Major changes were made to the nature and form of Māori military service in late 1915 and early 1916. The Native Contingent ceased to exist and Māori troops were incorporated into the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, sometimes referred to now as the Maori Pioneer Battalion.
The Native Contingent was decimated by events at Gallipoli. It was further shocked in August 1915 when General Godley dismissed three officers who had been arrested and charged with what amounted to desertion in the face of the enemy. The three men had an unblemished record and had served the contingent with great distinction, but there had been increasing friction between them and the contingent commander, Major A.H. Herbert.
Eight officers, including Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), called for an inquiry. They felt the charges questioned the honour of all Māori. One of those accused, Captain Roger Dansey, had been witnessed leading a bayonet charge and 'personally disposing of three Turks'. The officers sensed that some mistake had been made. Godley ordered the three men home for 'unsatisfactory performance' and decided to split the contingent up among other platoons in the New Zealand Infantry Brigades. He said that his decision was based on the need to reinforce other units and to allow Māori to fight alongside their fellow countrymen.
In his capacity as an MP and as a leading figure in the Native Contingent Committee, Ngata received many letters of complaint from Māori soldiers about what they saw as a loss of identity. 'Kua wehewehe matou' (we are separated) some said. He vowed not to recruit another soldier from the East Coast unless the situation was remedied.
In February 1916, Godley reorganised the New Zealand Expeditionary Force into the New Zealand Division and reunited Māori troops in the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion.
Pioneers were not frontline fighting units but a military labour force trained and organised to work on engineering tasks, digging trenches, building roads, railways and any other logistical task deemed necessary. This was essential and dangerous work that was often carried out under fire.
The battalion was organised into four companies, each with two Māori and two Pākehā platoons, made up of the remnants of the Otago Mounted Rifles. Māori soldiers in other battalions were encouraged to transfer to the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, but many elected to stay in the battalions in which they had enlisted.
Major George King, formerly staff captain of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, was appointed as commanding officer. Te Rangi Hiroa was promoted to major and made second-in-command. Both men were considered to have the leadership qualities needed to pull the battalion together. Neither the Otago Mounted Rifles nor the Māori were happy with this reshuffle. The Otago men in particular resented becoming pioneers.
Apirana Ngata, inspired by the efforts of the Native Contingent at Gallipoli and conscious of the need for recruitments, composed the recruiting waiata 'Te ope tuatahi'. Mirroring what happened in the Pakeha community, there was a drop in numbers joining up as time wore on, and it became hard to recruit enough men to replace the casualties. Many Māori wanted more than a pioneer function for their unit, but, in reality, Māori struggled to sustain the flow of reinforcements necessary to maintain an infantry battalion.
This is 'Te ope tuatahi' as it appeared in 1926 in James Cowan's The Maoris in the Great War. An alternative translation of the first verse can be found in Ranginui Walker's He tipua: the life and times of Sir Apirana Ngata.
E te ope tuatahi We greet our first war band
No Aotearoa, From Aotea-roa,
No Te Wai-pounamu, From the Island of Greenstone:
No nga tai e wha. We sing of our warriors
Ko koutou ena Our gallant Five Hundred
E nga rau e rima, The chosen heroes
Ko te Hokowhitu toa Of Tu-mata-uenga,
A Tu-mata-uenga: The Angry-Eyed War God.
I hinga ki Ihipa, Some fell in Egypt,
Ki Karipori ra ia; Some on Gallipoli;
E ngau nei te aroha, Now pangs of sharp sorrow
Me te mamae. Our sad hearts are piercing.
From the Coast of the Sunrise,
E te ope tuarua, Came our Second Contingent,
No Mahaki rawa, The men of Mahaki;
Na Hauiti koe, Men of Tolago Bay,
Na Porourangi: Warriors of Ngati-Porou
I haere ai Henare Farewell, O Henare [Mokena Kohere]
Me to Wiwi, Who led your company
I patu ki te pakanga, And fell in war's thunder
Ki Paranihi ra ia. Nobly fighting in France.
Ko wai he morehu And who will survive there
Hei kawe korero To take the last message
Ki te iwi nui e, To our own loved people
E taukuri nei? In dark sorrow bowed?
E te ope tuaiwa Our Ninth fighting Contingent
No Te Arawa, Comes from Te Arawa,
No Te Tai-rawhiti, From the Coast of the Sunrise,
No Kahungunu. From Kahungunu's land.
E haere ana 'hau And now I am leaving
Ki runga o Wiwi For France's red war fields.
Ki reira 'hau nei, There I'll remember;
E tangi ai.
Me mihi kau atu My heart will send greetings
I te nuku o te whenua, O'er far land and ocean
He konei ra e,
E te tau pumau. To my own constant love.
The Henare farewelled in 'Te ope tuatahi' was 36-year-old Lieutenant Henare Kohere, a man of great mana from the East Coast. On 15 September 1916, the first day of the New Zealand attack on the Somme, 12 Pioneers were killed and 40 wounded. One of those mortally wounded was Kohere, who told those attending him, 'Ka nui te kino' (Things are very bad). He gave instructions that his cousin, Lieutenant Pekama Kaa, should take control of his Ngāti Porou platoon. He died the next day and was buried at Heilly.
Kaa assumed leadership of the platoon until he too was killed in August 1917.