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Ngā pakanga ki tāwāhi – Māori and overseas wars

by Monty Soutar

‘We’ll fight right to the end. For God! For King! And for Country! Ake, ake, kia kaha e!’ This rousing marching song written for the 28th (Māori) Battalion was hugely popular during the Second World War. Māori who served overseas in wartime have often been known as fierce and determined fighters – a force to be reckoned with.

Māori and the South African War

Māori and overseas wars

Māori have taken part in every international theatre of war that New Zealand has been involved in. From the first they eagerly devoured the war news, the elders making the young people read aloud to them. On marae Māori debated the justification for each war, considering their collective responses given their obligations as citizens of the British Empire. It was little wonder that Māori, with their own history of warfare, should take a deep interest in the struggles in South Africa, Europe and South-East Asia, and wish to join in when volunteers were called for.

Māori response to the South African War

Tena ra e tama ma e! E tapa i o koutou ingoa!1
Well done boys! Go and make a name for yourselves!

Fighting on, ever

Walter Callaway of Coromandel was one of the first to volunteer for South Africa. He served with three of the contingents, was commissioned as an officer and was mentioned in dispatches. Callaway’s Māori war cry, ‘Kia kaha Niu Tireni! Whawhai maia mo to Kuini, to kainga! Ake! Ake! Ake!’ (Be strong New Zealand! Fight bravely for your Queen, your country! Ever! Ever! Ever!)2 was adopted by the contingents and appeared on patriotic envelopes used by the troops.

The South African War, often known as the Boer War, broke out in October 1899. In the weeks before the outbreak of the war Māori, including many serving in the country’s part-time Volunteer Force, offered to do their part in defending the British Empire. Some prominent identities proposed to personally lead a ‘native’ contingent to South Africa. When Lord Roberts, the commander-in-chief of British troops in South Africa, lost his only son in the fighting, Ngāti Porou chief Tuta Nihoniho sent him a handsome ancestral mere pounamu (greenstone club), along with the offer of 500 troops. The soldiers were ‘to ornament [his] feet or to accompany [his] dear son on his journey’.3

Offers of troops were declined – British policy at the time was not to employ ‘native’ troops in wars between white groups. The New Zealand authorities unofficially turned a blind eye to the ban. About 20 Māori, generally of mixed ethnicity, managed to join up as part of the contingents that went abroad. They enlisted under European surnames such as Arthur (Aata), Boyd, Callaway (Karawe), Ferris (Wherihi), Joseph (Hohepa), Pitt (Piti), Poynter, Thorpe (Taapu), Vercoe, Walker (Waaka) and Withers. The Māori press applauded their efforts, patriotically supporting the war.

Ngāpuhi nursing sisters

In 1901 a party of Ngāpuhi women of chiefly descent established a group known as the Ngāpuhi nursing sisters or Ngāpuhi Sisters of Mercy. They trained in first aid and carried out fundraising activities for the South African War. They were all good horsewomen and appear to have travelled around the Whangārei area treating the sick. The sisters wore a uniform based on that of the Mounted Volunteers in South Africa.

Pro-Boers and patriots

There were some Māori communities who sympathised with the Boers, feeling that responsibility for the war lay with the British who wanted more land. Patriots thought that these Māori communities had been encouraged by pro-Boer Dutch and German priests exploiting Māori land grievances.

Some iwi, keen to express their patriotism, were active in raising funds to support New Zealand troops overseas and to provide for the families of servicemen killed or wounded during the war. Waiata and haka were also composed and performed by civilians and servicemen alike, the best-known being ‘Kikia te Poa’ (Kick the Boer).

    • Pipiwharauroa: he kupu whakamarama, 1 April 1900, p. 5. Back
    • Mike Dwight, Walter Callaway: a Māori warrior of the Boer War. Thames: M. Dwight, 2010, p. 33. Back
    • Manawatu Standard, 31 March 1900, p. 4. Back

Māori and the First World War

Māori recruitment

E te iwi, whītiki! Whiti! Whiti e!1
O people, gird yourselves [for battle]! Spring up! Spring up!

