To mark the New Zealand Book Council/Victoria University of Wellington World War One Book Club panel events, we share a chapter from How We Remember: New Zealanders and the First World War, courtesy of publisher Victoria University Press. This rich and insightful book of essays is edited by Charles Ferrall and World War One Book Club panellist, Harry Ricketts. This is an edited extract from Monty Soutar's essay 'Kua Whewehe Matou! Breaking up the Maori Contingent and the Ordering Home of Four of its Officers'.
At Gallipoli from 6–10 August 1915 the Maori Contingent was in action for the first time as infantry. In the enemy’s forward trenches, on the foothills of Chunuk Bair, they excelled in the use of the bayonet, reports of which spread quickly. A Pakeha officer, Captain F. M. Twistleton, who had 50 Maori under his command during the battle, spoke for many when he wrote from the frontline:
I must say they are good stuff. A man need not wish to lead better material into action, no matter how desperate the fighting may be . . . they are amongst the best bayonet fighters in the world, and they are perfect sentries. As trench fighters you can’t beat them.
Another, Major J. H. Wallingford, wrote:
I have seen them lie in the open at the foot of Chunuk Bair, mixed with Ghurkas, for two days and nights, when at least thirty per cent were either killed or wounded . . . I have seen them under all conditions of warfare, except the actual charge, and I am satisfied that better troops do not exist in all the world.
Yet, despite the plaudits from various quarters, by the end of August the Maori Contingent had lost its identity, its two companies being split and temporarily attached to the various battalions in the New Zealand Infantry Brigade. More seriously, four of its officers were ordered back to New Zealand ‒ found wanting in their performance as commanders.
This essay examines the circumstances that led to the breaking-up of the Maori Contingent and the return of those officers. It reviews the Maori reaction both at home and abroad, and analyses the subsequent political response that led to the reinstatement of the officers and the reforming of the Maori Contingent and its reinforcements into a Pioneer Battalion.
I first heard about this long-forgotten incident in 1991 from a colleague who was completing his doctoral thesis on the repatriation of New Zealand soldiers. During his research he came across papers that, he said, intimated cowardice on the part of some of the Maori officers. I recognised the officers’ surnames and even though I had not seen the material I suspected there was more to the story than the archival sources revealed.
Some years later, during my interview with one of the officers’ daughters, the following unsolicited information was offered me. ‘Not long after my father’s funeral a Maori veteran visited’, my informant recounted. ‘He told me that he wanted me to know what my father had done for him and other men at Gallipoli. Your father, the man said, was ordered to take us up a hill and attack. We all knew it was suicidal. So your father refused. No, he said to the officer, I will not take my men, but give me your men and I will lead them.’ I thought it rather incredible. I had served in the army myself and knew the serious consequences of disobeying orders. Still, I logged this anecdote in case a time arrived when it might make sense.
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The Maori Contingent, with a strength of sixteen officers and 461 ordinary ranks, landed at Gallipoli at the beginning of July bearing the badge Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu (the seventy twice warriors of the war god Tu). Initially, they were employed in digging trenches, widening communication saps, building supply depots and camp fatigues. Then they took their turn of duty in the trenches. Within a month two officers and at least 25 ordinary ranks were either in the field hospital or had been evacuated. More than half of these were ill, while the remainder had been wounded either from sniper fire or shrapnel. The most common malady among the troops was dysentery, and many of the men in the contingent suffered with it until they could go on no longer and had to be removed.
By August the Maori excitement for trench duty had waned and life at No. 1 Outpost became as monotonous as the heat. The men had gone to Gallipoli to fight, so when they heard the rumours of an offensive they were excited and eager to participate. As one of the Maori officers put it:
We are looking forward to the day when we are given our dash across the peninsula . . . Our fellows, like every other body of men out here, are anxious to get on and push these Turks to submission.
At that time the Maori Contingent consisted of two companies, each with four platoons of between 50 to 60 men and a machine-gun section of around 16 men. A Company was led by Captain Roger Dansey and B Company by Captain William Pitt, two of the officers who would be sent back to New Zealand.
