Samoa – Pasifika involvement in the First World War

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.

World War One signalled the beginnings of a turbulent wave of change throughout the world. It is fairly unknown that the tides of change were felt in a group of very remote islands in the warm waters of the Pacific.

In 1898 Samoa was broken into a tripartite "neutral territory" where Germany, Samoa and Britain administrated governance over designated territories and enjoyed equal rights in terms of trade, residence and power. This was decided in Berlin, where no representative for Samoa was invited. Samoa became a German territory, Tutuila and Manu'a were awarded to the United States of America, and Britain was offered the Solomon Islands.

After war was declared by Britain, it was imperative that Samoa be taken back from the Germans to disable the potential utilisation of the Samoa group as a Pacific launch base. There were no permanent means of defence in Samoa, and the Germans put up no resistance when the New Zealand Samoa Advanced Force arrived in Apia on 29 August 1914. The British flag was hoisted at the courthouse.

Despite initial concerns that the people of Samoa would be hostile and resistant to New Zealand occupation, a few local European men immediately joined the force and returned to New Zealand to enlist. Others travelled independently to Australia and New Zealand to do the same. Throughout 1914, many Samoan-born men enlisted in their homelands and went on to fight at Gallipoli, the Western Front, and various places in France and Belgium.

They were employed in the munitions depots with the Rarotongans, doing extremely dangerous work. The unfamiliar night shifts, malaria (which was unknown in Samoa), and sandfly fever took their toll. One Samoan died there. The five survivors returned to Samoa as invalids. Within a few years, two more had succumbed to the mental and physical effects of war.

There were 122 men from Samoa who were directly involved in the First World War. People at home were enthusiastic in their fundraising efforts. A circus troupe from the village of Vailoa was formed and performed in return for donations. Their circus repertoire included wire-walking, and traditional Samoan siva, where the performers were said to perform a variety of acrobatic feats.

All German citizens and officials found in Samoa were arrested and sent to New Zealand as prisoners of war. The many German owned plantations were confiscated and became reparation estates. Eventually, New Zealand refused to take anymore POWs from Samoa, they were so great in number. The Sogi POW camp was established in Samoa. German sympathisers were also sent to the camp for loudly singing the German anthems and hanging the Kaiser's flag around their properties.

Towards the end of the war a botched escape from the prison was staged, and the New Zealand administrator Colonel Robert Logan decided to place all Germans (including women and children) under house arrest. It was also reported to New Zealand that Logan wished to execute all the prisoners of war but Wellington telegraphed to notify Logan that, by international law, it was not a statutory offence to attempt escape. Colonel Logan's solution to this problem was to imprison all Germans, and those of mixed Samoan-German descent. Because of the large amount of Samoan-German families, it was fortunate that the armistice was reached before the entire country became one large internment camp.

There was one Samoan born soldier, Emil Caesar Kopsch, of German, Samoan and Portuguese descent who served in the German Army during the Great War. Interestingly, his Leger cousins served in the New Zealand and Tongan contingents but his other relatives the Kronfelds were listed as enemy aliens and investigated for trading directly with the enemy. The accusations were never proven.

There were also two Samoan prisoners of war, Peter Meredith and Salomon Williams, who were imprisoned in the Ruhleben Camp in Spandau, Berlin. They were recorded as singing and speaking in Samoan in a linguistic survey of the camp. Williams also spoke Tahitian, so he may have also been of mixed Tahitian descent.

On Thursday 7th November, 1918 the Talune, a New Zealand steamer ship that operated a supply service through Auckland, Suva, Nuku'alofa and Samoa, docked in Apia Harbour. Its holdings contained passengers, supplies for trading and the deadly Spanish Flu, which had festered in the damp conditions of Europe's war trenches. Despite being quarantined in Levuka, it continued on to Samoa, and after some administrative errors the crew and passengers were cleared to disembark in Samoa.

The ship ironically carried news of the Spanish influenza break out in the Northern Hemisphere to Samoa, and the fatal cases that had reached New Zealand and beginning to affect the Māori population. Two days later a family of four were reportedly all sick, and their five-month-old baby died. The bonfire that was held in Apia on Beach Road, to celebrate the armistice would have escalated the spread of the flu to the outer villages. 19% of the population was wiped out within months. Of the 17 men charged with guarding and preserving the history and customs of Samoa only five survived the Spanish flu.

The death toll represented to the Royal Commission from New Zealand put figures at 7541 - 3265 adult males, 2704 adult females and 1572 children. The Commission estimated that the eventual death toll would more likely be around 8500 or 22%, due to secondary infections like pneumonia and aftereffects that left sufferers partially incapacitated. A 1948 United Nations study described Samoa's exposure as "the most disastrous epidemic recorded anywhere in the world during the present century."

The soldiers that returned to Samoa found their once idyllic home ravaged by the resonant ripples of war times. Although its sufferings were great, like the ANZACs that forged their identity and independence in the Great War, they too took the ideals of patriotism and self-governing home with them. These experiences - though tragic for all the islands - would lead to the formation of movements that made Samoa the independent state and recognised country it became in 1962.

Jan-Hai Te Ratana
Aranui Library

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