a petition asking for the restoration of lands confiscated from Māori.

They were waiting for a ship home when London seemed to go mad. At Charing Cross station they watched women and children crying as trains full of Frenchmen left for home to fight, while in the street below their hotel balcony, 10,000 London Scots volunteers marched to camp. The might of the British Empire and the speed with which it could mobilise its forces was abundantly evident.

Just weeks earlier, few people in the United Kingdom had anticipated war, especially as the British had not been involved in a conflict in Europe since the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo almost a century earlier.

In New Zealand, there was a feeling that war was possible, but no one expected it so soon. The public learned of it on the afternoon of 5 August. In Parliament, Prime Minister W.F. (Bill) Massey expressed confidence that he could secure “tomorrow … thousands of young fellows of the Native race … anxious to fight for the country and the Empire.”

But was this the case? The internal wars of the 1860s, the subsequent land confiscations and the invasion of Parihaka in 1881 remained fresh in the memories of many Māori. Had the resulting resentments subsided sufficiently for their youth to volunteer enthusiastically?

Trainee Ngāpuhi nurses who travelled long distances on horseback to treat the sick. Their uniforms resembled those of the mounted troopers in South Africa. Descendants of well-known Ngāpuhi chiefs, the nurses are back (left to right): Sgt A. Calkin, Bugler M. Kaire. Front: Sgt-Maj. C. Calkin, Capt. Kingi and Lt G. Waetford.

Life in 1914

Like other New Zealanders, most Māori began 1914 more absorbed with the Auckland Exhibition — a world’s fair held over the summer in the Domain —  than with political developments in Europe. Twelve boys of Te Kao Native School captured the headlines when they walked with their headmaster the 325 miles from their Far North village to see the exhibition.

Māori interested in sport were following the progress of the touring Australian cricket team, which played its first game in Hamilton. A smallpox epidemic was still of concern to Māori in Northland and Waikato, where 30 had died — especially as they could only travel by train if issued a pass by the Public Health Department.

Kīngitanga iwi were involved with the annual Māori regatta on the Waikato River that had been combined with the New Zealand rowing championships. They had also become peripherally associated with the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Ōrākau, which a Pākehā committee was organising.

Ngāi Te Rangi were working with the Tauranga Borough Council to plan the unveiling of a monument to their rangātira (chief), Rawiri Puhirake. While most Māori Anglicans on the eastern seaboard were focused on the election of a new bishop for the Waiapu diocese, Ngāti Porou were at Papawai mourning the loss of their chief Tuta Nihoniho. Ngāti Huia were preparing to open the whare tīpuna (ancestral house) Tama-te-hura at Ōtaki.

While New Zealand had been elevated from a colony to a dominion of the British Empire in 1907, it was still obliged to follow Britain into war. Its symbols of nationhood — a flag (1902) and a Coat of Arms (1911) — were still relatively new, and patriotic functions usually took place under the Union Jack rather than the Southern Cross.

The currency was British pounds, shillings and pence. Fridges, freezers, dryers and flush toilets were conveniences of the future. There was no junk food or plastic, and cardboard was still a novelty. Most families used firewood to heat their stoves for cooking, while candles or oil lamps illuminated their dwellings at night.

With its suburbs, Auckland had a population of 100,000 and was the country’s main industrial centre and its largest city. The next biggest towns in the northern half of the North Island were Gisborne, with just over 8000 people, and the mining town of Waihi (nearly 6500). Very few Māori lived in these centres; the great majority were still rural dwellers.

Since the completion of the Main Trunk Line in 1908, the journey from Wellington to Auckland could be made by train in eighteen hours. Travel beyond the rail network was more arduous. Tar seal was only just beginning to be applied to some roads. The many unbridged rivers and streams were dangerous to ford in wet weather. Vehicles regularly bogged down in mud and suffered frequent punctures.

Travel by sea provided access to the many small bays, but was equally tedious. Where there was no dock or jetty, passengers had to be landed by launches or in surfboats from small coastal steamers. Overland travel in the countryside was on horseback, by horse-drawn coach or on foot. Motor cars were low-powered and expensive — an average five-seater cost about £190 and a two-seater £175, more than many public servants’ annual salaries. “Judging by the great number of these in use,” reported one newspaper of a hui in Ōtaki, “it would appear that the motor is regarded by the Māori as almost a necessity in these go-ahead times.”

