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The Training Camp for the First Maori Contingent at Avondale (1914-1915) “Between 1914 and 1918 part of the racecourse was used by the army,” according to The Challenge of the Whau. Of these wartime occupiers of Avondale’s most prominent area of green space, the ones likely to come to mind are the tunnelling company who had their initial army training on the racecourse in late 1915. But nearly 500 men preceded the Tunnellers, their training extending from October 1914 to February 1915 – New Zealand’s first Maori Contingent, the start of the Maori Battalion. The call to arms The First World War was declared on 4 August 1914 – just two days later, the Maori Members of Parliament “declared their desire of a Maori force going to the war” by telegrams to the Government. On the same day, However, the initial policy of the British Government was not to have non-white races taking part “in the Wars of the White Race against a White Race.” However, by early September, an army of Indian troops had been raised to serve at Suez, and the French had raised forces from their Algerian colony. This led a Dunedin North MP to suggest to the Prime Minister William Massey in the House that as Maori were prepared to volunteer as well, why couldn’t they? The British acceded to the New Zealand Government’s suggestion later that month.
The Government’s agreement to allow Maori to volunteer for the expeditionary forces was not made without reservations. Sir Joseph Ward, in the same parliamentary session as the suggestion to appeal to the British was made, reminded the Minister of Defence that “the bulk of the Maori people was beyond the limits of the existing system of military training, and although there were Maoris enthusiastic to go forward, they were in greater need of training than the pakehas who were volunteering.” He suggested that “concentration camps” be immediately established in “Maori districts for the training of volunteers.” The idea of having training grounds in provincial districts was probably dropped due to logistic difficulties. There were also doubts as to whether the Maori servicemen would be up to serving in Egypt
alongside the rest of the expeditionary force. Even when the British gave their agreement as to Maori volunteers for the war, the New Zealand Government were making counter-proposals, most likely involving the later plan to send only half of the contingent to Egypt, and the rest sent to Samoa for garrison duty. This was opposed vociferously by Sir Maui Pomare and his recruiting committee, by the tribes, and by the contingent themselves, and was dropped by November 7 1914.
The newspapers of the time interviewed surviving “old campaigners” from the time of the land wars of the previous century, and they had no doubts as to the battleworthiness of the descendants of their former allies and foes. “If they were sent to the fighting line,” one told the Herald, “there would not be a man of them who would shrink from laying down his life for the Empire of which they are now a part. I know that these men would welcome any chance to bring new glory to the Maori race, even at the sacrifice of their own lives. There are many races in the British Empire whom we could not readily trust as soldiers in a crisis like this, but the Maoris may be trusted absolutely. I would unhesitatingly put them beside the Turocs, who are doing such magnificent fighting for the French just now.”
Some doubts as to the wisdom of Maori volunteering for this foreign war were expressed among Maori also. Indeed not all Maori supported the calls from the Maori members of Parliament. At a meeting in Pariora near Patea, the elders “were of the opinion that, as no outside foe has ever invaded New Zealand, it would not be right for Maoris to go abroad in defence of the Empire.” The Waikato was an area notably absent in the lists published of areas from where the volunteers hailed, choosing to abstain due to ongoing grievances with the Crown.
But the concerns which were to dog the contingent most during their training in Avondale were those of health – more specifically, the risk of typhoid being passed from the Maori to the non-Maori population. The Auckland Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Makgill expressed his concerns that a large concentrated gathering of Maori in one place “would almost certainly result in an epidemic”, given that “the habits of the Maoris are such that even with the strict supervision of a military camp, it would be difficult to prevent the spread of infection.” He advised as to the dangers of collecting “a couple of hundred natives in one camp, or in one ship [to Egypt]. The
danger would not only be to the Maoris themselves, but to those who came in contact with them, either in the camps or on troopships.” Dr. Makgill felt that due to the incidence of “carriers” of typhoid, and the risk of volunteers coming from areas where the disease was rife, inoculations would do little to prevent an epidemic breaking out. His department never publicly agreed with his concerns, but did engage in an inoculation programme for every volunteer in the contingent. The camp at Avondale By the end of September, Avondale’s racecourse had been chosen for the site of the training camp. According to a written account of the time, the Maori name given to the Avondale camp was “Waiatarua”. Between the 7th and 16th October, the Army Service Corps were busy setting up the camp, with all tents pitched by the 16th and a water supply, showers and sanitation was provided. The first of the contingent arrived on Saturday the 17th of October. Divine service was held on the next day, conducted by one of two Maori clergymen in the camp, the Rev. William Keretene (the other clergyman was the Rev. Hone Wi.) By the end of that week, close to the full complement of 500 volunteers were encamped on the racecourse. Command of the camp was given to Capt. H. Peacock (promoted before the end of the year to Major), and Lieutenant A. E. Jones of St Stephens School in Parnell. The Avondale racecourse managers gave army staff the use of all buildings. Hutchinson Bros, the grocery firm, supplied the men with goods at town prices via an on-site canteen. Tents for a hospital and for use as recreation facilities were provided. A number of the volunteers were young men from Te Aute College, Three Kings Wesleyan College and St Stephen’s School in Parnell, with even a couple coming from as far as the Chatham Islands.
