At the beginning of the First World War, Piki Kotuku Te Kuru was living in Manunui, working for the sawmilling firm Ellis and Burnand. In July 1915, at the age of 21, he enlisted, the same month in which the First Maori Contingent landed in Anzac Cove.
Joining the military training camp for two months' training at Narrow Neck on Auckland's North Shore, Piki would have been issued with a Lee Enfield rifle and a bayonet, both believed to be leftover items from the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Following training, along with the 300-strong Second Maori Contingent, he left aboard the Waitemata destined for Egypt, most likely taking his bayonet with him.
Due to a huge number of casualties in Gallipoli, men from the First and Second Maori Contingents, the Otago Mounted Rifles, and eventually the Third Maori Contingent were put together by leaders of the New Zealand Divison (such as General Godley) to form the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion.
The "pioneers" were known as the labour force of the New Zealand Division. Along with the engineers, they were the first units sent to prepare for the infantry and artillery at a battlefield. Working at night because it was safer, they lay light railways and planks for roads, built bridges and dug trenches, and constructed buildings for other units and casualty-clearing stations. This work was both physically tough and extremely dangerous, with men dying from both artillery and sniper fire. Piki's bayonet would have proved immensely invaluable in these conditions.
Wounded in Delville Wood
A month after moving to northern France in April 1916, the Pioneer Battalion travelled to the combat zone in Armentieres. By day, they taught men at the Divisional Trench Warfare School how to build and maintain trenches, machine-gun emplacements, dugouts and shelters, and how to construct wire entanglements. By night, they entered the battlefields to work on the trenches. Due to non-stop shelling, the Battalion was subjected to heavy casualties.
In August, at Bois d'Elville, known to the Allies as Delville Wood, the men were ordered to clear the old trenches. In addition to the heavy fire and constant fear of shells and gas, the horrific landscape of stumps of trees and dead bodies strewn through the mud was like nothing they had ever seen. Many accounts by the men reported that gas inhalation caused severe eye irritation, difficulty in breathing, intense physical pain, vomiting and, for some, blindness.
Piki's service record shows he was wounded by gas from shells - he was treated and returned to duty just one week later, reuniting with the pioneers who had just completed work on Turk Lane, the mammoth eight-kilometre long communications trench that ran from Delville Wood to Flers.
The Battle of Messines
In early 1917, the Pioneer Battalion along with the New Zealand Division travelled north to prepare for the capture of Messines Ridge. Over three million rounds of ammunition were stockpiled for 102 guns in the New Zealand Division alone, emphasising the sheer scale of the planned attack.
In the early hours of the 7th of June 1917, British forces detonated a series of mines beneath German lines. Ten thousand German soldiers were killed, making this the largest casualty rate of any man-made explosion prior. This enormous detonation enabled British, New Zealand and Australian troops to quickly capture and secure Messines Ridge.
Following this, the pioneers were tasked to build communication trenches that would connect the Ridge to the front line and to extend the railway. While this was achieved, losses to their men were substantial - Christopher Pugsley recorded that ‘the Battalion had 17 men killed, 88 wounded, 45 gassed, and five known exhaustion cases – a total of 155.’
3 August 1917
After the Battle of Messines, the pioneers were assigned to assist the French artillery to build communications stations, bury cable, excavate ammunition dugouts, dig trenches and construct wire entanglements. On the evening of the 3rd of August 1917, the men were instructed to wire the posts in front of La Basse Ville, a small village near Messines. The night in question was miserable, with heavy shelling and rain pouring relentlessly all night – while most of the wire entanglements were constructed successfully, two gaps remained, and the Maoris in particular had suffered high casualty rates.
While six men were killed, Piki was initially one of the 30 wounded. He died from head wounds on the 4th August 1917, at age 23. His bayonet was likely to have been brought home to his father in Manunui by a fellow pioneer. When it was donated to the museum in 1985, the donor Mrs Te Tana described it as having belonged to Piki Kotuku Te Kuru.
Cite this article
Private Te Kuru and the Pioneers. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 6 December 2016. Updated: 22 December 2016.