Battle of Sari Bair
On the night of Friday, 6 August, the Maori Contingent joined the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade in the assault on the foothills leading to Chunuk Bair. Because the contingent was the strongest and freshest of the brigade’s regiments, instead of being given its own sector to attack, it was dispersed to bolster the other four regiments who were hardly at half-strength because of their own losses through sickness and casualties. Two platoons from A Company were attached to the Otago and Canterbury Regiments. Dansey, with Hiroti and Tahiwi’s platoons, accompanied the Wellington Regiment. B Company was kept in reserve between No. 2 and No. 3 Posts, but not long after the assault began two of its platoons were sent to assist.
No magazines were to be loaded during the initial assault so that men could only use their rifles and bayonets to clear the enemy trenches. In this way the initial assault would be a silent one and so it was, that is, until the Turks opened up with their own weapons. Second Lieutenant Tikao of Lyttelton, who led a platoon of Ngati Kahungunu alongside the Otago Regiment, recalled that he and his men had got to within 200 yards of an enemy trench when the Turks turned their machine guns and rifles on them:
I gave the word ‘Charge,’ my boys broke out into ‘Ka mate, ka mate’ but the yelling and screaming way they, in fact the whole lot of us, went into it must have sent a cold feeling down the Turks’ backs. In the meantime my South boys, under Captain Dansey, were charging on our right about half a mile away from us. As soon as we had cleared our first trench, when we heard them screaming ‘Ka mate, ka mate’ we knew they were at it too. This started the ball rolling, and every charge the New Zealand pakehas made that night you would hear ‘Ka mate, ka mate! Ka ora, ka ora!’
On Saturday, 7 August, the contingent’s roll-call disclosed a shortage of over a 100 men. Later that day, it was ordered to make itself ready for a still more daring advance in a desperate attempt to secure the crest of Chunuk Bair itself. In the early hours of Sunday, 8 August, the contingent began the long trek up the Chailak Dere to the junction of Cheshire and Rhododendron Ridges. Here they congregated at the Apex, a flat area almost a hectare in size, and although they were concealed from Chunuk Bair, the crest was still some 500 yards further forward.
While the Wellington Battalion and some of the 7th Gloucesters were in possession of the crest, getting to them in daylight was perilous. A narrow saddle ran from the Apex to a small pinnacle some 100 yards ahead, with Chunuk Bair a further 400 yards beyond. The Apex offered only a frontage of 60 yards for any unit to launch an assault from. The previous day the Auckland Battalion, trying to do just that, suffered 300 casualties and never got further than the pinnacle. The 10th Gurkhas, following them, were driven by fire down the left-hand slope into the Aghyl Dere. Darkness was the main advantage the Wellington Battalion and some of the 7th Gloucesters had in reaching the crest. The 8th Welsh had tried to follow at dawn but was ‘cut to pieces’.
At 9 a.m. it fell to the Maori Contingent and the Auckland Mounteds to try and reinforce the crest. From the moment they left the cover of the Apex, the troops came under intense rifle, machine-gun and shrapnel fire from the Turks. ‘The enemy were only three and four hundred yards away’, Lt Jim Ferris recalled:
And for two hundred yards we were under their fire. Pitt led the way and I followed, not far behind, with my men. The Turks opened fire, and our fellows just ran across that open stretch of country as if they were on the football field. I was crying my heart out all the way over, and never noticed a shot or that five of the men with me had been hit.
In fact, one Maori private reported that some 40 men were knocked over in the space of 10 yards. The contingent was to reinforce the firing line to the left between the Gurkhas and the Gloucesters. They crossed a gully about 250 yards down and clambered up another hill on the opposite side, reaching an area below what was dubbed the ‘Farm’. All that day and the following day they held their position, using their entrenching tools to dig into the hard, stony soil as best they could: ‘Water was very scarce and food was hard to get. Sleep was impossible.’ Captain Buck, who set up his first-aid post in a gully a little below the firing line, noted that ‘The roar of bursting shells and the rattle of musketry and machine-guns went on incessantly.’
