Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E!: Māori in the First World War by Monty Soutar (Bateman Books, 2019), 576 pp., $69.99
He pukapuka tino nui tēnei. This is a very big book. Nearly 600 pages, a weight of 3kg and measurements of 286 x 210mm. You would need a lectern to hold it up for sustained periods of reading! The rest of the time it relaxes well on any coffee table.
He pukapuka tino pai tēnei. This is a very good book. Well presented, with dozens of maps and diagrams and hundreds of photographs, including many of the servicemen involved, a generous quotient of whom were Pasifika volunteers. It is also important to note that several toa wāhine volunteered to fight and were not happy about being declined. As Soutar says, ‘Given the Māori tradition that women accompanied their men to war, it was not surprising that women showed disdain for the military’s enlistment criteria’ (47).
Every page is divided into sections, with prose excerpts placed alongside visual input. This excellent division certainly makes the book riveting to read and easy to refer to. The new tohu or logo designed by David Lardelli, whose own father participated in World War I, further embellishes this pleasing visual aspect. The tome then is not ‘just’ data data data. One puzzling design factor is the decision not to include macrons in te reo. I do wonder why this important component was not included.
In terms of the content, Soutar has certainly rigorously researched the topic. He notes, ‘It has been exhausting.’ There is a massive amount of detailed information throughout drawn from an array of resources, as evidenced by the lengthy Notes and Select Bibliography, the latter of which alone consists of thirty pages. For example, there are tables of detailed information regarding the more than 1000 casualties, and frequent meticulous breakdowns of everyday life for these Māori soldiers. The eighteen chapters follow a historical sequence from before the war through to its aftermath. There are also copious interesting anecdotes-as-asides, which add to the variegated colours of this wide-screen portrait.
Apart from the obvious bravery and commitment of a vast majority of Māori servicemen involved in this massive four-year conflict – something that is made manifest on almost every page and which is upheld, for example, by staunchly supportive comments from non-Māori, non-New Zealand officers and administrators – Soutar emphasises several key points overall.
The first of these is that not all Māori iwi were willing to volunteer for this war. Waikato – to a lesser extent Ngāti Maniapoto (the Kīngitanga strongholds) – and Taranaki even more so, were reluctant to volunteer at any stage. Why? Because these iwi were so punitively penalised by the British colonialist usurping of their lands, and therefore their existential status as people was eroded. Whenua raupatu – land taken by force – was evinced in both these regions and thus men there were in no mood to serve their so-called British ‘masters’. Indeed, the few Taranaki servicemen who did travel to the several Auckland-based training camps, or who then set off overseas in several sailings to join their countrymen, were ‘criticised by local Māori for having gone to the war’ (247). Both Taranaki and Waikato were later particularly strongly opposed to any attempts to meet the enforced conscription quotas, and several men were arrested and remained in prison for refusing to ‘report for duty’.
On the other hand, a majority of other iwi were keen to enthusiastically volunteer – at least initially, when there were sufficient numbers to do so, before the start of conscription in 1916. Apirana Ngata wrote that a major rationale behind their enthusiasm was less to do with patriotism than ‘the sheer love of adventure in them and it was the spirit of their fathers within them that called them to go’ (43). Soutar disagrees somewhat and attributes the volunteerism more to ‘civic responsibility and service’ (43), at least in iwi less affected by imperialism and the loss of land and livelihood.
The second key point that Soutar outlines is that at no stage from pre- to post-war were Māori treated fairly. To start with the British government made it clear that, despite the wish of many Māori to see combat, it ‘did not want indigenous people to participate in a war between white races’ (45). Initially, they were to be sent either to German Sāmoa or placed on ‘garrison duty’ in Egypt. The Māori Contingent was not accorded fighting status until they were desperately required at Gallipoli in 1915, where they proved that they were tremendous warriors.
