Māori in the NZEF

Page 4 – On the Western Front

First on the Somme

The newly formed New Zealand Pioneer Battalion arrived in France in April 1916. In late August it became the first unit of the New Zealand Division to move onto the Somme battlefield. That bitter campaign had started on 1 July 1916 with horrendous losses among the British.

Sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the New Zealanders, the Pioneers began work on a 8-km communications trench, 'Turk Lane', leading to the front line. Some members of the infantry described this trench as a masterpiece, but it came at a heavy price. Under constant and heavy artillery fire, the Pioneers toiled with pick and spade, completing their mission around midnight on 16 September. Along with its companion, 'Fish Alley', Turk Lane became part of a 2-m-deep artery that gave men moving to and from the front line a degree of cover.

Executioners

As well as digging trenches, Pioneers were employed in a range of other, often unpleasant, roles. On 25 August 1916 members of the Pioneer Battalion were used as the firing squad in the execution of Private Frank Hughes of the Canterbury Battalion. Hughes was convicted for desertion and 'evading service'. He was the first of five New Zealanders to be executed during the First World War.

Messines

For the Messines offensive in 1917, the Pioneers were given the task of linking the newly captured Messines Ridge to the front line by digging communication trenches. Once more, they experienced heavy shelling and gassing. The battalion suffered 155 casualties, and 17 were killed.

In July the Pioneers and the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade were attached to the First French Army to assist in digging positions and telephone cables. Three Pioneers, C.T. Richards, Toi Karini and Puia Tamihana, were decorated with the Croix de Guerre by the French. The Pioneers were also kept busy working with French farm labourers, the farm work reminding them of life at home.

Major-General Sir Andrew Russell, the divisional commander, gave the battalion the same recognition as other infantry battalions. He recommended Pioneers for two Distinguished Conduct Medals and 10 Military Medals. Godley awarded five.

By August 1917 there were sufficient Māori reinforcements to fill all companies in the battalion. On 1 September the battalion became a fully Māori unit – the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion – and the original badge was restored. Lieutenant-Colonel King was transferred to the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, but killed the following month in the disastrous attack on Bellevue Spur, Passchendaele.

Le Quesnoy and beyond

The liberation of the French town of Le Quesnoy, a week before the end of the war, was described as the 'New Zealanders' most successful day of the whole campaign on the Western Front'.

When the New Zealanders captured Le Quesnoy from the Germans on 4 November 1918, the Union Jack that flew from the town hall had been consecrated and presented to the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion by the Māori schoolchildren of Ōtaki and Levin.

After the signing of the Armistice, the Pioneers were assigned to the Rhine Garrison and began marching towards the German border. They were stopped on 20 December by orders to proceed to Dunkirk, from where they would be shipped home. The British high command had decided that the old rules should apply; 'native troops' would not be used to garrison Germany. The Pioneers resented the attitude, but many were glad to be going home. The battalion sailed for New Zealand on the Westmoreland in March 1919.

The New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion was the only battalion of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to return to New Zealand as a complete unit. As such, it received a rousing welcome with parades and receptions throughout the country. A Maori Pioneer rugby team toured the country, playing a series of provincial games.

How to cite this page

'On the Western Front', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/maori-in-first-world-war/on-the-western-front, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017