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Māori in the NZEF

Page 3 – Pioneer Battalion

Major changes were made to the nature and form of Māori military service in late 1915 and early 1916. The Maori Contingent ceased to exist and Māori troops were incorporated into the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion.

'Kua wehewehe matou' (We are separated)

The Maori Contingent was hit hard by events at Gallipoli. It was further shocked in August 1915 when General Godley dismissed three officers who had been arrested and charged with what amounted to desertion in the face of the enemy. The three men had an unblemished record and had served the contingent with great distinction, but there had been increasing friction between them and the contingent commander, Major A.H. Herbert.

Eight officers, including Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck), called for an inquiry. They felt the charges questioned the honour of all Māori. One of those accused, Captain Roger Dansey, had been witnessed leading a bayonet charge and 'personally disposing of three Turks'. The officers sensed that some mistake had been made. Godley ordered the three men home for 'unsatisfactory performance' and decided to split the contingent up among other platoons in the New Zealand infantry brigades. He said that his decision was based on the need to reinforce other units and to allow Māori to fight alongside their fellow countrymen.

In his capacity as an MP and a leading figure in the Maori Contingent Committee, Ngata received many letters of complaint from Māori soldiers about what they saw as a loss of identity. 'Kua wehewehe matou' (we are separated), some said. He vowed not to recruit another soldier from the East Coast unless the situation was remedied.

New Zealand Pioneer Battalion

In February 1916, Godley reorganised the New Zealand Expeditionary Force into the New Zealand Division and reunited Māori troops in the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion.


Pioneers were not front-line fighting units but a military labour force trained and organised to work on engineering duties, digging trenches, building roads and railways, and taking on any other logistical tasks deemed necessary. This was essential and dangerous work that was often carried out under fire.

The battalion was organised into four companies, each with two Māori and two Pākehā platoons, the latter formed from the remnants of the Otago Mounted Rifles. Other Māori soldiers were encouraged to transfer to the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, but many chose to stay in the battalions in which they had enlisted.

Major George King, formerly staff captain of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, was appointed as commanding officer. Te Rangi Hīroa was promoted to major and made second-in-command. Both men were considered to have the leadership qualities needed to pull the battalion together. Neither the Otago Mounted Rifles nor the Māori were happy with this reshuffle. The Otago men in particular resented becoming pioneers.

'Te ope tuatahi'

Apirana Ngata, inspired by the efforts of the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli and conscious of the need to encourage recruitment, composed the recruiting waiata, 'Te ope tuatahi'. Mirroring what happened in the Pākehā community, there was a drop in numbers joining up as time wore on, and it became hard to recruit enough men to replace the casualties. Many Māori wanted more than a pioneer function for their unit, but Māori would have struggled to keep up the flow of reinforcements necessary to maintain an infantry battalion.

This is 'Te ope tuatahi' as it appeared in 1926 in James Cowan's The Maoris in the Great War. An alternative translation of the first verse can be found in Ranginui Walker's He tipua: the life and times of Sir Apirana Ngata.

E te ope tuatahi                    We greet our first war band

No Aotearoa,                        From Aotea-roa,

No Te Wai-pounamu,            From the Island of Greenstone:

No nga tai e wha.                  We sing of our warriors

Ko koutou ena                      Our gallant Five Hundred

E nga rau e rima,                  The chosen heroes

Ko te Hokowhitu toa             Of Tu-mata-uenga,

A Tu-mata-uenga:                The Angry-Eyed War God.

I hinga ki Ihipa,                     Some fell in Egypt,

Ki Karipori ra ia;                    Some on Gallipoli;

E ngau nei te aroha,              Now pangs of sharp sorrow

Me te mamae.                       Our sad hearts are piercing.


                                            From the Coast of the Sunrise,

E te ope tuarua,                    Came our Second Contingent,  

No Mahaki rawa,                   The men of Mahaki;

Na Hauiti koe,                       Men of Tolago Bay,

Na Porourangi:                      Warriors of Ngati-Porou

I haere ai Henare                   Farewell, O Henare [Mokena Kohere] 

Me to Wiwi,                            Who led your company

I patu ki te pakanga,              And fell in war's thunder

Ki Paranihi ra ia.                    Nobly fighting in France.

Ko wai he morehu                 And who will survive there

Hei kawe korero                    To take the last message

Ki te iwi nui e,                       To our own loved people

E taukuri nei?                         In dark sorrow bowed?


E te ope tuaiwa                      Our Ninth fighting Contingent

No Te Arawa,                         Comes from Te Arawa,

No Te Tai-rawhiti,                  From the Coast of the Sunrise,

No Kahungunu.                      From Kahungunu's land.

E haere ana 'hau                    And now I am leaving

Ki runga o Wiwi                      For France's red war fields.

Ki reira 'hau nei,                     There I'll remember;

E tangi ai.                            

Me mihi kau atu                     My heart will send greetings

I te nuku o te whenua,            O'er far land and ocean

He konei ra e,

E te tau pumau.                     To my own constant love.

Hēnāre Kōhere

The ‘Henare’ farewelled in 'Te ope tuatahi' was 36-year-old Lieutenant Hēnāre Kōhere, a man of great mana from the East Coast. On 15 September 1916, the first day of the New Zealand attack on the Somme, 12 Pioneers were killed and 40 wounded. One of those mortally wounded was Kōhere, who told those attending him, 'Ka nui te kino' (Things are very bad). He gave instructions that his cousin, Lieutenant Pekama Kaa, should take control of his Ngāti Porou platoon. Kōhere died the next day and was buried at Heilly.

Kaa assumed leadership of the platoon until he too was killed in August 1917.

How to cite this page

Pioneer Battalion, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated