New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion

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New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion
Soldiers on the anti-aircraft guard of the New Zealand Pioneer Maori Battalion camp, Bayencourt, France.jpg
Soldiers on the anti-aircraft guard of the New Zealand Pioneer Maori Battalion camp, Bayencourt, France
Active 1915–1919
Country  New Zealand
Branch Crest of the New Zealand Army.jpg New Zealand Military Forces
Type Pioneers
Size ~900 personnel
Part of New Zealand Division

First World War

Disbanded 1919
George Augustus King

The New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion, or Native Contingent and Pioneer Battalion, was a battalion of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force that served during World War I. The battalion was first raised in 1915 and served at Gallipoli and the Western Front and largely served as pioneers.[1] "By the end of the war, 2227 Maori and 458 Pacific Islanders had served in what became known as the Maori Pioneer Battalion. Of these, 336 died on active service and 734 were wounded. Other Maori enlisted (and died) in other battalions as well."


Departure and garrison duty in Egypt[edit]

The battalion first departed New Zealand in February 1915 aboard the SS Warrimoo, they trained in Egypt, but were initially assigned to garrison duty. Under the recommendation of Major-General Alexander Godley, the regiment was initially assigned further garrison duties on Malta, but despite the pleas of the Minister of Defence, James Allen and Maori MPs, the battalion was sent to Malta. When the second Maori reinforcements assembled in Auckland there were problems with drunkenness while on leave and some soldiers were sent home in disgrace.[2]

Service at Gallipolli[edit]

Increasing casualties among the Anzac forces during the Gallipoli campaign led to the deployment of the 461 man battalion. The battalion arrived at Anzac Cove on 3 July 1915. Here they joined the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and were employed as infantry soldiers. In 1917, the battalion was renamed the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion.[3] After the attack at Gallipoli there was considerable criticism of three officers of the Maori Pioneers who were charged with desertion in the face of the enemy. The GOC General Godley, sent them home and broke up the Maori force when it was sent to France.[4] In France the Maori troops were interspersed with pakeha troops from the Otago Mounted Rifles who were used in the pioneer role after suffering many casualties at Gallipoli. The New Zealand pioneer Battalion existed from 1916 to 1917.

Service on the Western Front[edit]

The Pioneer Battalion performing a haka for Joseph Ward at Bois-de-Warnimont, 30 June 1918

It was intended that the Pioneers would be broken up and serve as reinforcement for other New Zealand units on the Western Front. However after a short time the unit was reunited and served the rest of the war as pioneers digging trenches and drains,doing farm work,laying railway lines, erecting wire entanglements,burying artillery cables and building a cinema called "Kapai Theatre.[5] Much of the time the soldiers were making support or communication trenches well behind the front lines. When they had to work closer to the front they worked at night and in some battles they got lost and never reached their destination.

During the 2–3 months of winter the pioneers were well behind the front lines in comfortable billets were they were able to use local cafes and estaminets (hotels) and socialise with the French civilians. Often during these times they were able to play rugby against other military teams, could go to the pictures and have snowball fights. In letters home they praised the French beer which was very cheap and the good quality champagne.[6]

They had time to observe French farmers and those soldiers with a farming background made critical comments about the backward French methods.[7] Although leave was rare most soldiers had a chance to visit England and Scotland to take in the sights. They had the opportunity to visit all the tourist attraction in London.[8]

The war diaries of the Pioneer Battalion say casualties were well below the rate for the NZ infantry Division.[9] THis was due to their service being mainly behind the lines. At least once the Pioneers were used as raiders to launch stealthy attacks on German trenches. The men were armed with bayonets and mere (clubs).

Each company consisted of soldiers from Maori iwi(tribes) who were traditional allies. Nearly all iwi who supplied soldiers were from kupapa(loyal) tribes such as Ngati Porou who supplied so many volunteers they had their own company. Ngati Maniapoto,who served in significant numbers, despite being a kingitanga iwi(tribe ), were paired with Cook Island Maori. In late August 1916, the Battalion was sent into the battlefield at the Somme, and began work on an 8 km communication trail known as 'Turk Lane.' At Messines Ridge, the battalion suffered 155 casualties and 17 deaths.

In 1917 the pakeha company in the "Maori" pioneers that had made up about 50% of the force was replaced by newly arrived "Maori" reinforcements. A contingent of 150 Nuie Islanders who had made up another company of the "Maori" Pioneers was sent home after they failed to adapt to the conditions.[10] The last reinforcements contained numbers of Cook Islanders. Most were eventually sent to join the Rarotongan company in the Palestine campaign. At the conclusion of the war the unit was involved in an unpleasant incident when a group of Maori soldiers, possibly suffering battle fatigue,started shooting in a rest camp. When an officer was sent to investigate he was shot.


After the war, the battalion was the only battalion of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to return home as a formed body and toured throughout the country.


  1. ^
  2. ^ The Last Maopo.T. Simpson.Oratia Media. 2014.
  3. ^ NZEF Gradation List. London: New Zealand Expeditionary Force. December 1917. 
  4. ^ New Zealand History on line. Maori Pioneer Battalion.
  5. ^ The last Maopo. p 59. p 71. p 87. p 109 T. Simpson. Oratia Media. 2014.
  6. ^ The Last Maopo. p 47. p 71. p 111. T. Simpson. Oratia Media 2014.
  7. ^ T. Simpson. p 77.
  8. ^ T. Simpson p 86-87.
  9. ^ T. Simpson p 108.
  10. ^ The Last Maopo .T. Simpson.