Aeroplanes were a novelty; in January 1914 Joseph Hammond had become the first person to fly over Auckland city.

Telephones were used mainly by businesses, for local calls only. During the war, “someone in the family would be given the task of walking to the post office to write down the latest war news from the notice board outside”.

Saturday was known as “Rahoroi” (washday) because it took much of the day to handwash and dry linen and clothing. The old method of washing clothes was just beginning to be replaced by portable boilers.

People beyond one’s town or village were contacted by telegram (also known as a cablegram) or handwritten letter.

Every sizeable town had a racecourse, public hall, sports grounds, billiard saloons and hotels. Rugby football, rugby league, cricket, golf, hockey, “soccer” (association football), tennis, bowls, boxing, athletics and woodchopping were all in vogue.

The most popular entertainment was the “pictures”, silent movies screened in theatres, often to the accompaniment of live music played by small orchestras. Affluent households owned gramophones (phonographs) in addition to other trappings of modernity: player pianos, books, comfortable chairs.

Race Relations

Pākehā and Māori had entrenched views of each other that were based largely on perceived racial differences. Pākehā blamed Māori, for example, for spreading smallpox (brought to Northland by a Mormon missionary) during the 1913 outbreak. The press labelled it “the Māori epidemic”, some education boards instructed teachers not to admit “Māori and half-caste children until they can present certificates of successful vaccination”, and the health authorities invoked regulations preventing Māori in the Auckland region from travelling unless they could prove they had been vaccinated.Some restaurant owners went as far as barring Māori from their premises.

For their part, Māori saw the epidemic as a convenient excuse for Pākehā businesspeople to discriminate against them. Māori views were shaped both by decades of inequity and by a strongly developed sense of community in which there was little place for individualism. For many Pākehā, by contrast, individual ownership, rights and duties were foremost.

This Pākehā sense of cultural superiority was derived from the United Kingdom (where more than a quarter of the Pākehā population had been born) and it was also prevalent in the media.

The local press provided an essentially one-eyed view of Māori, often cast as a comic character, and saw little need to reflect Māori opinion. There were few constraints on the free expression of prejudice (sometimes vicious) and bigotry. Alfred Grace’s fictional “Hone Tiki” dialogues are an example of a patronising style of writing that mocked Māori speech.“I come from Kawhia … I come to get t’e money of t’e Gover’ment for t’e piece land t’ey buy from me an’ my brutter.”

While Pākehā thought Māori capable of learning a trade or working the land, most believed them incapable of entering the “learned professions”. This attitude was evident in the Native School curriculum, which beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, emphasised manual instruction, personal hygiene and (later) physical education.

Māori concert parties were popular throughout New Zealand. This group, photographed at Wairaka meeting house in 1912, was Whakatane-based. Some of them served overseas during the war.

In 1906, after a royal commission had inquired into Te Aute College for boys, headmaster John Thornton was pressured “to abandon his academic curriculum and adopt a technical one centred on agricultural studies”. When he refused, the Department of Education “curtailed financial scholarships”. To counter Māori objections to a technical curriculum, the Inspector-General of Education said that this would help Māori recognise “the dignity of manual labour”.

And the Inspector of Native Schools “declared that the purpose of Māori education was to prepare Māori for life amongst Māori, not to encourage them to mingle with Europeans in trade and commerce”. Captain Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) wrote from Egypt during the war that he had seen this prejudice at first hand: “Though living side by side, the Pākehā knows very little about the Māori and in many cases he thinks the Māori has degenerated.”

For more than 50 years “the schooling of Māori had been used as a means of social control and assimilation, and for the establishment of British law”. The reading material in Native Schools in 1914 reflected and reinforced an emphasis on English race and culture while inculcating patriotism. Intellectual development took second place to manual instruction in the curriculum, sowing the seeds of low teacher expectations, undermining traditional Māori knowledge, and developing “resistance, negativity and apathy towards school and education” among Māori pupils and parents alike. The immediate result was fewer career options for Māori, with manual labouring seen as a natural vocation. Such attitudes were entrenched by 1914, a fact reflected by the status given the Māori Contingent.