Young Māori Party and war

The Young Māori Party was a group of young Māori leaders who had been students at Te Aute College, Hawke’s Bay, in the 1890s. While dedicated to the welfare of the Māori people, they also urged adaptation to the Pākehā world. Young Māori Party leaders Apirana Ngata and Māui Pōmare were MPs during the war. Both were members of the parliamentary Māori Contingent Committee. Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), a doctor, former MP and Young Māori Party leader, was in the Māori Contingent during the war. He saw service in Gallipoli, France and Belgium and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

When the First World War began many tribes answered the call, offering themselves for immediate service. In contrast to the South African War, the offer of a 500-strong Māori Contingent was accepted by the British government. During the war 2,500 Māori served overseas, a strong commitment from a total Māori population of 63,000. Recruitment was variable, with some communities volunteering in large numbers, while others made no response. This unevenness reflected the experiences different tribes had as a result of the New Zealand wars of the 19th century. Those tribes who had been allies of the Crown tended to be supportive of the war. Those who had fought the Crown, often suffering land confiscation as a result, tended to reject participation in the First World War.

An inherent fighting spirit motivated the young volunteers, but they generally belonged to tribes whose experiences of colonialism made them amenable to notions of civic responsibility and service. They included Ngāpuhi and the other tribes in the far north; Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou on the East Coast; and Te Arawa in the Bay of Plenty. Tribal elders encouraged the youth, influenced by patriotic ideals and the obligations of citizenship inherent in their ancestors’ commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi.

A nurse in the first 50

Ethel Watkins Taylor (later Ethel Pritchard) of Ngāpuhi was, in 1915, one of the first contingent of 50 volunteers with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. Watkins Taylor nursed in Alexandria, Egypt, treating the sick and wounded from Gallipoli. She served throughout the war, later working on hospital ships and at army hospitals in England.


In 1916 conscription for Pākehā males was introduced to ensure reinforcements for units overseas. Later this policy was extended to include Māori in the Waikato–Maniapoto Native Land Court district, whose lack of support for the war effort was reflected in the sparse numbers of volunteers. These tribes protested strongly against being required to fight for a sovereign power which in the 1860s had branded their ancestors as rebels, invaded their territory and confiscated thousands of hectares of their land. The Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) under the Māori King Te Rata and his niece Te Puea Hērangi actively opposed conscription and discouraged volunteering.

A Māori Kaiser?

Ngāi Tūhoe of the Urewera was one of the tribes that suffered greatly in the 1860s wars. In 1907 the followers of Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana established a community in the Urewera mountains, at Maungapōhatu. With the coming of war Rua discouraged his followers from volunteering. Some Pākehā feared that he was a Māori ‘Kaiser’, actively supporting the Germans. A party of 67 police marched on Maungapōhatu in April 1916, to arrest Rua on charges of illicitly selling alcohol. An armed confrontation occurred in which Rua’s son and uncle were killed.

By 1919 only 74 Māori conscripts had gone to camp out of a total of 552 men called up. 111 Māori had been arrested for resisting conscription, with warrants out for another 100.

    • Quoted in Christopher Pugsley, Te Hokowhitu a Tu: the Maori Pioneer Battalion in the First World War. Auckland: Reed, 1995, pp. 15 and 23. Back

Māori contingent in the First World War

The Native Contingent at Gallipoli

The first Māori unit in the First World War, known as the Native Contingent, had Māori junior officers, but Pākehā filled the higher ranks. After completing training at Avondale racecourse in Auckland, the contingent sailed for Egypt in February 1915.

Gallipoli haka

Writer James Cowan described the Māori attack on a hill called Table Top at Gallipoli: ‘The Maoris went into that splendid attack, their first battle with the bayonet, in a mood of savage determination and delight. This was their chance for fame. They went grimly for those Turks, bayoneted them in their lines, they burst into a tremendous haka when they had cleared the trenches – “Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora! then silence as they pressed on to the next point.’1

Intended as a garrison force (a body of troops detailed for defence), the contingent was stationed on Malta when the landing took place at Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey. Following the severe losses at Gallipoli, the unit landed at Anzac Cove in July. The contingent, originally 16 officers and 461 ordinary ranks, soon suffered heavy casualties. By September only 60 men remained on the peninsula. By December, when the Australian and New Zealand forces were evacuated, unit strength stood at two officers and 132 men. Numbers had been boosted by the return of men who had recovered from wounds and illness.

Many Māori soldiers had been at Gallipoli from the outset, having volunteered for the provincial infantry battalions. One was Wātene Moeke (who served with the Auckland Regiment as William Moeki), the first Māori casualty of the war, who was killed during the 25 April landings. Some Māori also served in the Australian Imperial Force, while a few enlisted with the British Army.

