Monty Soutar has made it his mission to gather and present the stories and images that show the significant but costly part that Māori soldiers have played in the two world wars.
Among the many projects he’s undertaken has been Ngā Tama Toa: The Price of Citizenship,his book recounting the role of the 28th Māori Battalion’s C Company in World War II.
And now he has a 400-page book (with a focus on 1914-18) about to be published. It is Whitiki: Māori in the First World War.
Monty spent four years in the New Zealand Army, but it’s as a historian and writer that he’s been making his valuable mark. In this chat with Dale, he explains how he got into this line of work — and what it means to him.
Kia ora, Monty. In these interviews, we’re always meeting people with interesting lives — and some of them, like you, with unusual names as well. Monty, for instance, isn’t all that common, is it?
A lot of people assume that, because I’ve written about the war, my name has something to do with Field Marshall Montgomery in World War Two. But that’s not so. It goes back before then when school principals often were the main authority in many Māori communities.
And, in Paroa, in Whakatane, where my dad is from, the native school there had a headmistress who used to name a number of the kids when they were born, because she’d be there at their birth. There was a Monty in her family. And that’s the name she gave my father. So I’ve inherited that. It has nothing to do with the war as far as I know.
My full name is Monty Glyn Soutar. Soutar is Scottish. That comes from a Presbyterian minister who landed in New Zealand in the 1870s. He started off in Nelson and ended up in Whakatane. You’ll know the story of Reverend Carl Volkner who was killed at Ōpōtiki in 1865, when the Pai Mārire faith was strong. Well, my Pākehā tipuna, Alexander Chalmers Soutar, took over that parish area in Whakatane, after Carl Volkner.
He had a son who married a Ngāti Porou woman. And that’s our line. Glyn is a Welsh name, and I got that from a friend of my mother’s brother who’d served in the army in Korea.
You’re from a big family, aren’t you? Where do you come in the lineup?
There’s seven of us. Five boys and two girls. I’m right in the middle. My mother Kino’s family was from Hiruharama, near Ruatoria. She had two brothers who both served in the army overseas. They had a lot of whāngai in her family. I think there was a dozen of them that I’ve known as my uncles and aunties all of my life. And we had some of our grandparents’ whāngai live with us as well, after the old people had passed away. So we’re used to a lot of people being around.
Then you were sent off to Hato Paora for your high school education, weren’t you?
Yes. I followed on after my two older brothers, and then I had a younger brother following on a year after me. We’re not Catholics, but it’s just that, when we were living in Kawerau, my mother was impressed by a Hato Paora boy who we once billeted during a rugby tournament — and she thought that, if it was good enough for him to go to Hato Paora, she’d send her boys there, too.
It was Catholic priests who ran the school, some of them very well-educated priests from the Society of Mary. They were men who were committed to the education of Māori boys. I know my English teacher had a master’s in education. He was Father Barn Xavier Doherty, and he introduced us to poetry and Shakespeare and things like that, which we’d never heard of as young Māori boys coming from the Coast.
Another priest, Father Lee, pushed me into taking extra subjects for School Certificate, and that prepared me well for tertiary education.
And another influence, this time on the Māoritanga side, was Morvin Simon from Kaiwhaiki in Whanganui. He instilled in us a pride in our Māori side that we have pursued as a result. From there, I went straight to training college in Palmerston North, largely because I didn’t know what else to do. That allowed me to do a degree and I ended up becoming a primary school teacher.
For how long and where?
I went back to Ruatoria, where I’d been to school myself. I did two years at Manutahi Primary, and I chose that area, partly because of my links to the place. I wanted to grow my knowledge of my mother’s side. But I did only two years there, even though I thoroughly enjoyed my class of Standard 4 children, 90 percent of them Māori.
But there weren’t a lot of teaching resources, especially if you wanted to teach local history, or New Zealand history from a Māori perspective. Luckily, Sir Tamati Reedy, who was the Secretary of Māori Affairs at the time, allowed me to go into the Māori Land Court in Gisborne and work through all the minute books and historical records to see if I could build a local history resource for schools on the East Coast. So I did that for two years.
