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Māori and the Home Guard: ‘tribal leadership (consistent with military efficiency)’

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Ross Webb
02 June, 2020

That Māori served overseas in a separate unit, the 28th Maori Battalion, is relatively well known. A story less well known is that of the debate over Māori units and leadership within the New Zealand Home Guard. An earlier blog post introduced the question of Māori in the Home Guard. This blog explores the story over the struggle to create separate Māori units and for Māori in leadership positions.


In February 1943, a military parade held at the Rangiuru Pā near Te Puke was attended by military officials, alongside Major Henry Te Reiwhati Vercoe (Ngāti Pikiao), who worked on recruitment in the area, and the Māori MPs Parāire Karaka Paikea (Te Uri-o-Hau and Ngāti Whātua) and Āpirana Ngata (Ngāti Porou).[1]  The meeting was designed, as Ngata explained, to ‘bring about a better understanding between the Maori and the Pakeha’. Ngata wanted ‘all Maoris to take part in the war effort, backed by their elders and their women folk’. Paikea added that Māori ‘must get together in the War effort so that they would not be found wanting’. Major-General Bell also spoke, saying that he ‘was gaining knowledge of the Maori problems relating to the Maori War Effort’ and he announced the establishment of training schools ‘which would enable the best leaders from the Maori Race to be chosen as leaders of their people in the Home Guard’.

While the military parade was aimed at drumming up support for the Māori war effort more generally, it also came a response to criticisms that Māori were not being allowed to organise separate units and take up leadership positions within the Home Guard. This was ‘the Maori problems relating to the Maori War Effort’ that Bell was seeking to understanding. In a private telegram to Prime Minister Peter Fraser shortly after the meeting, Ngata claimed that this was causing ‘great resentment…. If Maori efforts frustrated in this the most important aspect of policy repercussions will be unfavourable whole Maori War Effort’.[2]  

The source of the tension came from the decision of the War Cabinet in 1942 to extend the principle of ‘tribal leadership’ into units of the Home Guard. This is a decision often cited by historians, but how it worked ‘on the ground’ is rarely analysed.[3] Calls for separate institutions – whether in politics, culture, sports and in the military – were not new to the 1940s. As Aroha Harris writes, ‘an informal parallel development, or inadvertent segregation, was therefore established, although as a response to exclusion rather than an enforced regime’.[4]

The tension caused for Māori in the Home Guard however was the caveat explicit in the War Cabinet agreement; the Cabinet agreed to ‘tribal leadership (consistent with military efficiency)’. From the outset, the Maori Parliamentary Committee (MPC) insisted that the organisation follow Māori customs and traditions, even if the practice was at odds with military and administrative procedure. For its part, the Government recognised the need for Māori involvement in recruitment at the very least, because of the ‘tremendous field to cover, both in remote country districts, and the larger towns’. As Ralph Ngatata Love wrote, ‘the crisis of the war… clearly demonstrated that the Maori Members [of Parliament] were better able to work with the people than the [Native] Department’.[5]

In August 1940, the War Cabinet approved the establishment of the Home Guard. Its duties would include patrolling coastlines and preparing New Zealand against possible invasion. As with overseas service, recruitment to the Home Guard surged quickly. Within eight months, 1,200 Home Guard centres were set up and over 98,000 males aged over 15 had registered.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and the expansion of the war into the Pacific increased the importance of the Home Guard. Home Guard service became compulsory, though in line with the Government’s broader policy, it remained voluntary for Māori.[6]

By March 1943, Paikea claimed that the Maori War Effort Organisation (MWEO) had enlisted 10,229 Māori into the Home Guard.[7] Unlike Paikea, Ngata showed little interest in the Home Guard. On 12 June 1941, Ngata spoke in Parliament on the matter: ‘All talk about home defence, Home Guard, and so on, prior to the shedding of New Zealand blood abroad was all right. That blood is shed and it is calling for a follow-up… Their real duty is over there. That is the place one has to meet Hitler, not here. The old Maori warrior did not hang about his meeting-house waiting for the enemy; he went out on to the hills and ranges to meet him’.[8]

But while Ngata directed his energies towards the Māori Battalion overseas, Paikea and the MWEO took an active approach to stimulating Māori recruitment in the Home Guard. Service in the Home Guard also addressed the concerns of some Māori who wanted their people only to serve within New Zealand for home defence. Waikato leaders promoted service in the Home Guard, for example. Tonga Mahuta wrote to Paikea in June 1941, stating that after a meeting, ‘we all agreed that we should join the Home Guard’.[9]  In March 1943, Te Puea Hērangi wrote to the Commandant of the Northern Military District P.H. Bell requesting that a Home Guard training camp be established at Ngāruawāhia so that ‘the South Auckland Maori people can prove they are 100% prepared to guard the land of the “Long White Cloud”’.[10]

As the role of Māori in the Home Guard expanded, so did requests for separate Māori Units and for the principle of ‘tribal leadership’ to be realised, requests that came from Māori across the country as well as from Paikea. In March 1941, Paikea wrote to the Prime Minister Peter Fraser with the resolution from the MWEO that ‘it be the policy of the Government to encourage the formation of Maori Units for Home Defence’. Paikea’s letter added that the units were ‘to be controlled wherever possible by their own officers and NCOs’.[11]  In April 1942, Eric J. Bell wrote to the Minister of Defence claiming that he was ‘constantly receiving requests from the Maoris of Matata’ for ‘a Maori unit for Home Guard’ and that there was ‘general dissatisfaction’ about the appointment of Pākehā officers.[12] Shortly after the War Cabinet’s decision to extend the principle of tribal leadership to the Territorial and Home Guard, Paikea wanted to ensure that the decision was given effect to.[13] Protests came from around the country at the continued appointment of Pākehā officers, protests that the Minister of Defence described as ‘unfortunate and misguided’.[14]

