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.
Niue had been rejected three times by the British Empire when it appealed to be taken in as a British Protectorate Nation. It was not until 1900 when there was a struggle for power in other Pacific Islands that Britain quickly claimed the small island nation - defaulting to New Zealand for administration. New Zealand originally tried to group Niue with the Cook Islands, to allow for easier administration, but the Chiefs of the island refused.
Thereafter, Richard Seddon (Prime Minister of New Zealand) promised to work with Niue to develop close ties by establishing a regular steam service from Auckland to Niue. Unfortunately, the steam service was still not in place in 1914. At the outbreak of war, Niue did not hear the news until five weeks later.
Within two days of the news of war, Niue had raised £165 for the Red Cross New Zealand fund and Resident Commissioner Cornwall prepared a written offer of Niuean troops. The island chiefs also drafted their own message directly to the King.
To King George V, all those in authority and the brave men who fight. I am the island of Niue, a small child that stands up to help the kingdom of King George. (Loyal and generous, Auckland Star, Volume XLV, Issue 241, 9 October 1914, Page 6)
It was a surprise to many that an island in the far corner of the Pacific, with a population of only around 4000 people, would so loyally offer a large proportion of their young, able-bodied men for a war so far away. Niue unlike other island nations, had only a very small number of European inhabitants, 30 to be exact. Those that were able travelled directly to New Zealand to enlist.
Although, the British Empire at the time was not accepting native soldiers, 200 to 250 men began training in Niue's main centre Alofi. In 1915, after the depletion of the Native Contingent, Sir Maui Pomare travelled to Niue to recruit soldiers and escort them back to Narrow Neck Camp in Auckland's North Shore for training.
The majority of the Niuean recruits didn't speak English. Only 10 to 12 of the final 150 could speak English. Each question on the attestation form had to be read in English, translated into Niuean, and then answered and recorded in the same manner. Many of the men were unable to write, so they made a mark, sometimes drawing a picture which was witnessed and recorded as belonging to that man.
Record keeping was also in its infancy in Niue, so there were no recorded dates of birth. If the year of birth was in doubt, 1895 was recorded. 150 Niuean soldiers were declared medically fit to serve. On their departure for New Zealand, only 149 men reported for duty, so Sir Maui Pomare called for one more from the crowd of farewellers. A police officer Peki Matagitakai of Alofi agreed to go. When his wife Tapola of Hapuku heard her husband had joined, she dived into the sea and swam out to the boat to say goodbye.
On their arrival in Auckland, Niuean and Cook Island soldiers settled into camp with many difficulties. The soldiers found it difficult to wear boots, as most had never worn footwear before. The stodgy "meat and two veg" diet proved too much, and was eventually adjusted to include more fish and fruit for the Niueans.
The soldiers departed for Egypt in February 1916 and in April that year they were transferred to Northern France.
Niue at the time, was also not on the main shipping routes, so the recruits had very little previous exposure to illness. Despite it being the New Zealand summer the climate change was not kind to the Niuean soldiers, with five soldiers being returned to Niue due to illness. It was with the sharp increase in illness that they decided to rush the Native Contingent to the warmer climates of Egypt and Turkey. But this was not before the first Niuean recruit died. On 25th December 1915, Vilipate of Liku succumbed to double pneumonia. His family was not informed of his death until May 1916, due to a lack of ships during the war and cyclone season in the islands.
From Niue to France
The soldiers departed for their five-week trip to Egypt in February 1916. They marvelled at their first glimpses of the wider world, stopping in Australia, India, Suez, seeing the Red Sea, which they knew from bible stories.
During the last leg of their journey, however, there was a measles outbreak. They were isolated for a week in Egypt, and once infantry training began, many more began to fall ill to bronchial and pulmonary infections, dysentery and enteritis. The fierce desert heat of Egypt claimed the life of Niuean soldier Private Mitileke of Hakupu. He died of heat stroke after his sentry duty in the midday sun.
By April 1916, 52% of the Niuean soldiers were hospitalised. Some recovered to carry on to France, and others were invalided home from Suez. The soldiers' lack of English was isolating for the soldiers that had to be left in hospitals en route to France. The only connection to their homeland that they were left with was the Niuean bibles they were issued when they disembarked in New Zealand. It was noted by staff, that the Niuean soldiers seemed very devout in their faith, reading only from their bibles day in and day out.
On their eventual arrival in Versailles, after a 58 hour train journey, most of the Niuean men needed assistance in carrying their equipment from the train. Sixteen required immediate evacuation by field ambulance to hospital. This proved to be an ill omen for the Niuean campaign in the freezing conditions of the northern plains of France and Belgium.
It was at the Northern Front that the Niueans saw their first aircraft, and witnessed planes bombing, shelling and artillery fire. Due to the harsh conditions, many of the Niueans fell ill and at the end of May 1916, a decision was made to begin the withdrawal of Niueans from the front. They were sent to Hornchurch in England to join other hospitalised soldiers, and await their return to New Zealand.
The village people of Hornchurch went out of their way to accommodate the 102 Niuean soldiers when they arrived in June 1916. They marvelled that these men had volunteered to fight for their King, leaving behind their families and children on their small island home at the bottom of the world. Hornchurch residents discovered that the Niueans could eat very little of their diet, so they donated what fruit they had so that the soldiers could eat.
When the Niueans departed for New Zealand at the end of June only 18% of the original 150 had made it through the war without being hospitalised. A further four soldiers died on the way home, bringing the total to 15 Niuean deaths.
When they arrived in New Zealand, the Minister of Defence asked one of the Niuean soldiers to translate his speech of welcome:
Mr Allen welcomes you on behalf of the Dominion, although he regrets that you have sustained hardships without reaching the firing line, your action in offering your services won the admiration of the peoples of the British Empire. (At the Town Hall, Press, Volume LI, Issue 15332, 16 July 1915, Page 8)
Jan-Hai Te Ratana