Harding Waipuke Leaf, M.C.

This article appeared in the April 1990 NZ 28 Maori Battalion Golden Jubilee Reunion booklet.   

Harding Waipuke Leaf, M.C.

Lieutenant - Pioneer Battalion W.W.I - 16/336 Captain - 28 (Maori) Battalion W.W.II - 6116

Kia mate a ururoa Kaua hei mate a tarakiki. Better to die fighting than to give up easily.

Ururoa - vicious species of shark Tarakiki - good eating fish, easy to catch and dies quickly.

Harding Leaf's name is synonymous with the 'fighting Ngapuhi'. He enlisted for W.W.I in 1914 and served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front. He became a legend for his inspired leadership at Chunuk Bair with his rallying battle cry "Fight like the Ururoa, fight to the death".

Harding gave 4 years 51 days in overseas service in W.W.I. In W.W.II Harding gave his life. He was killed in action in Crete. He has no grave, no official resting place but his memory lives on in the heart of his people.

Lieutenant Colonel H.G. Dyer in his book Ma te Reinga (The way of the Maori Soldier) describes Harding:

HARDING was a powerful man and a happy one. When the war broke out his life had already been packed with adventure and he had even then become a legend among his people. The Ngapuhi of the North were the wild men of the Battalion, and Harding was of them. He lived and loved at Hokianga in the old stamping ground of Hongi Hika and of Judge Manning, and in his own way he followed the path they had trod.

Harding was a cavalier, a rollicking blade, who did not have to seek adventure - he created it. For wherever he moved, as did the Three Musketeers, he provoked mischief and fun and at times desperate adventure. For instance, I remember that he visited an Air Force mess where the senior officer was famous for his prowess and though an amiable man when sober, a terrible menace when not. To show how much he was at home in that mess Harding sat on their bar and criticised their beer. The irate squadron leader pulled him off by the leg. The fight that followed or rather the fights that followed, may not be told here, but they caused merriment in our Battalion for many days.

And then of course there was the serious fracas in one of London's fashionable hotels during the first world war. Harding was on leave. He had just received the Military Cross and he and his friend Kingi were celebrating. One of them had recently been presented to the King. They were rightly feeling pleased with themselves. An officer at a neighbouring table remarked louder than need be, "I cannot think what the world is coming to when black niggers like that are allowed in here." The great dining room was astounded to see two large Maori rise from their seats, seize respectable officers by the scruff of the neck, and hit hard and suddenly. But he bore no malice. He believed in settling accounts on the spot. Indeed, I noticed when our Second Echelon was in England in 1940 that Harding and the English got on very well. He had many friends, and no enemies I should think for very long. He and our Padre were inseparable. They had both been fighting men, and had seen action on Gallipoli together, where the Padre, who was then a sergeant, was wounded.

The action for which he received the Military Cross was typical of the man. His Battalion had seen action on Gallipoli, but then in France was digging trenches. In a major battle our attacking force passed his party. "Only women watch a fight," said Harding. So he joined in and enjoyed himself.

When recruiting for the Maori Battalion started, the flow of recruits was at first very small in our area. Into my office strolled, or rather rolled, a burly Maori, in shirt-sleeves and sports trousers. "How is your Maori recruiting? " "Not so good here yet. How is it up your way?" "Oh they are coming in fast now. They have to."

He brought new life into the office. Of course the Ngapuhi would enlist. We would have more of them in the new battalion than any other tribe. And we did. Some time later I took the Northern Maori down by train to Palmerston North. There were 210 names on my list. But I arrived there with many more. The increase was due to enthusiasts boarding the train as we went. Yes, we were the most numerous, and perhaps the most difficult. The Arawas were, I think, next.

The Maoris who were to officer the new Battalion were sent to Trentham for a course, prior to the assembling of the Battalion. Just before we left for Palmerston North with the main body, I received a ring from Auckland. Harding was being sent home. "Look here," I said, "You can't do that. If Harding comes home all the Ngapuhi will walk out."

It was patched and tacitly agreed that a certain latitude be allowed to a certain distinguished soldier in regard to leave of absence, on occasions. That you will understand was necessary.

Harding had a dog. Like himself it was large and tough. It was a Great Dane called Tiger. He brought it to Camp and suggested to the Colonel that we should take it overseas as our mascot. We all approved - except the Colonel. He was faced with two problems. One was feeding such a beast on the meat ration overseas; but of course such things have been managed. The second seemed to him insurmountable. Harding alone was difficult enough to control. Like a volcano, he carried an atmosphere of unrest, of upheaval, of a feeling that something even worse might happen at any moment. Even so Harding was possible. But Harding plus Tiger was quite impossible. So the Great Dane was sent home.

Our voyage to England was a happy one. Many of us, including private soldiers, travelled in luxury. Harding and his friend Rangi, both World War one veterans, shared a state cabin; and a state cabin on the 'Aquitania' was a thing of beauty. Among its delights was a tiled bathroom, the bath of which would almost have done for an aquarium. But it was not till we had left Cape Town that I really appreciated the fact.

