Pona Marunui

Buried beside a peaceful moat outside the ramparts of the town of Ypres (Ieper) are the remains of ten members of the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion. The oldest of these men is Private Pona Marunui, a shearer from Murupara, Bay of Plenty, who left school before he turned ten. Marunui volunteered for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in January 1917, and in September that year arrived in France to join the newly renamed New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion. After serving around Passchendaele, Marunui was killed two days before Christmas 1917, leaving behind a wife and four young children.

Marunui was one of 2227 Māori who served in the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion and its predecessors – 336 of whom died on active service. The battalion carried out important labour and construction tasks on the Western Front after the Maori Contingent served at Gallipoli. Āpirana Ngata, the prominent Member of Parliament for Eastern Maori, believed involvement in the First World War would strengthen Māori claims to equal status with Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans). Some historians argue that it was in battle that many Pākehā for the first time saw Māori as individuals.

The unit’s second-in-command, Major Peter Buck, wrote that:

The war has been a great eye-opener as to the capabilities of our fellows. The amount of physical work they can do cannot be surpassed. Under the most trying conditions, they are cheery and bright. They take an interest and pride in their work that robs labor of half its burden. Their health is good even in this climate. With regard to their conduct in the field I feel very proud of them.

Poverty Bay Herald, 17 March 1917, p. 3

Following the Messines offensive in June 1917, the Pioneers helped dig communication trenches from Messines ridge to the new front line. Subjected to heavy shelling and gassing, the battalion suffered over 150 casualties during this period. At Passchendaele, the Pioneers laboured in wet, muddy conditions to construct timber roads and light railways behind the front line. In late 1917, they helped dig out shelters in Ypres’ 17th-century ramparts. The town was still within range of German artillery, and it is likely that harassing fire caused the death of Marunui and two comrades on 23 December 1917.

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