The First Maori Contingent was to be dubbed a “Pioneer” battalion, with the intended aim of providing the skilled labour for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. They wore a badge on their hats and shirt collars by the time they embarked for Egypt in 1915 showing a taiaha and a tewhatewha crossed through a crown, with the motto “Te Hokowhitu a Tu” (“the seventy twice-told warriors of the war god Tu”, this figure of 140 being the favoured size for the traditional war party or taua.) Their training routine was well-documented by the newspapers over the course of that summer of 1914-1915:
“The morning’s work starts with reveille at 5.30 o’clock. At 6.30 the troops line up for their first parade which continues until 7.30, when they are dismissed for
breakfast. At 8.45 sick parade is held. Then a two-hours’ instruction parade takes place, when the men are dismissed for half-an-hour for “spell-oh”. Another parade from 11.30 to 12.30 brings the morning’s work to a close, when luncheon was a welcome change. At 2.30 they are hard at it again, and are kept busy until 4.30. Rations are served out at 4.45, and dinner at 5.30 brings the day’s work to a close except for those who have to do sentry duty. Guards and pickets are mounted at 6.30 pm, two hours’ duty at which brings a welcome relief, and change of guard. During the rest of the evening the men do as they like.”
The contingent, much more confident by early 1915, carried out manoeuvres on One Tree Hill, and at Penrose.
They were issued their first uniform, khaki working suits or dungarees and slouch hats, on 23 October. The dungarees were similar to those issued to the field engineering companies, highlighting their envisaged skilled labour role once overseas. By January 1915 it was decided to kit the Maori soldiers in shorts, replacing long trousers. The new uniform was “wide, well-cut shorts, putties (gaiters) and bare knees, and a drill tunic,” something still quite novel for the time, but actually essential for desert campaigns.
Entertainment and morale was provided in part by the community. The local residents proposed early in the camp’s period of occupation to give the volunteers some concerts “at an early date”, while a phonograph was installed in the canteen, and the Y.M.C.A. made arrangements to erect a large marquee, “in which a variety of amusements will be provided.” Another marquee provided there was stocked with “gifts of magazines and illustrated papers.” In late October the men set up hurdles on the racetrack and held a mile race with “no less than 70 men” lining up, with the prize only being that the winner’s name be published in the Herald. The women’s committee of the Patriotic League gave the contingent a parcel containing “a complete cricket set, with three bats, a football, punching ball, set of boxing gloves, and a number of indoor games.” The League set about making enquiries into acquiring a
piano for the camp, as it boasted “a big percentage of musicians.” Three or four had violins, and during the lack of a piano it was said the singers would congregate around the resident violinists. By November, they had their piano, and it was reported that among the contingent was a composer who intended to sit for the second portion of his Bachelor of Music degree.
On 12 December, the contingent hosted a regimental sports day at the race course, including military displays, cycling and athletics under the auspices of the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association. These included 120 yards, 220 yards, halfmile and one mile handicap races, and a one mile bicycle handicap race. For Christmas, it was decided to keep the contingent encamped at Avondale, but to allow relatives to visit them for a gala celebration in the New Year. The Patriotic League provided plum pudding and fruit cake to all the troops for Christmas. On the 6th of January 1915 after a formal welcome to the relatives and military display “a rush was then made to another part of the camp where a number of natives had prepared five hangis, loaded with pork, beef, potatoes, eels and other food. General leave was granted for the rest of the day.” Typhoid outbreak The Maori contingent had had such glowing reports of training progress in the newspapers during the summer that it must have come as a bombshell shock to the general public when it was announced that typhoid had broken out at the camp. In bold type on the morning of the day the men were due to embark for Wellington, on their way to Egypt and garrison duties in the Mediterranean, the Herald announced that one soldier had died in the fever ward at Auckland Hospital, and four more cases were known in the camp. Dr. Makgill’s September prophecy seemed to have come to pass, much to the alarm of Auckland, and of Avondale’s residents in particular. Two locals had become infected, one who lived in a street adjacent to the racecourse and had been taken to hospital in the week before the troops departed; another was a young boy. Other suspected cases were under observation. Local chemist Robert J. Allely stated that “there could be little doubt that the spread of the disease to the civil population has been due to the presence of the camp.” Such a large camp in the district, he said, meant that the danger wasn’t at an end once the troops had departed, “sources of infection were bound to remain.” He advised strongly against a second
such camp being established in the district – “The idea of sending out troops next month would be murder and every effort should be made to get the present plans altered.”
