Last Māori Battalion soldier accepts knighthood in honour of comrades

By Marena Mane

Ngāti Whakaue descendant Robert Nairn Gillies will be honoured with a knighthood for services to Māori and war commemorations. The 96-year-old war veteran is the last surviving soldier of the 28th Māori Battalion and served with B Company at the start of World War II. The veteran was sent to fight in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Originally Mr Gillies humbly declined the knighthood when first offered, but as the only surviving solder remaining the honour became much bigger than himself.

"Kua mate kē ngā tangata tika hei haria tērā mea. I kī mai ki au, ko tēnei kōrero, he kōrero mō aku hoa; rātou kua huri ki tua o paerau, te āhuatanga i whakaae ahau."
- Those who deserve this honour have passed. I told myself, this knighthood belongs to all my friends who have passed beyond the veil, they’re the reason I agreed.

His comrades are never far from his thoughts.

“I a rā, ka hoki ngā mahara ki a rātou, aku hoa, tō rātou kaha, kia pai ai to tātou iwi, te iwi Maōri.”
- I remember my friends every day and the efforts they made to ensure the survival of our Māori people.

Mr Gillies was instrumental in publicising the Government's neglect of the troops of the 28th Māori Battalion who returned from the war.

“Kāore rātou e tiaki mai i a mātou i hoki nei. Ko ēnei mea (service medals) kāore e homai ki a mātou, ma mātou e tono atu, tino hē ana tērā,”
- They didn’t care for those of us who returned. These things (service medals) we had to apply for them; that wasn’t right.

He has these wise words for the future Māori generations.

“Kia tau te tikanga Māori ki roto i ō rātou hinengaro. He iwi wairua tātou me kore tatou e wareware i tērā.”
- Normalise our customs in your way of thinking. We are a spiritual people; lest we forget.

This will be Mr Gillies second knighthood, in 2019 he was awarded the Cavaliere or Knighthood Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Mr Gillies has represented the Battalion's troops and service at national and international gatherings for more than 20 years.

He attends annual dawn and civic Anzac celebrations and has done so on numerous occasions, including presenting Ngarimu Scholarships in Wellington and laying the wreath at the 75th Anniversary of the Battles of Cassino commemoration in Italy in 2019. He has been a Trustee of the 28th Māori Battalion B Company History Trust for 8-years. He has been an active member of the Te Arawa Returned Services Association, holding several roles. He recently led the 75th-anniversary celebration of the return of the B Company to Tamatekapua in Rotorua following WW2.

He has been involved with his iwi Ngāti Whakaue for a long time, and he continues to work on the marae, maintain the war monument, and participate in iwi matters. Mr Gillies is a member of the Waikite Rugby Club and played a key role in the development of the existing clubrooms.