Nearly 30,000 NZ soldiers lost their lives in World War I and World War II, with more than 2000 buried in cemeteries throughout Italy. To commemorate that special connection, an honoured guest , Italian ambassador Fabrizio Marcelli, was hosted by Ngāti Hori, Ngāti Toa Harapaki in Hawke's Bay today.
Marcelli says, “The NZ soldiers, the Māori combatants of the battalion gave a lot in terms of lives, blood and hardship when they fought in Italy for our liberation, as I said in my speech, today is not just Anzac Day, it is also Italy's liberation day.”
2,517 NZ soldiers died in the Italian campaign against Nazi Germany, which began in October 1943 and ended in 1945.
Ngāti Kahungunu Chair Ngahiwi Tomoana says the event today was about “connecting again to Italy and the lands there where some our people are buried as well as those of wider Aotearoa.”
203 of those soldiers who paid the ultimate price in Italy were from the 28th Māori Battalion, while over 880 more Māori soldiers were injured. To this day, they are held in high regard by the people of Italy.
Ambassador Marcelli says, “There is a debt from my country to the Māori community because they came as volunteers fighting in a strange land on the other side of the world without a particular attachment to Italy, but they fought bravely, they behaved well with the civilians so that's why we want to remember them.”
“Civilians had a different experience of the Allied forces, some of them didn't behave very well, but the behaviour of the New Zealanders and the [Māori Battalion] is still very dear to all the stories I hear from my Grandpa and so on.”
The bones of those Māori soldiers who are buried in Italy continue to facilitate a relationship between the two peoples.
“They are treasured by the Italians because they went to protect their towns and families. If we bring them home, that conversation ends,” says Tomoana.
Through sharing song, culture and history, the saying 'we will remember them' is embodied.