Māori pioneers on the Western Front

Members of the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion take a break from improving trenches near Gommecourt, France, 25 July 1918.

The New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, largely made up of Māori troops, carried out important labour and construction tasks on the Belgian battlefields. Major changes were made to the nature and form of Māori military service in late 1915 and early 1916. The Maori Contingent that had fought at Gallipoli ceased to exist and was replaced by the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, sometimes referred to as the Maori Pioneer Battalion.

Deployed to the Western Front in April 1916, the Pioneer Battalion was originally made up of four companies, each with two Māori and two Pākehā platoons, the latter made up of the remnants of the Otago Mounted Rifles. Other Māori soldiers were encouraged to transfer to the Pioneer Battalion, but many chose to stay in the battalions in which they had enlisted. By August 1917 there were sufficient Māori reinforcements to fill all the companies. In October, the battalion became a fully Māori unit, renamed the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion.

Following the Messines offensive in June 1917, the Pioneers were given the task of linking the newly captured Messines ridge to the front line by digging communication trenches. Subjected to heavy shelling and gassing, they suffered 155 casualties, including 17 killed. At Passchendaele the Pioneers laboured in muddy, wet conditions to construct timber roads and light railway lines behind the front line.

We only had four guns in action at Passchendaele at the start and then they made an effort to bring in the other two guns. Well, they put in an eight-horse team instead of a six-horse team to try and bring it in, but the horses just got up to their bellies in mud and they couldn’t get through. But a party of about 40 Maoris arrived. See, the Maoris were a Pioneer Battalion. They didn’t fight. They were just a labouring battalion, and the party of about 40 Maoris arrived and there were about 20 of these Maoris on ropes on the axles of the guns and, as Maoris do, they performed a bit of a haka or something and pulled the gun right in. We thought that was wonderful.

From interview with Bert Stokes - read and hear more

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