The Battalion: education resource takes students into the fray
Updated: Apr 26
High school students are learning about Aotearoa New Zealand’s war-time history by stepping into the boots of young soldiers from the 28th Māori Battalion, thanks to a new education resource.
The new resource from Māori theatre organisation, Te Rākau, helps teachers navigate the complex social and historical themes of World War II in their own classrooms.
It centres on The Battalion, a stage play by Māori playwright Helen Pearse-Otene, a work which critics have described as “so acutely real you can almost reach out and touch history with your fingertips.”
Photo by Aneta Pond
Remembering those who served
The Battalion is a stage play about friendship, loyalty, madness and redemption – seen through the eyes of war veteran Paora Matene and relayed to his wayward young charges Rimini and George.
“The Battalion was written as a tohu whakamahara to the memory of my tūpuna tāne and their whanaunga and friends who served in World War Two as members of 2NZEF, and in particular, the 28th Māori Battalion,” says Helen.
“I have vivid memories of sitting in silence next to my father, who was himself a veteran of Borneo and Vietnam. while he, my grandfather and his friends drank from glass flagons they swapped war stories that were funny, bleak, mundane, bittersweet, frightening, sad beyond measure, implausible yet true, and utterly moving.” - Helen Pearse-Otene, playwright
Sent back to their whānau in the 'one cow town' of Tamariri, Rimini and George aren’t interested in the locals or their family history – they just want to get back to the city.
It was the same for five young men in 1939. Drawn in by the excitement of war, they run away and join the 28th Māori Battalion.
“Since the play premiered in 2005, it has been presented throughout the motu in theatres, schools, wharekai, wharenui, youth justice centres, RSA halls, gymnasiums and other locations. I’m hopeful this education resource will help even more young people connect with the story,” says Helen.
Supporting biculturalism in the classroom
Around 140,000 New Zealanders served in World War Two, so it’s unsurprising many students who study Helen’s work recognise a personal or whānau connection to the topic.
These diverse experiences and cultural identities were at the front of Susan Battye’s mind as she developed The Battalion education resource for Te Rākau.
“I’m hopeful that teachers and students alike can use this resource to deepen their understanding of the play. I try to give people a range of teaching material to create background and deepen the commitment of the young people involved,” says Susan.
“Why would you get young people to look at a story about war? It sounds maudlin. In reality it’s character forming – people grow through the experience of being in plays like the one Helen has written. It’s about people, it’s about sacrifice, it’s about why we choose to act, rather than staying at home sitting on the couch watching telly.” - Susan Battye, resource author
As an experienced educator, Susan is aware of the need for support for teachers who are beginning to introduce Te Ao Māori and Aotearoa New Zealand’s bicultural history into modern curriculum.
“The resource will help answer questions such as ‘How should students from a range of backgrounds go about depicting the [Māori] characters? How do I interact with this play if I am not Māori? Do I have permission?’” says Susan.
“It provides a practical resource teachers can use to bridge any gaps in their knowledge or capacity, so they can get the best results and not overwhelm the essential essence of what is being said.”
A lesson in history, social division, drama and healing
While originally devised as a play, the historical setting and cultural perspectives in The Battalion make it an ideal text for students of history, drama, Māori studies, English and social studies.
“The exploits of the Māori Battalion hold an iconic place in Te Ao Māori; its members were heralded on the world stage at a time when Māori back home in Aotearoa were bearing the effects of colonisation and disenfranchisement,” says Te Rākau Director, Jim Moriarty MNZM.
“Some would argue some of those effects have only worsened for our rangatahi today.
“This resource is going to help young New Zealanders and their teachers examine the impact of history on our current society, not to mention contemporary issues like mental health, justice, and authority.
“Telling this story is one way to honour the whānau who gave their service and their lives to ensure we can retain our liberty and freedoms. Lest we forget.”