Maori troops doing a Haka dance during a sports day at a camp in Wiltshire



Black and white photograph of Maori troops from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force performing a haka at a sports day at a camp in Wiltshire. Wiltshire, specifically Salisbury Plain, was where the New Zealanders were stationed during their service on the Western Front.


From the beginnings of mobilisation in New Zealand, Maori men would enlist as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the specific Maori Pioneer Battalion. Throughout the course of their war service, Maori men would perform their haka, a war dance, at various occasions, often for visiting dignitaries or at sports days like in the image above, while stationed at a camp in Wiltshire, England in April 1917.
Taken by an unknown photographer and now held in the collections of the Australian War Memorial, the image captures these bare-chested Maori men in formation, beginning to perform the haka. In the background, lounging on the lush, green grass of the English countryside, a large crowd of onlookers observes the men. It is not clear whether these are fellow troops or local people from the area, who might come along to watch the sports.
The snapshot image, slightly blurred, reveals how local cultural traditions were maintained throughout the duration of the conflict. In performing the haka, these men remember the land from which they have travelled so far to serve their Empire’s cause by sharing in a tradition hundreds of years old. They share this tradition with their audience, revealing an element of New Zealand’s culture to those who would be unfamiliar with it. However, we must ask as to what ends the Maori were asked to perform their haka for a predominantly white audience. As Peter Buck's diary indicates, the haka was often performed for visiting dignitaries to display the martial strength of the Maori contingents. Was it recognised by the audience as a tradition deserving respect or was it a source of entertainment that belittled the participants? Cultural exchange between different ethnic groups was evidently occurring during the war but the reasons as to why must be questioned.