The Kingdom of Tonga – 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.

The Kingdom of Tonga was not a British colony; it was the only Pacific Island to proudly hold and maintain its political independence as a monarchy. In 1900, as foreign powers were drawing their lines of power in the Pacific Islands' sands, King Tupou II smartly signed a friendship treaty with Great Britain.

Tonga eclared its neutrality in the war as they had good relations with both Britain and Germany, and Tonga was home to many German traders and importers. The German Consul in Nukualofa was the next largest in size and estate after the British.

Just before World War One, on a visit to the Tongan capital, Sir Maui Pomare noted that there were a great deal more Tongan and German flags on the island than Union Jacks. He also remarked on the great presence of German goods available for purchase - ranging from tinned meat to beer.

As the First World War continued, the cost of living grew higher and local German traders were investigated for trading directly to the enemy. A call to Tonga was made. Tonga was finally forced to commit to British war efforts and allowed the British Consul in Tonga to identify all enemy aliens living in Tonga. There was a mixture of 150 Germans, Samoans, and New Guinea Islanders including wives and families. Some of them were deported as prisoners of war to New Zealand, and others continued to live in Tonga but had land confiscated and strict sanctions placed on their movements.

Young, able-bodied men of European descent living in Tonga when the First World War was first declared took a ship to the closest large port to enlist - mostly in New Zealand and Australia. 91 men born or living in Tonga have been identified as having served in World War 1. There were some that served in the French Forces and British Royal Engineers. Sione Taliauli was training at the Auckland University Medical School and enlisted in early 1915. He served on a hospital ship, and after taking leave in New Zealand, re-enlisted once again to serve in Palestine where he died of disease. He was buried in Ramleh Cemetery near Jaffa, Israel.

It wasn't until 1916 that the recruitment party travelled to Tonga, and those of mixed descent were allowed to enlist under the Pioneer Battalion or Native Contingent. Interestingly, there were nine sets of brothers from Tonga that served (mostly together): Roberts, Skudders, Cockers, Jurys, Legers, Parsons, Ramseys, Lynchs, and Lydens. The Skeens were cousins. The highest rank that was reached by a Tongan was held by Sergeant Baisley Leger. Five of them also received awards of high distinction. Thirteen Tongan soldiers lost their lives to disease and in action. There are 53 soldiers that are commemorated on the Tongan War Memorial that stands overlooking the Nuku'alofa harbour in Pangai Si'i Park.

Jan-Hai Te Ratana
Aranui Library

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