Story: Ngā pakanga ki tāwāhi – Māori and overseas wars

‘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.

Story by Monty Soutar
Main image: The Māori Battalion performs a haka for the King of Greece in Egypt, 1941

Story summary

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Māori have taken part in every overseas war that New Zealand has been involved in.

South African War

Māori offered to form a ‘native’ contingent in the South African War (1899–1902). Their offer was declined, as British policy was not to use indigenous troops in wars with white nations. However, some Māori joined up anyway.

First World War

In the First World War the British government accepted a proposal for a Māori Contingent of 500 men. By the end of the war 2,500 Māori had served overseas. Tribes that had been allies of the Crown during the 19th-century New Zealand wars were more likely to volunteer. Those who had fought the Crown and had land confiscated were less likely to take part, and Māori from the Waikato–Maniapoto area were conscripted.

Second World War

Māori took part in all the armed forces during the Second World War, most notably in the 28th (Māori) Battalion. The battalion was organised on tribal lines, and fought in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy. More than 3,600 Māori served in the battalion. Its casualties were almost 50% more than the New Zealand average. Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for courage.

Māori at home took part in fundraising and production, with some moving from rural areas to cities to work in munitions factories. Māori women preserved traditional foods to send to troops. Waikato tribes and the Kīngitanga (King movement) opposed taking part in the war overseas.

More than 15,700 Māori served in the armed forces during the war in total.

Overseas service after 1945

  • A Māori unit was part of Jayforce, which served in Japan after the Second World War.
  • New Zealand forces in the Korean War did not include separate Māori units, but of those who served, about one in seven overall were Māori.
  • Around 35% of New Zealand forces in the Vietnam War were Māori.

From the 1950s increasing numbers of Māori joined the armed forces, and Māori cultural elements were included in the forces’ routines.

Since the 1970s Māori have continued to serve overseas. Prominent Māori in the forces include Jerry Mateparae, who became chief of defence force in 2006 and governor-general in 2011. Corporal Willie Apiata received a Victoria Cross for bravery in Afghanistan.

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