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Ka mate, ka mate: Māori on the killing fields

In an extract from his new history of Māori in World War I, Dr Monty Soutar describes a scene of courage and heartbreak on the foothills leading up to Chunuk Bair at Gallipoli.

The men from the Māori Contingent and the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment cleaned their rifles, sharpened bayonets and checked field dressings. White 8 x 8 inch calico squares were sewn onto the back of shirts and 6-inch wide white armlets worn on sleeves: ‘Every soldier prayed that the artillery observers on land, and out to sea would recognise these markings and not fire on friends’, as Corporal Roderick McCandlish recorded in his diary.

The day was hot and the men were to advance in their shirtsleeves. Greatcoats, tunics and packs, along with valises (bags which held small items of clothing and toiletries), were packed away and stored in unit lots in Monash Gully. There was still plenty to carry: rifle, gas helmet, rations, two full water bottles and 200 rounds of ammunition. ‘Everybody is so busy the air seems to be humming’, wrote Private Rikihana Carkeek. ‘It’s our last day together at No. 1 post.’ This was true—after the night to come, the contingent would never again muster anything like its full strength on the peninsula.

The men ate an early dinner—the usual bully beef and hard biscuits—before they were assembled at 5pm for final instructions. Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Herbert, commander of the Māori Contingent, wished the men luck and told them that the next day he would meet them on top of ‘that hill’. He pointed towards Hill 971, the highest Allied objective.

Then the Contingent’s padre Captain Chaplain Henare Wainohu spoke. Standing on a small rise, the chaplain said, ‘Fellow members of a brave family, you are the descendants of warlike ancestors. The name and honor of the Māori people lies in your hands today. When you charge the enemy, never turn back, but go on, and on, and on to victory. I know that some now here will never again stand together with us. But it would be better for us all to lie dead in these hollows and on the tops of these mountains than for a whisper of dishonor to go back to the old people at home.

‘Therefore, my brothers, you will by your noble deeds light such a fire on the mountains that it can never be quenched. Remember that ancient proverb of our ancestors: “Small and insignificant as is the kōpara (native bellbird), yet swings he to and fro on the highest branch of the tallest kahika tree.” Accordingly, I desire you to reach the top of those mountains.’

Wainohu’s eyes now welled with tears. He wrote later, ‘As I saw the splendid condition of those gallant men standing before me, armed to the teeth and alert to attack, speechless, with never a word nor a murmur from them, I could not help feeling for them because I could see in their eyes and in their grim demeanour that my words had gone home to everyone like a knife thrust into their heart.’

He began singing the Anglican hymn, ‘Au e Ihu’. The men, in fighting array, gathered around their chaplain and sang with tears running down their cheeks. Those watching were visibly moved. ‘Their singing was one of the best it has ever been my lot to hear’, wrote Trooper Ernest Jolly. ‘I never heard anything so beautiful as that hymn’, recounted another observer.

Trooper Harry Browne, like Jolly one of the few Wellington Mounted Rifles men who would survive the trenches on Chunuk Bair, described the scene: ‘The hymn “Jesus Lover of My Soul” was sung in Māori, to a tune of their own. The parts blended beautifully. The Contingent had 25 tenors in its chorus. The chaplain in a splendid voice sang the solo, the rest supplying the obligatto. Is there any language [as] beautiful as that of our Natives, when it is set to music? My squadron stood around silent listening intently. There was something pathetic about the tune and the scene that brought tears to the eyes, and yet as we listened we felt that they and we could go through anything with that beautiful influence behind us.’

Silence came over the gathering as the men knelt in prayer. Māori and Pākehā heads were bowed as the chaplain consecrated the ope taua (war party). ‘I lifted up my hands’, recalled Wainohu, ‘and asked for God’s protection and blessing upon them in the coming conflict.’

This ritual was an ancient custom, as Wainohu explained. ‘In the Māori wars and other battles after the introduction of Christianity, they carried on the old custom of asking for Divine assistance in war.’

As they moved off, the platoons cheered each other with the war-cry, ‘Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora.’ Private Kohi Hemana of Kaipara said later, ‘We all felt and thought of our great-grandfathers’ times when they prepared to go into battle. The fellows felt savage.’

From Whiitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E!: Māori in the First World War by Monty Soutar (David Bateman, $69.99)

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