Māori Pioneer Battalion

After Gallipoli the Native Contingent, along with the shattered Otago Mounted Rifles, was re-formed into a pioneer battalion, participating in the rest of the war in a support role. They were responsible for digging trenches, building roads and other duties behind the front line, and were expected to have fewer casualties than the infantry units. In spite of this, the unit suffered heavily in France, its duties consistently carrying the men into the trenches. From early 1916 the Māori reinforcements were supplemented by Pacific Islanders, including Rarotongans, Tongans, Niueans and some Samoans. By August 1917 there were adequate reinforcements to fill the battalion so on 1 September it became the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion with its original badge restored.

The first Māori VC

Second Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first airman to receive a Victoria Cross. Born into a wealthy English family, Rhodes-Moorhouse was the grandson of Wellington settler William Barnard Rhodes and Ōtahui of Ngāti Ruanui. Rhodes-Moorhouse received his VC for a bombing attack in April 1915 on the rail junction at Courtrai, Belgium. He died the next day from wounds inflicted during the raid.

War’s end

When the armistice was signed, the battalion was heading towards the German border to become part of the Rhine garrison. However, the British high command decided not to use ‘native troops’ to garrison Germany. Although they resented this attitude, many of the Pioneers were pleased to be heading home. In March 1919 the unit sailed for New Zealand aboard the Westmoreland.

The Māori contingent received a rousing welcome with parades and receptions throughout the country. A Māori Pioneer rugby team toured the country for a series of provincial games.

Throughout the war the contingent and its reinforcements drew more than 2,500 men overseas, including 470 Pacific Islanders. Casualties included 336 men killed on active service, and over 700 wounded.

    • James Cowan, The Maoris in the Great War: a history of the New Zealand Native Contingent and Pioneer Battalion: Gallipoli 1915, France and Flanders 1916–1918. Auckland: Maori Regimental Committee, 1926, p. 39. Back

Second World War: the Māori war effort

Māori in the fighting forces

We’ll fight right to the end. For God! For King! And for Country! Ake, ake, kia kaha e!1

Māori made a sustained and valuable contribution to the armed forces during the Second World War. When war was declared many volunteered immediately for the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF), and some left New Zealand with the 1st Echelon in January 1940.

There would be men of Māori descent in all of the infantry battalions throughout the war, while numerous Māori volunteers were spread throughout the other services. They were in air crew serving with Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in both Europe and the Far East. Sergeant Bert Wipiti shared the distinction of shooting down the first Japanese bomber over Singapore in 1941. Flying Officer Porokoru (John) Pohe was the first Māori pilot to arrive in England after passing through the Empire Air Training Scheme. He flew bombers over Germany until shot down. Pohe was executed on recapture after escaping with 76 other prisoners in the ‘Great Escape’ from the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III.

A handful of Māori women went abroad with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service or as voluntary aids (VAs) with the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), while many younger men served in the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). The major contribution to the war was, however, the all-Māori infantry unit, the 28th (Māori) Battalion.

Defending the home front

In addition to the 28th (Māori) Battalion many Māori also served at home in territorial units and in the Home Guard. In May 1941 a move began to recruit Māori into the Territorials, with some of the northern regiments forming Māori sub-units. With the threat of a Japanese invasion in January 1942, all Māori registered for overseas service or for the Territorials were called up and posted to units stationed near their homes. Māori also served in considerable numbers in the Home Guard. Ngāti Porou formed a mounted Home Guard regiment to patrol the East Coast.

The Māori war effort at home

Māori were productive on the home front, involving themselves in the huge fundraising and production drive that New Zealanders undertook during the 1940s. They were active in the munitions factories in the cities – the start of the Māori urban migration from rural areas. In June 1942 the government established the Māori War Effort Organisation responsible to Paraire Paikea, the minister in charge of the Māori war effort. The country was divided into 21 administrative zones. and 315 tribal committees were formed to assist with recruiting and primary production, and cooperate in directing Māori manpower.

Māori women’s war effort

For some Māori women the war opened up opportunities to enter war-related industries, and some moved to the cities in the process. Others supported the war effort through voluntary work and fundraising, along with baking and knitting for the troops. A particularly important job was preparing and sending traditional foods to the Māori Battalion. Pipi and pūpū (shellfish), karengo (edible seaweed), tuna (eel), mangō (shark), kōura (crayfish tails), kūmara (sweet potatoes) and karaka berries were dehydrated. Other foods, including tītī (muttonbirds), were tinned or preserved in barrels for shipping to the front.

