It was a day of celebration and a day of remembrance as the last surviving veteran of Māori Battalion B Company was awarded the highest honour by the Italian Republic.

Robert Bom Gillies was presented with the order of merit by Italian ambassador Fabrizio Marcelli at Te Papaiouru Marae today.

More than 300 people were in attendance including Willie Apiata, Meng Foon and representatives of the Māori Battalion.

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A rousing powhiri began the ceremony as wails escaped from those holding portraits of members passed.

Marcelli met Gilles last year, at an Anzac Day service. It was there he mentioned he would like to grant him the Order of Merit.

"Bom replied that he would accept the honorary title with pleasure but only on the condition that it would be on behalf of the whole 28th Māori Battalion.

"However the Italian Order of Merit does not consider collective honours. They are thus given to Bom but morally they are a tribute to all young Māori who fought in the formidable Māori Battalion."

Gillies enlisted in Rotorua at 17-years-old with B Company. His journey took him to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, but a large portion of his time was spent in Italy.

A rousing haka opened the ceremony with more than 100 taking part. Photo / Stephen Parker
A rousing haka opened the ceremony with more than 100 taking part. Photo / Stephen Parker

The Māori Battalion saw more frontline fighting than any other infantry with casualties almost 50 per cent more than the New Zealand average.

After accepting the award, Marcelli and Gillies embraced in a hug before a resounding haka could be heard reverberating around the lake.

The award read, "In consideration of special merits ... they have bestowed the honour of knighthood to Mr Robert Gillies."

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Italian ambassador Fabrizio Marcelli picked up the wero in the powhiri. Photo / Stephen Parker
Italian ambassador Fabrizio Marcelli picked up the wero in the powhiri. Photo / Stephen Parker

Gillies thanked the crowd with a small address in Māori and pieces of Italian.

Newly appointed Race Relations Commissioner Foon believed it was wonderful the Italian Government could acknowledge and honour Gillies with ease.

"By sharing your love and care you (Gillies) you have honoured your fellow comrades and they are all sirs, they are all heroes."