Now Maori food is rich food, pork, and kumara, and fish and shell-fish; oh yes, and mutton birds. The Maori is very, very fond of shell-fish, oysters, mussels, cockles, sea eggs and the like. But of all these gastronomic delicacies he prefers lobsters. For one he will spend his last penny; for six he will risk his life.

We had left Cape Town on a fine day, and I went to call on them. My order was given; it was liquid, and I sat down to enjoy it. And then, believe it or not, I started to hear things and to see things. There was a scraping noise, and then under the table I saw something green and large and fearsome approaching my leg. "Harding," I said, "is this yours? Has it a name? If so call it home." "Its name!" they roared and threw open the bathroom door. There, in the bath, on its sides, and on the floor, there swam and fought and clambered a multitude of enormous lobsters. Surely the waters of Cape Town must be the annual meeting ground of lobster patriarchs from many oceans. And now they waved defiance at their captors. "What are you going to do with those?" "Eat them. Two a day." And I was not invited. "You see," they explained, "we are feeding them and they may multiply." I noticed large lumps of bread, filched from the mess tables, floating round in the bath in which the tap was running slowly and from which with each slight roll of the ship water splashed on the floor. Knowing my responsibilities as a quartermaster I discreetly retired.

In England when the German invasion was imminent the New Zealand troops were sent each weekend in buses to different areas on the South Coast. We saw some lovely homes and bivouacked in beautiful parks.

This fun was all over when we went into action in Greece. At Mount Olympus "A" Company, of which Harding was second in command, had held off an attack by the Germans who then swung round on to my weaker and more inexperienced flank. We had been arranging to withdraw even before the fight and as dense darkness descended on us we started a terrible march back over the lower slopes of the mountain.

At first, while we were still under the trees and were scrambling up the steep hillside, each man held the man in front so as not to lose touch. My pack was very heavy and bothering me. A Maori had found it for me and had strapped it on. As we came out onto the stoney ridges we could see somewhat, and the ghostly procession in single file stumbled on. Before long men started to fail. A few lay down in their tracks unable to move further. Below, somewhere far below, was the famous Petra Pass now blocked by demolitions by our engineers. There was a block in the track in front of me. An Officer of whom we were all very fond could go no farther. Harding was helping him to his feet. The sight was remarkable. This stalwart Maori with legs like the trunks of trees set wide apart, was like Father Christmas, heaped high with other people's goods. Over his left shoulder were two rifles, with somebody's pack slipped over the muzzles. He now hitched this officer's gear on the other shoulder, and bulging with impedimenta, somehow slipped his right arm round his friend and helped him along, all the time laughing and joking about our little tramp over the hills. He tangata Maori nei? That man by his help and his example saved many a good man for the Battalion that night.

We left Greece on the 25th of April, Anzac Day, from a beach near Marathon. My thoughts were bitter.

The Germans were broadcasting "Run, rabbit run."

Along came Harding cheerful as ever splashing through the water shepherding men who are always a bit nervous at such times on to landing-barges. It was all war to him, and war, like everything else, is just what you make of it.

I did not see my friend during the first day of fighting in Crete. I cannot remember seeing him at all. He was killed during the night advance on Maleme. His Company Commander, Jack Bell, was killed a few hours later. I shall try to describe the circumstances. It was an action very common in our military history - a muddle in which many good men were killed and a few brave survivors won glory.

It was arranged that a ground attack by the 20th Battalion and by the Maori should sweep up from Platinias at midnight, clear the aerodrome with the bayonet and be back at their starting point before dawn.

The Maoris had fought hard all day and had suffered casualties. We had had no sleep and little to eat. We started to form up at eleven o'clock to be ready by midnight. "D" Company was nearest the road. Harding with some of "A" Company and some of "C" was on our left flank further South. The starting hour was either 12.30 or 1 a.m., I forget which. Then we waited. There was some odd firing along the creek bed but otherwise all was quiet. The 20th Battalion did not arrive. Australian transport which they were to use was late. We waited. After some time Jim Tuhiwai of "C" Company came to me and said that at the starting time, Harding had moved off with his troops as ordered, taking Jim's platoon with him. After some distance they came under heavy fire. Many men were hit; the rest scattered; he thought Harding was killed, but was not sure. I waited, cursing, knowing that I should have made sure that Harding had heard of the delay.

As day broke we reached the outskirts of Maleme village. The advance was held up. But what of Harding? Was he killed, was he captured, was he in the hills? We never heard, not while in Crete, but we became convinced that he was dead. Already rumour was at work. The legendary leader was still abroad, leading a charge here, staying a retreat there; a burly, jolly figure always in the middle of the fight.

To me Harding was a soldier. To his race fighting was the task of a man. The kumara are dug and are stored, the day is warm and fine, "Ah! What was that insult that my grandfather suffered at the hands of the Ngati Toa?"

"Me haere tatou ki te whawhai, mo te utu kia ea." We must set off for the fight, for payment, for revenge.

Read Ned Nathan's account of Harding Leaf's death.

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