The anti-British sentiment in some Māori communities remained strong in 1939 although it was masked by the swift response by many tribes to the declaration of war. Te Puea Hērangi reaffirmed the unwavering opposition of Waikato and the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) to taking part in the war overseas while the government ignored their land grievances. They would instead expend their efforts raising funds, growing food, caring for the sick and wounded and training to guard the country from invasion.

Other leaders, such as politician Sir Apirana Ngata, believed that if Māori wanted to have a say in shaping the future of the nation after the war, they needed to participate fully during it. He stated, ‘We are of one house, and if our Pakeha brothers fall, we fall with them. How can we ever hold up our heads, when the struggle is over, to the question, “Where were you when New Zealand was at war?”’ 2

    • ‘Māori Battalion,’ (last accessed 29 February 2012). Back
    • Quoted in Monty Soutar, Ngā tama toa: The price of citizenship: C Company 28 (Māori) Battalion 1939–1945. Auckland: David Bateman, 2008, p. 35. Back

The 28th (Māori) Battalion

Forming the battalion

In October 1939 the government agreed to establish an all-Māori unit, the 28th (Māori) Battalion. Māori were eager to prove their equality with their Pākehā comrades as warriors and to earn the full benefits and privileges of citizenship. Even in 1939, the Māori sense of being accepted as equals within New Zealand was marginal.

The Māori Battalion was organised on tribal lines under tribal leaders. Overall command initially went to George Dittmer, a Pākehā professional soldier and First World War veteran. At first there was some resentment towards a European commander, but this was rapidly overcome by Dittmer’s professional competence and strict discipline. Later in the war the battalion was commanded by a number of Māori officers, including Lieutenant Colonels Tiwi Love, Fred Baker, Charles Bennett, Reta Keiha, Peta Awatere and James Hēnare.

The battalion trained for three months at the Palmerston North showgrounds. On 1 May 1940 approximately 780 members of the Māori Battalion left for Egypt as part of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s 2nd Echelon. It would be followed by 12 contingents of reinforcements and remain on active service for almost six years. The battalion was diverted to the United Kingdom for the rest of 1940, to help defend southern England.

Ake, ake, kia kaha e!

The Māori Battalion marching song became enormously popular with Māori and Pākehā audiences during the Second World War. It was composed in late 1939 by Corporal Anania (Nan) Amohau of Te Arawa. The tune was from an American university tune of the early 1900s, the Washington and Lee Swing. The song soon spread from Te Arawa to become the marching song for the whole battalion.

Into battle: Greece, Crete and North Africa

In 1941 the battalion departed from England for North Africa. From Egypt it embarked on its baptism of fire – the defence of Greece. After its first battle at Olympus Pass, the battalion made an exhausting withdrawal, evacuating to the island of Crete. In the Battle of Crete the Māori soldiers developed a reputation as feared opponents in close-quarters combat.

The battalion fought through the North African campaigns of 1941–43. It was involved in taking Sollum and Gazala in Libya, the breakout at Minqar Qaim in Egypt and the Battle of Alamein. Against great odds it captured the key features at Tebaga Gap and the Takrouna pinnacle in Tunisia. Second Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage at Tebaga Gap. The battalion’s hard fighting was reflected in its casualty rate: 270 dead and 815 wounded. Of its seven commanders during this period two were killed, and three wounded.

Victoria Cross controversy

In April 1943 Sergeant Haane Te Rauawa Manahi and a small group of Māori soldiers captured an enemy stronghold on the Takrouna pinnacle. Following the action Manahi was recommended for a Victoria Cross for his bravery. For reasons that remain mysterious, Manahi’s recommendation was downgraded and he was awarded the lesser decoration of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Manahi died in 1986, but the case for his receiving the Victoria Cross was reopened by his tribe, Te Arawa, and the Returned and Services Association (RSA) in 2005. Manahi was eventually honoured in March 2007, when Prince Andrew presented Te Arawa with an altar cloth, a ceremonial sword and a letter from the Queen.

