Māori soldiers sail to war

14 February 1915

Maori Contingent departure, 1915 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-091150-F)

Imperial policy initially prevented ‘native peoples’ fighting in a war between European powers. They might cause embarrassment by expecting equal treatment with European soldiers, or even turn on their colonial masters.

When it was suggested that Māori be sent to garrison the newly captured German colony of Samoa, New Zealand Administrator Robert Logan warned that this might provoke the Samoan population. Instead, a Maori Contingent of about 500 men left Wellington for Egypt aboard the SS Warrimoo on 14 February 1915.

Māori had mixed views about the First World War. Many supported the war effort and wanted to join up. Others did not want to fight for the British Crown, which had done much harm to Māori communities in the 19th century. The varied reactions reflected iwi’s (tribes’) varying experiences in the previous century.

The official policy regarding the use of ‘native peoples’ changed as casualties mounted and the need for reinforcements grew more pressing. The Maori Contingent had a combat role at Gallipoli before being converted into a Pioneer Battalion to serve on the Western Front, mainly digging trenches and undertaking other labouring duties.

By the end of the war, 2227 Māori and 458 Pacific Islanders had served in the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion. Of these, 336 died on active service and 734 were wounded. Māori also enlisted (and died) in other units of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.