After that attritional battle in Turkey, only a minority of Māori servicemen were participating in separate Pākehā units, and only a minority bore arms. Most Māori were contained in the Pioneer Battalion and overall, for the remainder of World War I, were essentially reduced to being trench-digging factotums, with little face-to-face fighting. Their service generally consisted of providing unskilled labour, constructing ‘fieldworks, camps, camouflage screens and other facilities’ (211). Of course, this did not mean they were not killed and maimed: more than 330 died during the war years due to the ceaseless bombardment, machine-gun firing and lethal sallies of gas, predominantly in Europe in hellhole battlefields such as Somme, Messines and Ypres.
Returned Māori servicemen were also not accorded equal status to their Pākehā brothers-in-arms after the war. Soutar makes this clear when he discusses a plethora of discriminatory activities against Māori in a lengthy section titled ‘Discrimination’. Here are a few examples of the continuation of the pre-war situation:
- North Island Māori were prohibited from purchasing takeaway liquor, with heavy penalties for lawbreakers.
- Many Māori struggled to access the old-age pension because their births had not been registered. Those who were being paid it in 1930 received £2.14.0 per week, 71 percent of the £3.15.10 paid to Pākehā.
- Māori were barred from the dress circle of some cinemas.
- ‘Māori returned servicemen had anticipated finding employment in government departments, especially Public Works … Ngata expected the officers to be employed as supervisors and paid accordingly. He was affronted when he learned that they had been offered only twelve shillings and sixpence a day as “sort of timekeepers”’ (493).
However, the key discriminatory policy against returned Māori servicemen was the enshrined colonial pantheon continuing to ensure that Māori had limited access to land. In fact, the government implemented schemes so that Māori lost even more land. Soutar is succinct here:
A ballot system for allocating land to returned soldiers had been introduced under the Discharged Settlement Act 1915. This scheme would eventually allow the government to finance more than 9000 veterans onto land … It soon became apparent, however, that almost all balloted land was being taken up by Pākehā soldiers. (494)
Even when some iwi such as Ngāti Tūwharetoa donated tracts of land for this scheme, the government went ahead and purchased even more of their land and allocated this, along with the koha land, to Pākehā returned soldiers (495).
In a concluding section titled ‘Land, Lakes and Waterways’, the author rams home the sheer partisanship pertaining to Māori:
By the time Tūhoe soldiers came home in 1919, almost half the Urewera was in Crown hands … The government also asserted its ownership of the lakes in Te Arawa territory … against the tribe that had been the first to offer its support to the Crown when war broke out. (497)
Another late quotation from the author concerning the returnees – many grievously gassed, seriously injured, maimed for life, psychologically scarred – seems more than ironic. Notes Soutar: ‘They had seen up close the might of the British Empire, and they had learned what it meant to serve that empire.’ Māori involved in ‘fighting for their country’ certainly continued to feel the might of the British empire — and not in a positive way.
However, the bottom line in this wonderful book is this: the Māori men who went to war were fine, proud toa despite the discrimination, and Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E! is a fitting testament to them and their heroism. In the admiring words of one Pākehā officer, Captain Wallingford: ‘I have seen them under all conditions of warfare, except the actual charge, and I am satisfied that better troops do not exist in all the world’ (162).
Āe, he tika tonu – ēnei tētēkura tino pai. Tēnā koe.
Yes, quite right – these excellent brave warriors. Thank you.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA earned a PhD from the University of Auckland with a thesis about Colin Wilson, and has written extensively about this writer. Rapatahana is a critic of the agencies of English language proliferation, inaugurating and co-editing English Language as Hydra and Why English? Confronting the Hydra (Multilingual Matters, 2012 and 2016).
Rapatahana has several poetry collections published – in Hong Kong, Macau, the Philippines, the US, England, France, India and New Zealand. His Atonement was nominated for a National Book Award in the Philippines in 2016; he won the inaugural Proverse Poetry Prize the same year, and was included in Best New Zealand Poets in 2017.