Fighting in Italy, 1943–45

The Māori Battalion’s first two battles in Italy were sobering. Its attack at Orsogna in December 1943 was rebuffed with more than 50 casualties. At Cassino two of its companies sustained horrendous casualties during a failed attack on the railway station in February 1944. Of the 200 men who started out, 128 were killed, wounded or captured. The advance on Florence came next, followed by fighting around Faenza in December, before the battalion took part in the final race to Trieste. With the exception of 270 men who were deployed to Japan as part of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, the battalion returned to New Zealand in January 1946.

The record of the Māori Battalion

Throughout the war 15,744 Māori volunteered for the armed forces, serving with distinction both at home and abroad. The total Māori population at the time was just under 100,000. More than 3,600 men, all volunteers, served with the Māori Battalion. The battalion suffered 2,628 casualties (649 killed, 1,712 wounded and 267 taken prisoner or missing), almost 50% more than the New Zealand average. The unit received 99 honours and awards, the highest number among New Zealand infantry battalions.

Read more about the battalion on the 28th Māori Battalion website.

Overseas service after 1945


The tradition of having a Māori unit continued in Jayforce (the force that served in Japan after the Second World War), with the 270-strong D Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment. Sent from Italy to Japan in 1946, it was made up entirely of volunteers from the 28th (Māori) Battalion. Two drafts of reinforcements recruited from volunteers in New Zealand replaced them in mid-1946 and mid-1947. Their role in Japan was largely one of demilitarisation and demobilisation. They were stationed in the Yamaguchi and neighboring Shimane prefectures on the southern tip of Honshu.

Sam Rangiihu

As the Korean War went on the number of Māori in Kayforce increased. In 1953 a Māori chaplain, Rimu Hamiora ‘Sam’ Rangiihu, was appointed to the force. Renowned for his singing, Rangiihu was a brawny man who was brought in at times to reinforce discipline among the Māori gunners. In 1954, after the ceasefire, he was instrumental in having the ecumenical chapel of St Barbara built at the Kayforce base on ‘Kiwi Hill’.


The immigration of large populations of rural Māori to urban centres after the Second World War led to a greater integration of Māori and European society. This was reflected in a ‘browning up’ of the armed forces. As part of this increased Māori presence in the army it was felt that no separate Māori unit should be included in Kayforce (the New Zealand ground force in the Korean War). As the war went on some unofficial Māori sub-units, such as the gun crews within the 16th Field Regiment and a transport platoon within the 10th Transport Company, were established. There were also a small number of Māori in the crews of the navy frigates serving off Korea. Initially Māori made up 7.5% of Kayforce, but about one in four members of the later reinforcements were Māori. Over the whole of the war about one in seven were Māori (at a time when they were about 6% of New Zealand’s total population).

South-East Asia

When an infantry battalion was dispatched to Malaya in 1958, almost 23% were Māori. The New Zealand forces serving in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1972 had an even higher percentage of Māori, around 35% (compared with about 8% of the total population).

The greater Māori participation in the armed forces led to an increasing emphasis on Māori cultural elements, both in New Zealand and South-East Asia. Haka, karanga (calls of greeting) and wero (challenges) were incorporated into the battalions’ formal routines. A meeting house and marae was constructed in Terendak, Malaya, and opened in 1962. A Māori concert party was created and performances were held regularly at the marae, as were important unit functions. In 1978 Major General Brian Matauru Poananga, a veteran of Jayforce, the Korean War, Malaya and Borneo, was the first Māori to be appointed chief of general staff.

Māori network in Vietnam

In Vietnam Māori soldiers from various tribes and districts served together in the same units. For many this contact built up a sense of Māori consciousness. Some Māori who had little experience of te reo Māori (the Māori language) met others who were fluent speakers. Through shared service a ‘Māori network' was built up within V-force, with a long-term impact on those who were part of it.

Service since the 1970s

Māori have continued to serve with distinction in the years since the Vietnam War. They formed a significant part of forces sent to trouble spots such as East Timor, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae commanded forces in Bougainville and East Timor before being appointed chief of defence force in 2006 (and governor-general in 2011). Special Air Service (SAS) trooper Corporal Willie Apiata won a Victoria Cross for his bravery in Afghanistan in 2004.

Along with the armed forces’ promise of employment and adventure, the legacy of Māori participation in the two world wars provided the motivation for young men and women who volunteered for overseas service during the later 20th century and beyond. Although there was no longer the attraction of a unit based on ethnicity, they served for much the same reasons as their fathers and grandfathers before them.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Monty Soutar, 'Ngā pakanga ki tāwāhi – Māori and overseas wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Monty Soutar, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 May 2016