Men of the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion perform a haka for the dignitaries at Bois de Warnimont, 30 June 1918.
© IWM NZH 678
Visit of New Zealand prime minister William F Massey and deputy prime minister Sir Joseph Ward to the Western Front, 30 June - 2 July 1918.

Support from New Zealand at the outbreak of war

When King George V declared war on Germany in August 1914, he did so for Britain and his dominions and colonies throughout the Empire. Across New Zealand thousands of men volunteered in support of their mother-country. Between 1914 and 1918 more than 120,000 New Zealanders – nearly 20% of the country’s eligible manpower – served overseas with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, the Royal Navy or units of the British Army.

Imperial and colonial governments initially sought to prevent Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, from participating in the First World War. While a small number of Māori volunteered to serve with regional infantry units, Britain and New Zealand continued a pre-war policy opposing the formation of an all-Māori unit to fight in a war against Europeans. Yet by 1918 over 2,500 Māori soldiers had served overseas, the majority in what became known as the Māori Pioneer Battalion.

It took determined political campaigning to over come objections to forming all-Māori units. In 1914, Māori politicians like Apirana Ngata and Maui Pomare successfully argued that all New Zealanders – including Māori – should be allowed to fight in defence of the Empire. Pomare, the Minister for Māori Recruitment, Ngata and other Māori MPs raised the first Māori unit by February 1915. Yet enlistment to the ‘New Zealand Native Contingent’ was hampered by tribal divisions, with limited recruitment from those tribes holding grievances with the Crown after the New Zealand Wars in the mid-nineteenth century.

Despite initially being exempt from the 1916 Military Service Act, Māori from the most resistant tribes were registered for conscription in June 1917 after campaigning by Pomare. However, none were forced ultimately to serve overseas. On 14 February 1915, the first Māori contingent left New Zealand on the troopship SS Warrimoo bound for garrison duties in Egypt and Malta, freeing up regular troops for the Gallipoli Campaign that began on 25 April.

Any continuing reluctance to using Māori soldiers was soon overcome by the significant number of casualties from the campaign.  Arriving at North Beach in Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, on 3 July, the contingent established itself at ‘Outpost No 1’ which became known as ‘Māori Pa’. During the assault on Chunuk Bair in early August, the contingent fought alongside other units of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force for the first time. This was also the first time many Europeans heard the Māori haka “ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora” called as they attacked the Turkish lines.

The casualty rate from the attacks on Chanuk Bair and later at Hill 60 was astonishing. By the time the NZEF pulled out of Gallipoli in December 1915, the contingent had suffered 88% casualties and was reduced from sixteen officers and 461 men to just two officers and 132 men.

In February 1916, the contingent lost its infantry role, merging with the Otago Mounted Rifles to form the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion. The pioneers were sent to France in April 1916 where they dug and repaired trenches, built roads and undertook forestry work. They were the first New Zealanders at the Somme battlefield, arriving In August to dig an 8km trench leading to the front line and prepare the ground for the arrival of the remainder of the New Zealand Division.

The Battle of Messines

By June 1917, the battalion was in Belgium for the Battle of Messines. The pioneers’ hard, physical work was often undertaken under artillery fire and within range of snipers at the cost of many men. In September 1917, reinforced by a number of new recruits, the unit was once again made an all-Māori unit, with mostly non-Maori officers, and renamed the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion.

The battalion remained on the Western Front until the end of the war. Of the 2227 men who had served in the unit since 1914, nearly half became casualties – with 336 dead and a further 734 wounded. Thirty eight members of the contingent and pioneer regiments received the Military Medal while four received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and nine the Military Cross.

On its return from Europe in 1919, the Māori Pioneer Battalion was enthusiastically cheered at homecomings across the New Zealand. Yet divisions remained in New Zealand society. Though equal war pensions were awarded to white and Māori soldiers, Māori were largely excluded from the ballot to allocate land and vocational training to returning soldiers under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act of 1915. Furthermore, returning Māori servicemen suffered disproportionally from the influenza epidemic brought back from Europe due to the limited health services provided to them.

Related content

Officers of a Field Ambulance at their mess, Gully Beach
© IWM (Q 13360)
First World War

Nine Reasons Why Gallipoli Was One Of The Worst Fronts Of The First World War

Of all the varied parts of the world where British and Commonwealth forces were deployed during the First World War, Gallipoli was remembered by its veterans as one of the worst places to serve.

Posed photograph of Australian troops charging uphill with fixed bayonets, probably taken on Imbros or Lemnos, December 1915.
© IWM (Q 13659)

20 Remarkable Photos From Gallipoli

Gallipoli has become a defining moment in the history of both Australia and New Zealand, revealing characteristics that both countries have used to define their soldiers: endurance, determination, initiative and 'mateship'. Here are 20 remarkable photos from Gallipoli.

British troops and their artillery guns being evacuated from Suvla Bay on rafts in daylight, December 1915.
© IWM (Q 13637)
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Gallipoli

Episode 14: At dawn on 25 April 1915, Allied troops landed at Gallipoli and spent months on the small peninsula of land guarding the Dardanelles Straits in modern-day Turkey. Hear soldiers recall what conditions there were like during some of the fiercest fighting of the war.