I imagine that was really satisfying because it’s important for our young people to grow up knowing the richness of the histories of the hills and valleys and rivers that surround them.
It is. And I couldn’t understand why we should be studying Marco Polo and George Washington when, outside the window, we had pā sites. So, in my class, we talked about the heroes and explorers who had direct relevance to the young students in front of me.
One of the teachers at the school, Mate Kawai, was Apirana Ngata’s daughter, and another was Ripeka Heeney, who was Moana Ngarimu’s sister. I thought: “There are living resources right here. Why don’t we teach them about their brother and father?”
And I also thought that, if I could instil a bit of pride and local history about the place where these kids were going to school, that would help them across a range of other activities. And it did. They’d never been taught anything, really, about local history. So they changed overnight.
And what also changed was their attitude to the core subjects, like maths, writing and reading, because they developed a sense of worth from learning about themselves and their local history.
I think that’s probably half the problem for a lot of our young people who don’t know who they are, and they’re hungry for that knowledge. It just doesn’t exist in an easy, accessible way. That’s one of the main reasons I went into writing. It happened to be military history, but I saw in the stories of the Māori Battalion, for example, good positive role models. I thought there was more than enough negative stuff in the press already.
Like so many Māori families, yours has been deeply affected by the loss of relatives in the course of wars overseas. For instance, your nana lost a son at 21, in Italy.
That’s true. My grandmother Iritana’s eldest son volunteered at 17 and was killed and buried in Italy at 21. He was Second Lieutenant Sam Paniora. He needed her permission to get overseas. Initially, she wouldn’t give it, but he told her he’d get someone else to sign him off and go anyway — but he’d prefer to have her permission. So, reluctantly, she agreed.
She never got over it. And, as a result of his death, she whangai’d two of her nephews. One of them was a Campbell, but she called him Soldier Sam Paniora.
He recently passed away. People at Waipareira would know him well.
Faenza, my other uncle, is still in Pōkeno. He was named after the place that my uncle was killed. Then my nana had a niece named Forli and she was named after the place where Sam was buried in Italy.
My mother was only seven or eight when Sam went away and she was about 11 when he died. So her family’s home became sort of a memorial to him. And Mum’s mission in life was to go and see where Sam lies.
Back in the early ‘70s, it was difficult to get to places like that. She died relatively young, at 49, so she never got to go. But that dream of hers was instilled in all of us children, and most of us have been there as a consequence. We went in the 1990s. So his story and name have come down through the generations.
I’m sure you’ve attended many gravesites over the years, but visiting Sam’s must’ve been an especially moving experience.
Yes. Well, it was particularly significant going to that cemetery in Forli and seeing his grave. He lies in a line of about seven men from his own platoon. Cousins. I went with some siblings and, naturally, we were thinking of our mother and her brothers who never got across there to see the grave. Thinking about our grandmother as well.
And all that emotion impacts on you. You realise that you’re not there on your own — you’re the embodiment of all those others who would’ve liked to have been there. It was almost too emotional. Being ex-army myself, there was that extra sort of thinking in my mind, too. But just being able to touch the stone and have some time there. That was great.
Our cemetery, at that stage, on the East Coast was blackberry and gorse. But, in Italy, we were looking at these beautiful, manicured cemeteries, and that had us thinking we’re kind of glad he’s there — he’s well looked after.
The Italian people who came with us conveyed to us very sincerely that they appreciate what these young men tried to do to help liberate their country. Our initial thought, when we left New Zealand, was that we’d like to bring Sam home, bring his bones home.
But having him there keeps the tie between the Italians and us. We’ve made good friends with the family at the place where he was killed. So we’re at peace now that he’s lying on foreign soil.
We still speak of the bravery of our Māori soldiers during these campaigns, their sacrifices. How does that make you feel, Monty, when you see how disadvantaged our people are despite what we gave in those war years? What feelings does that invoke in you?
