Maori Battalion: A Poetic Sequence
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Wai-te-ata Press, $24.95,
This sequence of 72 short narrative poems with nine photographs is a loose, anecdotal treatment of the Maori Battalion’s part in World War 2. It also serves as an epitaph to the brief career of Stuart Alexander Maireriki Campbell, the author’s elder brother, who was killed in North Italy only a few weeks before the war ended.
The work uses multiple voices to muse over past experience in a relaxed, conversational style. It is also an exercise of the passionate imagination, a tour de force, a compilation of images and insights that illuminate some of the attitudes and feelings of Stuart’s shoulder-companions, though perhaps not entirely of Stuart himself, who remains something of an enigma.
The warrior ethos at the psychological heart of the battalion’s raison d’être is declaimed in “Tohi”, the opening poem of the collection:
the fighting man
performs the rituals in his heart and guts.
When Death sings in his hair and crackles
to his finger tips he becomes fully alive.
Called up for overseas service, Stuart could have opted for any of the 2NZEF infantry formations, but he elected to “put his life in order” by joining the Maori Battalion. This was a volunteer outfit whose casualty rate and fearsome reputation identified its members as shock troops. Perhaps it was a rite de passage into manhood. Or maybe, as a Pacific Islander, Stuart found some affirmation in the embrace of the battalion, which was organised on a tribal basis with Hawke’s Bay Ngati Kahungunu and South Island Maori as well as Pacific Islanders grouped in D Company. “When Tu Commands” puts the volunteer enthusiasm of these young soldiers very dramatically:
We do not have to join up, so why do we
hurl ourselves into bloody conflict?
The answer is simply this: when Tu commands,
we must obey. Blood surges through our veins,
our eyes stick out like bolts, our fingers
ache to curl about the handles of the
taiaha, our tongues send on their way
the words of the haka: “Ka mate, ka mate!
Ka ora, ka ora!” – words from the fires
of hell (te mura o te ahi).
In the atavistic world of mana, close physical combat, utu, mythological gods and spirit visions, the bayonet became the master symbol of the warrior’s power. In “Tohi”, Campbell specifically links its potency to that of the erect penis: “And everywhere we fought, the long tongues / of our bayonets, having tasted human flesh, / hungered for more.” The bayonets are fed on German flesh. They rejoice in “the whana / tukutahi, the mad charge, the terror, / the sexual thrust into flesh, the screams”.
The bayonet was an 18-inch-long, steel sword that could be clipped on the end of the .303 rifle and used in a variety of thrusting, lunging, parrying movements to disable or kill an opponent in close combat. It was standard equipment in all infantry attacks, but the British Army developed a six-inch-long variant shaped like a pig sticker that was less cumbersome. When it was proposed to issue the shorter version to 2NZEF infantry, the Maori refused to give up their traditional 18-inch weapon; so, rather than face outright disobedience, the 2NZEF command kept the long bayonet in service. There had already been trouble over the array of captured enemy weaponry the battalion had been dragging around like a private army in the Western Desert. At one stage, this included an Italian light tank and numerous fieldpieces for use as anti-tank guns. Lt Col H G Dyer, an early CO, resigned his command rather than commit a breach of trust and agree to their surrender.
Another instrument of terror was the haka, a traditional dance form with deeply symbolic meaning for a war party. It is a ritualised displacement of anger directed at an enemy; as an expression of collective will, it intensifies bonding; it frightens its target with alarming aural and visual semblances; and it can bring its performers to a state of hysteria in which they are insensible to pain or fear. As the preliminary to a bayonet charge, it had a compulsive, fatal momentum:
spurred on by some of our mates,
doing the haka. It’s a brave man,
who’ll stand up to a bayonet
attack by a force of ferocious Maori.
(“The First Bayonet Attack”)
Some of Campbell’s poems pay epic tribute to exemplary heroes. Others deal with various desert actions and events in Greece and Crete as well as the fight for the railway station at Cassino. There are references to stealing pigs for hangis, along with jokes and black humour about death and disaster. Although not everyone will find the evocation of a primitive world of bloodthirsty shadows to their taste, several of the best poems also contain a sombre elegiac vision that is central to the work as a whole.
For instance, in “Maori Battalion Veteran”, the battle-scarred warrior has nightmares of “my closest mates falling / beside me in so many battles / I have forgotten when and where / it was they died”. At a special church service at the end of the war, his
dead mates came alive, and for
the first time in years I wept,
and so did the strong men singing
beside me. That night at base camp
I dreamt of rain in the desert.
In a foreword, Campbell thinks there will never be another fighting force to compare with the battalion. This may seem a comfortable enough prediction in view of
the current run-down of the NZ military. Yet we inhabit a small, powerless nation state adrift in an increasingly disturbed and conflict-ridden world. How realistic is it to assume that war can never again threaten our security and that the voice of Tu will not again be raised on the marae?
Les Cleveland is a former infantry soldier in the New Zealand Division in World War 2.