Inspirations: an era ends, but from it we gain a lesson in human values

Yesterday, Saturday 1 December 2012, the 28 (Maori) Battalion Association formally ended its existence, 67 years after the end of the Second World War.

It is theInspirations Logo end of an era, and for me, the important side of their story – the true impact they have had on history, on New Zealand, has nothing to do with war. It has, instead, everything to do with human values. I’ll explain.

Members of 28 (Maori) Battalion training in the Western Desert, Egypt. Photographer unknown. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=13063&l=en

Members of 28 (Maori) Battalion training in the Western Desert, Egypt. Photographer unknown. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=13063&l=en

First, a little history. The battalion was formed in 1940 largely at the urging of Sir Apirana Ngata, partly because he and others hoped to use a Maori contribution to the war as a way of improving the Maori position afterwards.

I wrote their story into the series of war histories I wrote in the early 2000s. They fought on most of the battlefields of New Zealand’s land war, including Olympus Pass, Maleme, Canea, El Alamein, Sidi Azeiz, Tobruk, Medenine, Tebaga Gap, Takrouna, Enfidaville, The Sangro, Orsogna, Cassino, The Senio and the battles for the stop-banks across northern Italy, to Trieste.  Some 3600 Maori served with the Battalion. Here are their names. Of these, 649 were killed and 1712 wounded during the war.

They lived up to their motto, Kia Kaha [ever be strong]. Always.

More than once, they pulled the division’s irons out of the fire. In May 1941, 28 (Maori) Battalion saved withdrawing New Zealand forces from being over-run south of Chania during the battle for Crete. Their charge pushed the Germans back 600 yards – this by men who were tired and hungry. The Germans thought they were facing fresh troops.

Members of 28 (Maori) Battalion in Egypt with rations or parcels from home. Photographer unknown. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=22214&l=en

Members of 28 (Maori) Battalion in Egypt with rations or parcels from home. Photographer unknown. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=22214&l=en

At Minqar Qaim in June 1942, the New Zealand Division was surrounded by the DAK (Deutsche Afrika Korps). Major-General Sir Bernard Freyberg ordered a break-out. One of the two columns was given teeth by 28 (Maori) Battalion, which punched into 21 Panzer Division in the darkness and broke through, letting 4 Brigade escape to safety.

They got some very hard tasks, particularly during the battles for Cassino in February 1944, when the Battalion were chosen to lead the abortive assault across the river south of the town. They spent a day isolated on the other side, fighting off Panzers.

After the war, their deeds became symbols of identity not just for mid-twentieth century Maori but for all New Zealanders. Their marching song, ‘Maori Battalion’ - lyrics by Anania Amohau to the tune of ‘Washington Post Swing’ – was a staple for two generations of schoolchildren.

Their comradeship survived the decades. But time has taken its toll, and earlier this year the Association decided to wind up its affairs. Nobody wanted to be the last one standing. And that, too, underscores their brotherhood, three quarters of a century after they formed.

To me the tale of the Battalion says something about the better qualities of humanity. I am not talking about foolish glorification of war; I am talking loyalty, honesty, and authenticity of humanity. The story of the Battalion in war, and in the decades since, has been one of supporting each other, without flag or fail – reliably, with good will and genuine intent. It is about thinking about others, putting them first. It is about placing trust in others and being trusted in return.

These are values that, I think, we can all do well to follow. I have a word for these values. Integrity. And, to me, the Battalion inspires it.

On Saturday, eleven of the 25 surviving members attended a service at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, with the Governor-General, Lieutenant-General Sir Jerry Mataperae.

It is the end of an era, not just for the Battalion, but also for New Zealand. We shall remember them.

Kia kaha, my friends.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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2 comments on “Inspirations: an era ends, but from it we gain a lesson in human values

  1. There was a gentleman who came to our open houses at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte. He had nineteen missions with the 2nd Bomb Group operating from Italy — shot down over the Brenner Pass, evaded capture, escaped with the help of Yugoslav partisans. The sweetest little guy you’d ever want to meet. He belonged to an association in Gaston County called the “Last Man Standing Club.” It was started by World War I veterans, but they inducted a bunch of World War II vets to continue the tradition.

    You’re right, respect and veneration for these gentlemen has nothing to do with glorifying war, and everything to do with the human spirit. The veterans I associate with insist they were “nothing special,” that they were “just doing their job.” I believe that’s true in one sense; but I like to quote the closing stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Veterans” in that particular context:

    One service more we dare to ask–
    Pray for us, heroes, pray,
    That when Fate lays on us our task
    We do not shame the Day!

    The full poem (only three stanzas) may be found at: http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/veterans.html

    • It is remarkable how warfare can bring out the best in people and in the human spirit. Maybe it’s because the state of warfare, itself, reflects the worst side of the human condition. A lot of vets I’ve spoken to tell me they were just doing their job too – this includes conscripts from WWII. Seems to be a common approach, likely – I suspect – flowing from the commonalities of the experiences. Interesting.

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