I’m frustrated. In one recent interview, I was asked if the government should apologise to the Māori Battalion. But no, I don’t think we need an apology. We need equality, because that’s what it was about for them. Sure, they went overseas to keep the enemy at bay, assist England, and play their part in the empire we were in.
But I don’t think they ever envisaged that, for their descendants, the rates of incarceration, ill-health and unemployment were going to soar when they came back from the war. After the First World War and then the Second World War, there were these promises that there would be more and more opportunities.
Ngata’s “price of citizenship” was, first, about the obligations and responsibilities of citizenship. He wanted us to be treated as equals in war, and the hope was that we would have equality of opportunity in peace time.
So now, when I look at the country, I think this is not what they fought for. The system is broken and we all know that. You’ve got to start listening to what Māori are saying, I believe, if you’re going to get some results that matter. How many more years do we need to keep at it while the stats get worse and worse?
In the course of your work — it’s been remarkable work too, Monty — you’ve no doubt interviewed a host of people. I suspect, though, that there are some that stick in your mind.
One that comes to mind immediately is Miki Harrison, who was a ‘39er and went away with the first lot of 28th Māori Battalion. I was relatively young at the time and I was on the camera. Our veterans were interviewing him at Te Puia Springs and it was a stock standard interview about what happened to him overseas.
Right at the end, the interviewer asked if there anything else he wanted to put on record. He stared into the distance, and then away he went. Fortunately, I had the camera still rolling, and he talked about Greece. He said that he was a pacifist. He didn’t go to war to shoot anybody. But in Greece, when they were withdrawing and their platoon got separated from the battalion, they hopped on a large schooner that was heading out.
The Australians were getting on, and this platoon of Miki’s got on it, too. Civilians as well. And then a Stuka dive bomber swooped in and bombed the ship. Everybody was rushing off on to the pier. People had been killed. Then, as others ran towards the streets of Athens, there were some “fifth columnists”, as he called them, who were German sympathisers, with a machine gun up in the hotel window, firing on them.
He said his cousin was caught by the machine gun bullets. He was pretty much a goner, but he was still alive and, because he was in so much pain, he called to Miki: “Miki, shoot me.” There was a wounded British soldier who’d been shot in the face, crawling up on to the pier next to him. And Miki figured that, if he had to shoot his cousin, he’d have to shoot this other guy as well. He said: “I didn’t come here to shoot anybody, least of all my own relatives.” So he turned away. His cousin said to him: “Miki Harrison, you f’in coward.”
He said that voice would revisit him, in dreams every now and then, throughout his lifetime. He told us that when he heard on the radio that we were coming to interview him, he had the dream again, “clearer than ever before.”
Miki died sometime after that interview, but he said that, when he came home from the war, a lot of his relatives used to say, because he got captured in Greece, “You never really got to the war, Miki, because you got captured at the start and spent your years in a prison.”
What he was conveying to us was that they didn’t understand the trauma that he carried throughout life as a result of that incident. I remember that particular interview because I think of the post-traumatic stress disorder that our men must’ve come back with from the First World War, and subsequent wars, and there was really no programme to treat them.
So their families had to deal with these men who were trying to cope with the trauma. I think we underestimate, even today, that our young men and women coming back from places like Afghanistan or Iraq might not have been in a fighting zone but they still would’ve seen things that would have been difficult to cope with in peace time back here in New Zealand.
Monty, as well as doing all your research and writing, you’ve put a great deal of energy into pushing for the C Company Memorial House in Gisborne. I wonder what your whānau’s reaction has been to your commitment to that project.
I’m sure they’re proud that I’ve contributed in the way I have, but yeah, it is a strain on the family because you’re away so much, and because you’re a public figure, people sometimes want a bit of your time. So finding time for ourselves can be a challenge. People come up and tell you how much they appreciate what you’ve done because it’s helped them personally, or that they’ve learned something about their fathers or uncles that they didn’t know before, and now have an appreciation of why they were like what they were during their lives.
