The first Native Contingent sailed from Wellington aboard the SS Warrimoo in February 1915. Its motto was 'Te Hokowhitu a Tu' (the seventy twice-told warriors of the war god), signifying the 140 warriors of the war god, Tu-mata-uenga. This name was given by Wi Pere, an East Coast rangatira. The crest of the contingent bore two traditional Maori weapons, the taiaha and tewhatewha, crossed through a crown.
The Native Contingent Committee had the task of raising and reinforcing the contingent. The committee included the four Māori MPs. Of these, Āpirana Ngata and Western Māori's Maui Pomare were key figures.
The committee and the men of the contingent were determined that Māori should see combat, despite imperial concern about their use of weapons against European forces. Some New Zealanders thought that an exception should be made for Māori. The minister of defence, James Allen, wrote to Major-General Sir Alexander Godley, commander of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, stating, 'Although they are a coloured race I think it would be apparent on their arrival that they are different to the ordinary coloured race.'
Godley recommended that the contingent go to Malta for further training and garrison duties, thus freeing up Pākehā troops for combat. When the contingent arrived in Egypt, Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) made an impassioned plea:
Our ancestors were a warlike people ... the members of this war party would be ashamed to face their people at the conclusion of the war if they were to be confined entirely to garrison duty and not be given an opportunity of proving their mettle at the front.
J.B. Condliffe, Te Rangi Hiroa: the life of Peter Buck, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1971, p127
Godley was impressed by the sentiment but unconvinced. The contingent went to Malta.
Mounting casualties and the need for reinforcements on the Gallipoli Peninsula forced a change in imperial policy on 'native peoples' fighting. The Native Contingent landed at Anzac Cove on 3 July 1915. Here they joined the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, who were being deployed as infantry on the peninsula.
Some Maori had been at Gallipoli from the beginning, having enlisted in the provincial infantry battalions. One such man was Second Lieutenant Thomas (Hami) Grace of the Wellington Battalion.
An old boy of Wellington College, Grace was a talented sportsman. He played rugby for the New Zealand Māori teams that toured New Zealand in 1911 and Australia in 1914. A noted marksman, he was an effective sniper at Gallipoli. He was killed on 8 August as the Wellington Battalion seized the crucial heights of Chunuk Bair.
During the assault on Chunuk Bair in early August, 17 men of the Native Contingent were killed and 89 were wounded. The contingent was involved in the assault on Hill 60 in late August, and by September, only 60 of the 16 officers and 461 other ranks who had arrived in July remained at Gallipoli. The return of sick and wounded members boosted numbers, but when the contingent was evacuated from the peninsula with the rest of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in December 1915, it had only two officers and 132 men. During the campaign 50 Maori had lost their lives.
Te Rangi Hiroa recorded in his diary that the gallantry of Māori at Gallipoli had 'earned them the respect and admiration of the British troops'. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and nine other members of the contingent received military awards.