Lest we forget

By Lawrence Gullery

A rural Hawke's Bay cemetery is the final resting place of a farmer who changed his identity more than 100 years ago so he could serve New Zealand on the battlefields of the Boer War in South Africa.

Ahere Te Koari Hohepa was in his early 20s when he changed his name to the English version, Arthur Joseph, to enlist in the 3rd Contingent of the New Zealand Military Forces dispatched to South Africa about 1899.

He was discharged in 1902 at the end of the conflict and returned to his home near Moteo, a few kilometres west of Taradale. Not satisfied with his South African effort, he signed up for duty again 12 years later, This time for the New Zealand Maori Contingent and under his real name to serve during World War I.

The contingent was later renamed the New Zealand Maori Pioneer Battalion and it paved the way for the famous Maori Battalion formed for service in World War II. Mr Hohepa died in 1956 but there was nothing to mark his military contribution when he was laid to rest at Moteo Cemetery. About 45 years later, descendants, including his great-nephew Piri Prentice, began requesting Mr Hohepa's service records from the New Zealand War Graves Commission to see what could be done to mark the efforts of their war hero.

"We had a hell of a battle initially with the commission to get his records," Mr Prentice said.

"We told them that Ahere had gone away twice to serve this country and he should at least have a plaque on his grave. We weren't asking for bags of money, just some kind of recognition."

The outcome was a new headstone which featured the name "A. T. Hohepa" and a plaque near the base which displayed "A. Joseph". Both acknowledge his military contribution and make for one of the more interesting Anzac stories among Hawke's Bay people who served overseas.

Mr Prentice's research and stories retold by family members suggested Mr Hohepa had changed to the English version of his name because Maori were excluded from service in South Africa. He believes his great-uncle would have been among a number of Maori who managed to join up and participate in the war by changing names or identities.

"He never talked about the war at all, which was the norm among all those who came back home after service I guess. But my nanny talked about it, how he had gone to the Boer War and had his name changed so he was able to go.

"He then changed it back to his real name when he enlisted in the First World War."

A service record for "Arthur Joseph" showed he was a private when he enlisted in 1899 for the South African campaign. He was awarded the Queen South Africa Medal with clasps for service in Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, Cape Colony, Orange Free State and South Africa.

He enlisted as a private for duty for World War I in October 1914 and was promoted a few months later to sergeant. He was dispatched to the Dardanelles in Turkey in June 1915 where the Gallipoli conflict had begun earlier on April 25 that year. He was almost 40 when he was discharged and came home to Hawke's Bay in 1916. In the years that followed, he began investing time in his family farming operation.

"His time with me came long after he came home from the First World War," Mr Prentice said. "He spoilt me and I felt like I was his favourite nephew. I can remember him taking me away to places like Mahia, where all the church hui were, and bringing me back home a few days later."

Mr Hohepa was a fluent speaker of Maori and, following his return from war, he put his language and research skills to work helping his brother steer a Treaty of Waitangi claim for the inner harbour of Napier. "I remember he became embroiled in the politics of the day and issues for our hapu," Mr Prentice said.

"My grandfather was one of those who took the Treaty claim to the Crown in about 1924 and then my great uncle [Ahere] took over about 1934."

Mr Prentice said the group was made to wait 15 years before a response was released from the government of the day. A report into the Treaty claim was withheld from public release but now forms the basis of the claim which Mr Prentice and other family members are still trying to resolve today.

He hoped his decision to come forward with his great uncle's story would inspire others with similar recollections of relatives who served overseas to do the same. "I think it's really important people know these stories. For me, I'd like to do this for my own kids and grandchildren so they know the history behind the name, and what that name achieved. On Anzac Day, I always go to the service at Marine Parade in Napier for him [Mr Hohepa] and I will be there again this year."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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