There are some folk who say we dwell on our war history too much. How do you respond to those who say that we shouldn’t spend so much time looking back at this military stuff?
Yes, I’ve heard that, too. This is just the way Māori value their ancestors. It’s a natural thing for us to do. I remember going down to interview a Māori veteran at a retirement home and some of the Pākehā veterans asked: “How come you guys are always after the Māori Battalion? They seem to be glory boys of the division. We were all there. Why isn’t someone coming to talk to us?”
I said: “We can’t do everybody. We’re Māori. These are our uncles. We owe it to them. It’s for your own to come and do your stories.” That’s when I realised it’s a natural Māori thing to focus on this.
And particularly, my two sides of Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou. Ngāti Porou, in particular, because you had 10 per cent of the Māori population in our area go overseas in World War II and it was a significant proportion in World War I, as well.
Every family was affected. I know there’s not a family where I come from who can’t point to two or three uncles, or their father, who were away at the war. And the consequence is that you want to remember.
The C Company Memorial House that opened nearly five years ago seems to be a particularly valuable way of helping with the remembering. That really was a significant achievement, wasn’t it?
I was just one of many who were involved in putting the house together. I certainly wasn’t the driver of it. There were lots of us — all for the same reason, because we were descendants of those men, or were related.
It was the same with the book Ngā Tama Toa. That wasn’t a one-man effort. That was a big team of people. There’s no way one individual could have done all this stuff. They’re team efforts. And so it has been as we prepare to launch the First World War book.
As for the C Company house, that in a way is really quite a simple plan. It’s just photos on the wall, photos that families brought in and that we put up. It’s got a cathedral-like appearance. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about the atmosphere, the wairua of that building, that makes it contemplative for visitors.
You watch who come in. They touch photographs of their relatives. They weep over them. Which is something you couldn’t really do in a museum. Whereas in this place, because everything is a copy, they’ll pin a poppy to a frame. It would be horrendous in a museum, but you can do that in the C Company house.
Really, what they’re doing is expressing their aroha and their emotion for the soldier and the place.
And one difference with this particular exhibition is that there’s always a volunteer who sits there, because we know, when people come in, they want to share a story, their emotion, with somebody. To come in there by yourself, that’s okay, but you always want to talk to somebody about why you’ve come. I think that adds another dimension to that particular house. It’s got a wairua of its own.
What are your plans for the future? What’s driving you now?
We’ve got the launch of the First World War book coming up in June. We’re in the planning phase for the launch at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The reason that the official launch is being done there is because that’s where the Māori Pioneer Battalion returned to, 100 years ago this year — the Auckland Domain. That’s where they were welcomed.
And another link was that I was the World War One historian in residence at the museum while I was writing the book — as well as being a historian for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. So, in a sense, it’s giving back.
The second launch will be in Gisborne because much of the material came from this region. We also thought to have it here because, 100 years ago, there was the grand Hui Aroha which welcomed back the Pioneers (the Māori Battalion that served during World War One) from the eastern seaboard, which is pretty much the Bay of Plenty down to Wairarapa. They were dropped in Gisborne and welcomed there, so we thought we’d recreate that.
We’re going to put 100 young men in World War One uniforms. Fortunately Sir Peter Jackson has stumped up again to supply those uniforms. And we’re inviting all the iwi to take part by sending three or four young men to be part of the guard.
We’ve got a wānanga weekend early next month where they’ll be trained to march and sing some of the old World War One songs. They’ll parade through the main street of Gisborne on June 8. It’ll be quite a spectacle to see 100 men dressed in the Pioneer uniforms. Those 100 men doing the haka will, I think, be a sight worth seeing.
After that I’m going to have a good rest and think about what next. I think I’ll move away from military history, although I’m still down to assist A and D companies, in a small way, to help them complete their histories.
My small part in helping to ensure that our soldiers are not forgotten is to present history through a Māori lens.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
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