Although few Pākehā spoke Māori, younger Māori in particular were fluent in English. This worried some parents. “Woe is me,” remarked one mother to her husband in Māori, “our children have knowledge … we cannot share and speak a tongue … we do not understand.” The older members of nearly all North Island iwi conversed in Māori, except when addressing Pākehā.

South Island Māori were less likely to speak their native tongue because they were such a small minority of the population. Because Māori was not taught in schools (where its use had been banned a decade earlier) or universities, the language lacked prestige. Teachers in the Native Schools “were not expected to know Māori and were … discouraged from learning it on the assumption that it would lessen their efficiency in teaching English”.

The tangihanga of the Whanganui leader Takarangi Metekingi in 1915. The procession leaves Putiki Pā for the burial ground. Some Pākehā claimed that such gatherings were nurseries for disease.

A Pākehā entering a Māori community “was very much aware that he was in a world different from his own”. Pākehā often criticised the duration and expense of hui (tribal gatherings), an established Māori institution. The larger and more lavish these were, the greater the mana (prestige) acquired by the hosts. Mana was measured not by what was accumulated but by what was given away.

Using profits to benefit the wider group through hui was not ethically inferior to Pākehā using surpluses to benefit individuals. Moreover, hui enabled Māori to develop public and tribal opinion on topics of common interest, and to publicise projects. It was the hui, not the newspaper, that provided a forum for airing and criticising opinions. Hui also produced some of the country’s ablest orators.

As with Pākehā, Māori incomes varied greatly. Some Māori were well-off, able to buy modern luxuries, while others struggled to afford necessities. Conditions varied widely from settlement to settlement and region to region, and generalising about Māori lifestyles is problematic.

A few whānau, usually those of chiefly bloodlines who had benefited most from the individualisation of land titles, lived in large European-style houses. At the other extreme, especially where raupatu (land confiscation) had occurred, large extended families covering three or four generations were crowded into raupo whare, temporary tin shelters, or one- or two-room wooden huts with leaking walls and roofs, sack-covered windows and earthen floors. Some rural Pākehā lived in similar conditions, but this was uncommon.

Some Māori lived in dark, damp and inadequately ventilated dwellings unfit for habitation. Moreover, there was usually no form of drainage and houses were surrounded by mud and slush in wet weather. More than half of the Māori population did not have a safe water supply, and some broadcast excreta and discarded rubbish on their properties without burying it. Animals such as pigs and fowls were free to roam about and sometimes to enter houses. Nevertheless, 90 per cent of Māori homes were neat and tidy inside, their earthen floors kept scrupulously clean, no matter how dilapidated they appeared from the outside.

Many Māori still grew their own staple crops of kumara and potatoes, and regularly gathered fish, dried shark, koura/crayfish and other shellfish if they were coast-dwellers, and wild pigs, kereru/New Zealand pigeon, tuna/eel and puha/sow thistle if they lived inland. Foraging skills were to prove useful for Māori soldiers overseas. By custom food preparation and cooking was conducted away from the living quarters, either outside or under a separate shelter (kauta).

Māori children, especially girls, generally had a sheltered upbringing. Heeni Wharemaru, who was born in 1912 in a dirt-floor, ponga-walled house in Kamate, described her childhood as idyllic. When her Ngāti Maniapoto parents were not around, her brothers kept her safe.

Most children were also exposed to spirituality, be it Christian, Māori or a combination of both. “In the evenings we sometimes sat and listened to our mum and dad tell stories about kehua, or ghosts,” recalled Heeni, who grew up Methodist. “I can remember quite distinctly my dad being held up by a group of ghosts who were sitting right across the road, blocking his way. He had no choice but to get off his horse and talk to them.”


This extract is from Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E! Māori in the First World War written by Monty Soutar and published by Bateman Publishing (RRP: $69.99)

Monty Soutar ONZM (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tai, Ngāti Kahungunu) is a senior historian with Manatū Taonga / The Ministry for Culture and Heritage. He was the World War One Historian-in-Residence at the Auckland War Memorial Museum (2014−17), and the author of Nga Tama Toa (David Bateman, 2008), which told the story of C Company of 28 (Māori) Battalion in the Second World War. Monty has been a teacher, soldier and university lecturer and has held a number of appointments on national bodies, including the First World War Centenary Panel and the Waitangi Tribunal. He’s now leading a digital project on Te Tiriti o Waitangi settlements in Aotearoa. 

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