The farewell from Auckland was muted. “It is stated that Auckland City did not do them honour, they were sent off without any public demonstration,” one source said. Queen Street was lined by people watching the men march past on their way from Mt Eden railway station to Queen’s wharf, and a “very large number” had gathered at the wharf itself, but unfortunately with no band to send them on their way, and no farewell speeches. All that would await them in Wellington. It’s unknown how much an effect the typhoid scare had on this event.
The Herald was apparently guilty of one piece of mis-reporting during this: the fatality at Auckland Hospital wasn’t a soldier at all, according to Lieut.-Colonel W. H. Parkes, but was actually a young schoolboy from Three Kings, living at Orakei at the time (back in early January, when Orakei relatives of the troops had planned to hold a celebration for them in response to the New Years gathering at Avondale, this was suddenly called off. Perhaps because of an outbreak at Orakei, where the young boy was infected?)
This leaves “three or four cases” at the camp over the four month period, plus the two Avondale locals reported, and the unnumbered other “suspected cases”. The Public Health Department didn’t report an epidemic breaking out at Avondale, or any specific mention of a higher incidence of typhoid instances in the locality in their reports to the House of Representatives. In fact, they commented that as at the end of the financial year 1915, Avondale still had no connection to the main sewer at Arch Hill, the lack of which may have helped the disease to spread as it had. The Army did indeed inoculate the Maori troops against typhoid – it may indeed have been that cases occurred at the camp not because of a gathering of Maori with the disease, but because of a mix of primitive sanitation provisions, arrival into the camp of “carriers” of the disease from the provinces (for whom, as Dr. Makgill said earlier, inoculations would be ineffective as they already had the disease), and contact over the ChristmasNew Year period during the gathering with the friends and relatives of the troops. If typhoid was especially prevalent, it is amazing that there were not more cases
reported. Sadly, one more case of typhoid was reported when Major Peacock fell ill on the troopship en route to Egypt and had to be invalided back home.
Ironically, the training was originally meant to be only for four weeks (as intended by the commander of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Major-General Sir Alexander Godley). During this time, there had been some desertions from the camp as troops lost patience with the four month wait. Had training been of less duration, the outbreak may not have received the attention it did.
The next time Avondale racecourse would be used as a training camp, the Army took great pains to dig such extensive drainage lines which would for decades have the local residents certain that tunnels had been dug under the racecourse. Lessons, it seems, had been learned. Beyond Egypt The history of the Maori Battalion is well-told elsewhere. The Pioneer Battalion initially served as a garrison on Malta, then joined the rest of the New Zealanders at Gallipoli on 3 July 1915. By August 1915 from a contingent of 476 officers and men, the battalion was reduced to 60 when they rested on Lemnos. Against intentions to split up the battalion, the decision came in December to maintain it and post all new Maori recruits to it. By April 1916, the battalion was in France digging trenches, being the original troops to earn the name “diggers” from the British for their efforts (a name which has subsequently been claimed and used by the Australian forces ever since). By September 1917, the Pioneer Battalion became a full Maori unit, entitled as the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion, and readopting the “Te Hokowhitu a Tu” badge.
At the battle of Sari Bair at Gallipoli, they adopted Te Rauparaha’s haka as their war cry as they set about clearing the Turkish trenches. One of their number, Captain Pirimi Pereika Tahiwi, led the New Zealand troops in the first Anzac Day parade in London, April 1916. Britain’s only Maori meeting house, “Hinemihi” at Clandon Park in Surrey and originally from the “buried village” of Te Wairoa, was moved to its present site by members of the Maori Pioneer Battalion during the war and can still be seen today.
And one of the places where the legendary Maori Battalion began was a small semirural backwater in Auckland called Avondale.
Lisa J Truttman 26 December 2005
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