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Call for Māori servicemen memorabilia

Dr Monty Soutar, who wrote the highly successful Nga Tama Toa: the Price of Citizenship (published in 2008) about the 28th Māori Battalion in the Second World War, has also set his sights on researching the Māori experience in the First World War. With the centenary of the war coming up during 2014-18 it's a fitting time to do it.

Soutar, who is currently working with Manatu Taonga/Ministry for Culture and Heritage, is calling on families who have memorabilia about Māori servicemen to contact him. "Whereas Nga Tama Toa focused on the tribes of the East Coast this research looks at the experience of all Māori. I've already mentioned the project to people I know around the country, and its surprising what descendants of the 'Māori diggers' have at home - things such as diaries, letters, postcards, photos, maps and mementos the men brought back from overseas, like foreign money. But most interesting are the oral accounts about their dad or granddad's war experience that have been passed down."

Soutar needs no prompting when it comes to the First World War. Both he and his wife's grandfathers served in Gallipoli and on the Somme and indeed Nga Tama Toa itself was prompted by the lack of coverage of Māori in the First World War. Soutar explains: "Sir Apirana Ngata wanted to ensure adequate coverage of the story of Māori fronting up in the Second World War and bearing their share of the burden in a time of national and imperial crisis. When, in 1919, he had made a similar suggestion about Māori involvement in the First World War, their contribution was barely mentioned in military publications."

As part of the planned First World War Centenary History programme, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Massey University, the New Zealand Defence Force and Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association, with the support of Te Puni Kokiri, are joining forces to develop a book project covering the total Māori contribution to the war effort. Although several brief histories of the Māori Pioneer Battalion have been published, many Māori served in the other Battalions of the NZEF. The first Māori soldier killed at Gallipoli, for example, was serving with the Auckland Infantry Battalion. Other Māori enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force and the British Army's Royal Flying Corps.

The casualties for the Māori Pioneer Battalion have already been compiled by Bernard (Bob) Morrison of Auckland, and Dr Soutar is also keen to assist Mr Morrison to have these published. "Bob's been at it since 1980, tracing photos and details of every one of the unit's 347 men who died on the battlefield, 51 who died after discharge, of wounds or sickness contracted in service, 30 who died in training and 13 killed after they transferred to other regiments." There's never going to be a more appropriate time to publish his work than during the centenary.

"The Māori story could not be told without including the home effort and the differing tribal perspectives," says Soutar. "The tribal response to the official calls for volunteers varied dramatically. Tribes who had suffered land confiscations fewer than fifty years before the war still included members who had fought in the wars of the 1860s. A whole generation had grown up with an intimate knowledge of which lands had been confiscated and were now being settled by the government. Among these iwi, land loss, denial of access to resources and associated poverty were all leading causes for lower recruitment during the First World War."

Another important aspect of the story will be the contribution made by the Pacific Islands to the Maori Pioneer Battalion. Over 450 Niueans, Cook Island Māori and Tongans, as well as a handful of Samoans and Fijians, were part of the unit and Soutar wishes to ensure their story is told through their eyes.

Readers who have material they wish to contribute are welcome to contact Dr Soutar through the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

Updated on 11th March 2016