The 100th anniversary of the battle of Chunuk Bair will be marked on Saturday, with particular relevance for the Far North. One of the most famous battles of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, it saw modern-day Ngapuhi warrior Harding Leaf emerge from obscurity to become something of a local legend.
"Harding Leaf had the distinction of serving in both the first and second world wars," Northland manager of Heritage New Zealand Bill Edwards said. "His contribution in both conflicts has been highlighted as a result of Heritage New Zealand undertaking an inventory project recording information on war memorials in Northland, tying in with centennial commemorations of Gallipoli and other World War I battles. Leaf is commemorated in a memorial at Whirinaki, together with comrades from the community who were killed in World War II, along with a soldier from the First World War."
It was during the battle for Chunuk Bair that Harding Leaf first came to prominence.
"In the thick of the battle, Leaf's rallying battle cry, 'Fight like the ururoa [white pointer shark], fight to the death,' helped inspire his comrades," Mr Edwards said.
A survivor of four years and 51 days' military service during World War I, no mean feat in itself, he was awarded the Military Cross for 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty' in France 'when in charge of a wiring party just outside the frontline, they came under a heavy barrage, but by his fine personal example of keeping his men together led them through the barrage to their work which they completed satisfactorily.'
Lt Colonel Humphrey Dyer, a Pakeha commanding officer of the 28th Maori Battalion in the early years of World War II, put it more succinctly in his book Ma Te Reinga (The Way of the Maori Soldier): "In a major battle our attacking force passed his party. "Only women watch a fight," said Harding. "So he joined in and enjoyed himself."
According to Dyer, Ngapuhi soldiers were known as the "wild men" of the Battalion, and Harding was no exception. On leave in London after winning his Military Cross, he and a fellow Ngapuhi soldier were celebrating at a swanky London hotel when a British officer at a neighbouring table remarked in a loud voice that he didn't know what the world was coming to when 'non-white people' were allowed into such places.
"The officer was less circumspect in his words - in fact he used the 'N' word to describe Harding and his mate Kingi," Mr Edwards said.
"The whole room sat open-mouthed, as, in Dyer's words, they watched 'two large Maori rise from their seats, seize respectable officers by the scruff of the neck, and hit hard and suddenly'."
Harding, according to Dyer, believed in "settling accounts on the spot. But he bore no malice".
Instead of being court-marshalled, and possibly shot for striking an officer, the decorated war hero returned safely home where he lived to fight another day.
"After war broke out again in 1939 Leaf was used to help drive enlistment among Ngapuhi, and had an immediate impact. He himself joined up again, despite being close to 50 years of age," he added.
His influence was profound. When Dyer received a phone call from the upper echelons of Army command saying that Harding, who was undergoing officer training at the time, would be sent home following some misdemeanour or other, Dyer insisted he remain because "if Harding comes home all the Ngapuhi will walk out". It was agreed that a little latitude would be extended to the old warrior.
Leaf's ability to make the most of any circumstances was legendary, and his voyage to England on the ocean liner Aquitania, which had been converted into a troop ship, was no exception. He and another World War I veteran shared a state cabin, and made good use of their generous-sized bath.
"Dyer recorded in his memoirs that at Cape Town, Leaf and his comrade had somehow got hold of some live lobsters which they kept in the bath in the hope that they would breed and multiply," Mr Edwards said. "The goal was to have an ongoing supply of lobsters that would provide two a day for eating."
The fun came to an abrupt end when Leaf and the Maori Battalion saw action in Greece. After holding off an attack by the Germans on Mt Olympus the battalion planned its escape - a tortuous trek over the lower slopes of the mountain. Before long men began to falter through sheer exhaustion, though Harding Leaf again proved his mettle in a difficult situation as Dyer recorded:
"[Leaf] was like Father Christmas, heaped high with other people's goods. Over his left shoulder were two rifles, with somebody's pack slipped over the muzzles. He now hitched [an] officer's gear on the other shoulder, and, bulging with impedimenta, somehow slipped his right arm round his friend and helped him along, all the time laughing and joking about our little tramp over the hills ... That man by his help and his example saved many a good man for the Battalion that night."
Leaf was killed on Crete during an attack on a German-held position. The attack was meant to involve several units, though the start time was delayed. Unfortunately, the message to delay the attack hadn't got through to Leaf, who proceeded as originally planned, with tragic results.
"Harding Leaf was a colourful, larger-than-life personality who served with distinction in both world wars," Mr Edwards said. "He was also a Ngapuhi legend. The heritage inventory, and the anniversary of Chunuk Bair, provide a great opportunity to commemorate his memory and his many accomplishments."