When Great Britain declared war on Germany a call was sent out to all parts of the British Empire to support their efforts to defeat their opposition. Thousands of miles away in the warm waters of the South Pacific, that call was answered by what must have surely been some of the smallest British Protectorate Nations. Though few in number, they were passionate in their support.
At the declaration of war in 1914, Fiji was home to the largest and most diverse population in the Pacific Islands, with around 6,500 Europeans and part-Europeans, 88,000 Fijians and 53,000 Indians. Fiji, as a British Crown Colony was keen to join the fray immediately.
Many of the young men who were working in Fiji originated from New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain, and they returned to their homelands as soon as they could to enlist. There was a quick exodus of around 400 on the declaration of war, some leaving on the first boat available. They served on many different battlefields.
The Samoan Advance party of the New Zealand Army stopped in Suva, and were joined by 10 Legion of frontiersmen, and 15 Samoan guides. The frontiersmen were responsible for capturing the German flag from atop the Apia Courthouse.
The majority of the population who were unable to serve set to raising money for the war fund, and donating goods. The Secretary of State for the colonies also put forward the offer to "raise and equip a force of picked men for active service at the front." On 28 December 1914, a telegram arrived from the British Government stating that "the Army Council will accept sixty recruits from Fiji provided they are British subjects of pure British descent."
The first Fijian Contingent left for Britain in January 1915. After further training in Britain they fought in the battles of Flanders. Nine Fijian soldiers lost their lives and 31 were wounded. A second Fijian Contingent left for Britain in July of that same year. Fiji itself funded these soldiers' fares to and from England, and paid the wages of the men until they enlisted in Britain.
It was not until 1917 that native Fijians were accepted by Britain. The Fijians applied repeatedly to their government to be allowed to send their own very willing soldiers to serve in the British Army.
After exposure to bouts of "minor European illnesses", the indigenous Fijian population was said to be decreasing at an unexpected rate and fertility was at an all time low. The government did not want to be seen as responsible for further potentially aiding the extinction of the native Fijian population, but eventually accepted the offers of service.
One very influential man, Ratu Lala Sukuna, was instrumental in drumming up support for indigenous Fijian participation in the war. After experiencing the war first hand, having just returned from the battlefields (serving under the French Foreign Legion) he knew the impact it would have not only upon each individual soldier, but the country itself. The experience did in fact, plant the seed for independence and instilled a great deal of patriotism for Fiji and the British Empire. He had enough foresight to push for high-ranking chiefs to be taken in as NCOs. This ensured a smooth transition for Fijian soldiers on their first overseas experience, but also made sure that the soldiers were in a disciplinary system they were familiar with leaders that were already held in high esteem.
The Fijian Labour Corps were to serve away from the front lines and in relatively safe roles. Local businesses came to the fore offering further aid to raise, train and equip the soldiers. The Hon. Henry Marks of the Henry Marks & Co Import and Export Company offered £10,000 to pay for fares, and separation allowances of dependants for 100 indigenous soldiers. The total amount of money raised for the war in Fiji was £600,777. Groups donated clothes and goods, and the Rewa province even purchased a plane for the use of the Royal Flying Corps. There was also a Fiji bed in the the St. John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in France.made sure that the soldiers were in a disciplinary system they were familiar with leaders that were already held in high esteem.
Where ever they served, in France or in Italy, the Fijians won golden opinions, the commandants of the bases invariably testifying to their exemplary conduct and excellent work.
Lt Col J Sanday
The Native Fijian Contingent caused quite a stir on their travels to the frontline. They were highly visible in their traditional sulu uniform, wore no hats, and were of large and muscular build. They were sent to ports in France (Calais) and Italy (Tarango), where they loaded and unloaded supplies, and completed a variety of in-camp duties.
Hatless but crowned with the great mass of hair typical to the Melanesian race to which they belong, with regulation army shirt but native skirt … barefooted, these troops made a unique and inspiring spectacle.
Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu.
The contingent attracted universal attention because of their superb physical build, the tallest man among them, who was a giant, indeed, being hardly noticeable for his size… a private, who stands six feet three without counting six inches more of hair, and who tips the scales (without the assistance of a particle of flesh that is not trained muscle) at 216 pounds.
Governor of Hawai'i
A total of 1255 people from Fiji and the outlying islands participated in the war. 173 of those never returned home, dying from disease or wounds.
The return home of some of these soldiers brought another challenge to the Pacific Islands. Spanish influenza arrived with the return of the boat Talune. Many Gilbert Islanders were quarantined and did not return home for almost a year.
Jan-Hai Te Ratana