Wiremu Paora was born on 23 October 1892 at Reweti, north of Auckland. His father, Rev Hauraki Paora, was a Wesleyan minister; one of the first Māori to be trained by the missionary Rev William Gittos. His mother, Hemaima Paora, otherwise known as Te Mihinga Te Kawau (Cassidy), was from Waima in the Hokianga.
His parents were firm believers in education and after primary school at Woodhill, Wiremu went to Auckland Grammar from 1906 to 1910. His sisters went to Auckland Girls and Queen Victoria schools. They travelled in by train from Reweti. Wiremu was a member of the 1st XV three years running, a captain in the school cadet battalion and he won the shooting cup, the Campbell Vase.
In 1913 Wiremu qualified as a surveyor, passing the examinations which were known to be extremely challenging academically. From 1913 to 1916 he worked as a surveyor for the Lands & Survey Department.
A promising career was cut short by the First World War. In 1916 he signed up with the 4th Reinforcements Māori contingent, which was part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Wiremu was 23 years old, five foot ten, weighed 150 pounds, had brown eyes and dark hair and was in excellent health. He listed his religion as Wesleyan and his occupation as surveyor. His rank was Private and his service number was 16/1401. At the beginning of 1916 Wiremu was promoted to Lance Corporal and he began training at Narrow Neck camp in Devonport, Auckland.
In May 1916 Wiremu departed from Wellington on board either the Mokoia or the Navua with the NZEF. Three ships left at the same time carrying 2557 men. They first stopped at Suez, then Alexandria in Egypt, where they trained and then boarded more troop ships to Southhampton, England. On 28 August 1916 Wiremu left for France.
In September 1916 Wiremu joined the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion in the field and his military records indicate he had a new rank, a demotion to Private. This was common for Māori soldiers who joined the Pioneer Battalion. The 1st contingent of Māori soldiers had fought at Gallipoli, but they were divided among the infantry forces. Protests followed and because the British Empire desperately needed more soldiers, the Native Contingent was replaced by the Pioneer Māori Battalion, which allowed Māori soldiers to stay together, but were tasked with dangerous, front-line manual labour jobs when they moved to the Western Front. Many were also given automatic demotion.
The newly formed battalion were the first New Zealand unit to arrive at Somme, France. The Pioneers worked on an 8km communications trench called 'Turk Lane'. As they built the trench with pick and spade they were under heavy artillery fire. The New Zealand Division went over the top at 6.20am on 15 September 1916. About 6000 soldiers saw action that day, and although nothing quite went to plan, by nightfall the division had secured its immediate objectives and helped to take the village of Flers.
It was an expensive victory. 1200 men of the New Zealand Division were wounded or missing and about 600 were dead. Among the casualties were 52 members of the Pioneer Māori Battalion. At the time it was the single worst day in New Zealand’s military history in terms of loss of life. At the Somme there were 8000 New Zealand casualties and 2000 killed, but in the following year it would be surpassed by the horrors of Passchendaele.
After that first day of attack on the Somme Wiremu's military record indicates he was believed dead. In fact Wiremu was admitted to a military hospital on 18 September 1916. He had been severely injured by an exploding shell.
In May 1917 he was transferred to the New Zealand General Hospital Brockenhurst in England. Wiremu's mother received a cable with the news that he had a gun shot wound to his left leg and a wounded right eye. The base records show Wiremu to be emaciated and sallow and classified unfit for service. During that year he transferred from Brockenhurst to Walton hospitals and back again.
In February 1918 he made the long journey home and his first stop was a convalescent hospital in Rotorua.
He was discharged from the army in May 1918, having served for 2 years and 126 days. His life had been irrevocably changed.
After his return to New Zealand and some convalescence at home in Auckland, and further medical treatment at Dunedin Hospital, Wiremu studied engineering mathematics at Canterbury University College and rejoined the staff of the Lands & Survey Department. He married Janet Knox Anderson, an English physiotherapist, in 1926 and their only son, Ian Hugh, was born in Ashburton the following year.
Wiremu is remembered for his tireless efforts touring the area from Cape Reinga to Gisborne, checking the names of those of his comrades-in-arms who fell in the Great War to ensure their names would all be inscribed on the Shrine of Remembrance Roll of Honour in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Wiremu was the secretary for the committee set up to erect the roll of honour which included the RSA President Mr Lunn and the Director of the Museum Mr Gilbert Archey. In his book 150 Treasures (2001), Oliver Stead writes that the list of Māori servicemen had been lost by the Government. So between December 1930 and about February 1932 Wiremu travelled the region to reconstitute the list of Māori servicemen. On 24 April 1932 the families of those whose names are on the engraved marble slabs in the Hall of Memories were invited to a private viewing before the public unveiling on ANZAC day the next day.
In Te Ao Hou magazine (September 1955) Wiremu is acknowledged for his work in promoting the welfare of his people, Ngāti Whātua. He retired in 1951 but enthusiastically continued his activities, so far as failing health would allow, and at the time of his death he was preparing a scheme on a self-help basis for Māori housing.
Wiremu died suddenly at his home in Greenlane, Auckland on 24 May 1955. He was survived by his wife Janet and son Hugh. He is buried in the urupa (cemetery) at Reweti as Wiremu Hauraki Paora Kawharu.
The Kawharu whānau kindly provided Online Cenotaph access to Wiremu Paora's WWI photographic album. We have chosen a selection of images from this collection.
Cite this article
Wiremu Paora. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 28 November 2016. Updated: 23 October 2020.
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