Wanganui's monument to Maori soldiers killed in World War I was partly built to reinforce their right to be treated as equal citizens, historian Ewan Morris has come to believe.

WWI was the first time Maori officially served as soldiers, though some served unofficially in the Boer War. They were put into a distinct unit and grouped by regional and tribal affiliations.

There was a nine-day celebration at Putiki Marae when soldiers from the Maori Pioneer Battalion returned in 1919, Dr Morris said.

All the returning soldiers found it hard to forget their war experience and settle back into daily life. Maori had the extra burden of racism to contend with. In 1919, they were refused entry to the private bar at the Rutland Hotel, Dr Morris said.

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He has been studying monuments, especially the monuments at Pakaitore/Moutoa Gardens, because they have been a focus for conflict.

He's interested in "how people argue about these memorials, and what it says about ideas of history and identity".

"Pakaitore/Moutoa is such a condensed little piece of land with so many layers of history over the top of it," he said.

He started with the monument to Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp), and found it was the subject of a court case, was never completely paid for, and its Maori and English inscriptions have very different slants.

He has yet to delve into the stories of the Ballance and Moutoa monuments, which are probably more controversial. He didn't expect much controversy over the World War I "Native War Memorial", but found some all the same.

He said a group opposed to the 1995 occupation of the gardens by Whanganui Maori chose to march on Anzac Day that year, because it said the occupation prevented an Anzac Day service being held at the gardens. Dr Morris understands that a service did take place.

But back to 1919. Maori soldiers returning then after "fighting overseas in the service of empire" often found it difficult to settle in. There was racism, and some reacted by joining the Ratana Movement.

While they were away, the Lady Liverpool Maori Soldiers' Fund committee was raising money to provide comforts for them. In Wanganui the committee was led by the well-known Pura McGregor.

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After the war it had money left over and decided to use it for the memorial. Contributions came in from Pakeha residents, and from the government. The council of the time agreed to the monument being in a public park, rather than at Putiki Marae, and the harbour board donated shellrock for it. It was built in 1924-25 and had two special features.

One was the statue on top, of Herewini Whakarua, a Waitotara soldier who rose to the rank of sergeant major before he was killed in action in 1918. His father The Reverend Te Iwiora Tamaiparea then replaced him, as he had promised to do, and survived the rest of the war.

The substitution got lots of publicity at the time and as a result the committee asked for Mr Whakarua's statue to top the monument. Its other special feature was the four canisters of earth from the war's four main battlefields placed at its four corners. They had to be obtained through official channels, including the New Zealand High Commission in London.

Dr Morris said they were stolen in the 1930s, replaced in the 1970s and then stolen again.

The memorial was unveiled in a major ceremony on Anzac Day in 1925. MP Sir Maui Pomare was one of the speakers.

It was a very public celebration of the Maori contribution to the war effort, renewed bonds between the two races, and Dr Morris believes one of the motivations behind it was a drive for Maori to be treated as equal citizens.