Māori and the First World War

Page 2 – White man's war?

To serve or not

The four Māori MPs were united in their support for Māori participation in the war. The MP for Northern Maori, Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), led by example and volunteered for service. He sailed with the first contingent in February 1915. He hoped that a wider sense of patriotism might break down the negative aspects of tribalism, which he believed was a handicap to Māori development. Apirana Ngata, MP for Eastern Maori, believed involvement would strengthen Māori claims for equal status with Pākehā.

Imperial policy opposed the idea of 'native peoples' fighting in a war among Europeans. There were fears that they might turn on their colonial masters or cause embarrassment by expecting equal treatment with European soldiers. When it was suggested that Māori be sent to garrison the newly captured German Samoa, New Zealand Administrator Robert Logan cabled the government to say that this might be provocative to the Samoan population. Instead, the Native Contingent of about 500 men left Wellington for Egypt on 14 February 1915.

During the early stages of the First World War there were frequent references to the 'Maori Contingent'. Officially it was called the Native Contingent. The use of the term 'native' in reference to Māori was not dropped from official use until 1947, largely on the initiative of Prime Minister Peter Fraser who was also the Minister of Native Affairs.

Some historians argue that it was in battle that many New Zealanders saw Māori not only as soldiers but as individuals for the first time. (Others note that Māori and non-Māori men had been playing rugby together for decades.) It was perhaps ironic that these New Zealanders had to go to Gallipoli and France to find out about themselves and each other.

How to cite this page

'White man's war?', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/maori-in-first-world-war/overview, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-May-2020