A WWI story in letters: The Last Maopo

I find myself drawn to diaries and letters that record a soldier’s experiences of World War I. They are often intelligent, interesting and informative; and diary entries in particular can paint a vivid picture of what these men had to endure. It is never far from my mind that more often than not they chose to go to the other side of the world to stand side by side with strangers to defend the Empire and ‘see some action’. But I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of experience Māori had compared to Pākehā. They were just as eager to travel to the other side of the world and fight for Empire and country as their Pākehā counterparts.

But the Māori contingent were up against it from the beginning. Initially the Government wouldn’t allow them to fight at the front line due to the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi preventing them from participating in a European War. Concession was instead made for Māori to provide garrison, engineering and construction duties to support the war effort. However, it wasn’t long before they became the reinforcements as the allies suffered heavy losses.

This is how I found The Last Maopo by Tania Te Rangingangana Simpson. This is the very moving story of Wiremu Maopo and Phoebe Prentice – separated by war and the misguided intentions of her parents; they were destined to live out their lives apart. They were having a secret love affair while living at Taumutu, prior to Wiremu leaving for war, and he sadly would never know that he had fathered a little girl with Phoebe.

Cover of The last Maopo

Phoebe’s parents effectively stole her daughter Marjorie Joyce from her and had her adopted out to a loving family. It would be many years before Phoebe was reunited with her daughter as she never stopped looking for her. The tragedy is that Wiremu never knew he was a father and Phoebe never searched for him either as she was told that he died in the war. Wiremu wrote letters to Phoebe but never heard from her as they were destroyed to sever the connection she had with him, so he assumed that she had lost interest. She married 2 other men in her lifetime but maintained that Wiremu was her one true love.

The Last Maopo is their story – brief as it was. It is the result of 20 years of research by Tania Te Rangingangana Simpson. She pieces together peoples recollections, historical facts and Wiremu’s letters home to long time friend Virgie Fincham, from the more than 3 years he spent on active service. Their friendship and correspondence continued after the war when Wiremu returned to New Zealand to recover from a bad bout of pneumonia. Over the years his once large family had diminished until only Wiremu and his sister remained. Sadly she also died far too early which left him, as far as Wiremu knew, the last of his family line.

This makes it all the more fortuitous that events aligned to once again bring the Maopo family line into being. What an incredible gift to have the letters of our ancestors bring your family’s heritage to life. This is a very poignant book to take on but well worth your time. In addition to the personal story it is wonderful to see the high esteem the Māori Pioneer Battalion were held in for their bravery, work ethic and good natured camaraderie. If you are like me and enjoy reading historical diaries and letters, why don’t you try these:

 

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