In July 1942, Paikea wrote to the Minister of Defence again explaining that there was evidence ‘in various parts of New Zealand’ of Māori who had enlisted for Home Guard not attending notified parades ‘owing to their marked dislike to serve under certain Pakeha Officers’.[15] In May 1942, military officials in Whanganui also encountered a desire among Māori for the establishment of Māori units in the Home Guard, and requests that officers and NCOs ‘of the Maori race should be appointed to such Maori sub units’.[16]

It was these tensions that became the focus on the military parade in Te Puke in 1943 described above.  On stage the disagreement between Ngata and Paikea on the one hand and Major-General Bell on the other was clear. ‘Because a man’s great-great-grandfather was a mighty warrior, it is not to say that the great-great grandson is going to be an efficient officer’, Bell said, while Ngata and Paikea again emphasised that the Māori war effort was not unconditional and relied on goodwill. That goodwill relied on an acceptance of separate Māori units and leadership. A compromise of sorts was reached. Bell agree to establish Maori Officer Training Schools, and by the end of the year there were training schools located in Whangārei, Ngāruawāhia, Bay of Plenty, East Cape, and Wairoa.

Yet by this time, a confluence of developments led to a winding down of the Home Guard. The Government had always attempted to maintain a balance between Home Guard and food production, especially during the ‘flush of the producing season’ in agriculture. As the war continued, food production increasingly trumped home defence. At the same time, the pressure to provide further Māori recruits had also eased off by mid-1943.[17] The Chief Liaison Officer for the Maori War Effort Organisation recommended that all five of the Training Schools be ‘suspended until the end of the producing season – say the end of February’. Indeed, reports of labour shortages from the Agricultural Department, and the view that the threat of overseas invasion was ‘now removed’, led military officials to argue that the camps be ‘abandoned immediately’.[18] Military officials agreed that from a military point of view, the Home Guard camps were not of great value, but they considered that ‘from a national point of view the Maori Elders and authorities generally in the Maori districts of Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay hold a very high opinion of the improvements in Maori youth, caused by attendance at these camps’.[19]

Thus, the officials had to decide ‘whether this last consideration is sufficient to warrant Army retaining these establishments. The officials decided that it was not and a message sent from Army Headquarters to all the military districts simply stated: ‘All Maori Home Guards Training Schools are to be closed forthwith until further notice. Staff to be demobilised’.[20] The closing of the Māori Home Guard training schools reflected a broader downscaling of the New Zealand Home Guard, already underway by June 1943.[21]

The legacy of the Māori Home Guard is difficult to assess, but the experience spoke to the desire for autonomy on the home front, and the tensions between the ‘tribal leadership’ and what military officials considered ‘military efficiency’, a tension that was at the heart of the relationship between Māori and the Government during the war years. [22]


Image: A rare picture of a Māori section of the Home Guard on parade in Auckland, Auckland Star, 10 May 1941.


[[1]] Vercoe was a veteran of the South African War 1899-1902 and the First World War. For more on Vercoe, see: Whakahuihui Vercoe. 'Vercoe, Henry Te Reiwhati', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2020)

[2] Ngata to Fraser, 9 February 1943, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[3] Claudia Orange, ‘An Exercise in Maori Autonomy: The Rise and Fall of the Maori War Effort Organisation’, New Zealand Journal of History, 21, 1 (1987): 157; Claudia Orange, ‘Maori War Effort Organisation’, in I. McGibbon (ed), Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History, (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.309.

[4] Aroha Harris, ‘Persistence and Resilience, 1920-1945’, in A. Anderson, J. Binney, A. Harris (eds.), Tangata Whenua: A History, (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2015), p.313.

[5] R. Ngatata Love, ‘Policies of Frustration: The growth of Maori Politics: The Ratana-Labour era’, PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1977, pp.338-339.

[6] Nancy Taylor, The Home Front, 1 (Wellington: Historical Publications Branch, 1986), p. 473.

[7] Cited in J.V.T. Baker, War Economy, (Wellington: Historical Publications Branch, 1986), p.453.

[8] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vol.259, p.295.

[9] Love, ‘Policies of Frustration’, p.337.

[10] Te Puea Herangi to P.H Bell, 3 March 1943, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[11] Paikea to Fraser, 27 March, 1941, EA1 83/3/11, ANZ, Wellington

[12] Eric J. Bell to Minister of Defence, 28 April 1942, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington

[13] Paikea to Minister of Defence, 20 July 1942, AD1 312/1/22, ANZ, Wellington

[14] Minister of Defence to Paikea, 17 August 1942, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[15] Paikea to Minister of Defence, 30 July 1942, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[16] Home Guard/Maori Rally – Wanganui – 2nd May’, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[17] Jonathan Sarich and Andrew Francis, Aspects of Te Rohe Potae Political Engagement 1939-c.1975: Government Provisions for Local Self Government for Te Roge Potae Hapu and Iwi, Report commissioned for the Waitangi Tribunal, 2011, p.52.

[18] J.A. Robertson to Minister of Defence, 1 October, 1943, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[19] District Commandant, Central Military District to Army Headquarters, 12 October 1943, AD1

304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[20] Call and Instructions, 15 October, 1943, AD1 304/6/21, ANZ, Wellington.

[21] Taylor, The Home Front, p.480.

[22] Orange, ‘An Exercise in Maori Autonomy’.

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