When the contingent was withdrawn, late on the night of 9 August, the men were absolutely exhausted; since 6 August 17 of their number had been killed, 89 were wounded and two were missing. Despite the 25 per cent casualty rate, the men could be satisfied that they had demonstrated to all observers ‘their coolness and daring’ under fire. General Godley reported to the Defence Minister:
The Contingent . . . at various periods of the fight found itself in line with units of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, the 13th Division of the New Armies, and Ghurkas of the 29th Indian Brigade. All speak most highly of the individual bravery and courage of the men, and of their gallantry, during the fight.
The contingent arrived back at No. 1 Outpost on Tuesday morning, 10August, ending its share in the Allied push.
Splitting Up the Contingent
General Godley’s praise for the Maori Contingent was only a softener before informing Allen of the surprising news that he was breaking up the unit and that he had ordered four of its officers back to New Zealand. In justifying his disassembling of the contingent, he explained:
I have decided, after careful consideration, to temporarily attach half a company to each battalion of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade. This will serve the double purpose of providing for the much needed reinforcements, and ensuring for the Contingent that the next time it is in action again, it will be fighting alongside its fellow-countrymen of the dominion . . . I have explained to the Contingent (and I hope it will be clearly understood in New Zealand), that the incorporation of the Contingent into the New Zealand Infantry Brigade is done purely in the interests of the contingent and of the Maori race, and that I will make it my business to see that their identity is no way thereby imperilled or affected.
There were four battalions in the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, so effectively the contingent was to be split into four. Of the four Maori officers, Pitt and Dansey were to return to New Zealand allegedly because they had not proved competent to command in the field:
. . . the leadership of the officers was not good. Both the company commanders, Captain Pitt and Captain Dansey, were found wanting – the former, I think, chiefly in consequence of ill health and physical inability; the latter on account of inexperience, and lack of sense of responsibility.
In an earlier private letter he had said that they were quite useless and did not give the men a fair chance:
In Dansey’s case I think it is pure ignorance, and there is a certain amount of excuse for him. In Pitt’s case I can find none, and he is in my opinion a singularly unsuitable officer to command troops of any kind in the field.
Two of Dansey’s junior officers, Second Lieutenants Hiroti and Hetet, were to depart with him as their ‘conduct had proved unsatisfactory’. As for the contingent’s other senior officers, the General went on to report that he had reassigned them. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert was to take temporary command of a British battalion. In the evening of 20 August, the date of Godley’s report, Herbert bade farewell to the Maori. At the same time the Adjutant, Captain Ennis, was transferred to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. So, by 21 August, only Buck, Wainohu and five junior officers remained with the unit. That evening the deteriorating contingent was committed to the seizure of Kaiajik Aghala (Hill 60) as part of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. Again it suffered heavy casualties, 25 per cent of those committed, and was virtually destroyed as a fighting unit. The last of the men in the Kaiajik Aghala trenches only got out on the 24th, the day that the Maori Contingent paraded for the last time as a separate unit, before joining the various battalions of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade. Godley also wrote privately to Allen to explain his intention for the contingent:
The officering of them by Maoris of the class sent is quite a failure – they have no respect for them, and will not follow them, and these men have no authority over them. I have therefore temporarily attached the Maori Contingent to the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, leaving with it only the best of the junior officers. This will give it a fair chance, which it has not had yet. There is no doubt that the men are excellent, and they have not only fought splendidly, but have worked splendidly on fortifications and defence work, and everybody is full of praise of them . . . They will do better now than ever, now that they are really in line with their white brothers. Both Earl Johnston and Russell vied with each other to have them attached to their brigades, which shows how well they were thought of.
Given the highly praised performance of the Maori Contingent 10 days earlier and again in this letter, was what Godley reported all that lay behind his decision to break up the unit? And given the eye-witness accounts of bravery associated with the Maori officers who were being sent home, how was it that they were found wanting as commanders?
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