Kaitaki Abraham Karaka (Ngāti Maui, Ngāti Pūtaanga, Te Whānau a Hinerupe, Te Whānau a Tūwhakairiora), seen here at Souda Bay cemetery on Crete, navigated the group onto many a sacred place. Pic: Pila Lolohea
I have a great job looking after the 28th Māori Battalion website. My work is an incredible privilege. I spend my days with the men of the Māori Battalion, at the time when they were in the prime of their lives and fighting a war in distant lands ‘for God, for King and for country’. Many of them didn’t make it home, and many returned irrevocably changed.
In May 2014 I was part of a once-in-a-lifetime tour that travelled to Tunisia, Italy, Greece and Crete. The tour was organised and led by historian Monty Soutar. The majority of our tour group were descendants of soldiers that had fought with the Māori Battalion, most affiliated to C Company – Ngā Kaupoi from the East Coast. We visited many of the places where our Papa fought and died and where some of them now lie.
Whakamaharatanga – Commemoration
We held a service at every cemetery we visited; it was integral to our journey. We honoured our fallen soldiers with prayer, song, tears and maumahara – we remembered them, their families who suffered through their loss and their ultimate sacrifice.
Visiting these cemeteries I gained a real appreciation for the care that our soldiers are given by the home people. For Māori, custom for honouring our dead requires that the tūpāpaku (deceased person) be returned for burial to their ūkaipō (home). The care shown goes some way to allaying this separation.
Cassino cemetery. Pic: Leanne Tamaki
Kei wareware tātou – Lest we forget
These places of such sacredness and tranquillity are an important part of the story of war. It is heart-wrenching standing in a cemetery full of young men who died in the prime of their lives and far from home. The impacts of war are very real and apparent.
Haka, Forli cemetery. Pic: Leanne Tamaki
Māori Battalion veteran Nolan Raihania accompanied us during the Italy leg of our journey. It was a privilege to have him travel with us and share his experiences and recollections of the war and his comrades. In Italy we were joined by students and teachers from East Coast secondary schools. Along with members of our group they performed songs and haka before Nolan and his fallen comrades at Forli cemetery. This was an important part of our commemoration. Many of the songs are old and were once performed by some of these men. Some of the songs have been composed for them; the men would have never heard them before.
Haka at Pt 209. Pic: Pila Lolohea
Tebaga Gap, Tunisia
Battle site visits were another integral part of the trip. We stood on the same ground where our forefathers of the Māori Battalion had fought and in some circumstances died.
Pt 209 and Hikurangi at Tebaga Gap in Tunisia was the first site we visited. Hugely significant, this site is synonymous with the deeds of Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu, gaining him the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. We had descendants of the Ngārimu family and of the other men who had died there with us. We were also the first Māori group who had been there since Bully Jackson and other soldiers returned to bury the bodies of their comrades who had died there in 1943.
We held a service and paid tribute with songs and haka.
I learnt so much from visiting the battle sites; it brings a whole new perspective to my work. I also gained a huge respect for the German soldiers. The privates on the other side were in much the same position as ours.
Being there and trampling those grounds also instigated a lot more questions. Being at Tebaga Gap brought to the fore the futility of war. And I wondered, what were they doing there – all of them, the Germans included. What kept them there? And was it all worth it? Perhaps the latter question is something we as descendants need to respond to by making their sacrifices worth it.
Not long after the battle at Tebaga Gap, the Māori Battalion were again at the spearhead of another attack. Takrouna is renowned for the deeds of Haane Manahi and Sergeant John Rogers. Sadly, Rogers died here. Manahi was recommended for a Victoria Cross, but was instead awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Ngā tamariki o te kohu – Leanne Tamaki and Karina Ngaropo in front of Takrouna. Pic: Leanne Tamaki
Because I’m Tūhoe and a descendant of B Company soldiers, Takrouna has personal significance for me. A number of our Tūhoe men fought and died in this battle, including Timi Pokai (who was reinforcing C Company at the time), Tu Pioioi Rangiaho and Te Naawe Tupe. They are all buried nearby at Enfidaville cemetery, along with John Rogers. Tahae Trainor received a military medal for his deeds here. He survived this battle only to die at Cassino in Italy.
Haka, 42nd Street, Crete. Pic: Leanne Tamaki
42nd Street, Crete
The whole journey was an exercise in ‘following in the footsteps of our ancestors’. A very poignant example of this was at 42nd Street, an olive grove in a little village on Crete. This is one of the sites where the Māori Battalion forged their fierce reputation. Roused to action and inspired by Hemara Aupouri, who started the tūtū-ngārahu (haka performed in the moment of battle) on the embankment, they killed 80 Germans, a third of the attacking force.
As a tribute to this event our group did the haka ‘Ka panapana’ and ‘Ka mate’, led respectively by Hemara’s great-granddaughter Rhia and his close relative Tawhai Aupouri.
Our group. Pic: Mike Jonathan
We were all part of a once-in-a-lifetime trip and the bonds we have made will be treasured.
E kore e mutu aku mihi ki a koutou e toku Whānau Rima Tekau. He nui aku whakaaro me taku aroha hoki ki a koutou, ka mau tonu a au te rama o te pūmahara. Aroha tino nui!