The tragic outcome to Niue's WW1 commitment
A New Zealand historian speaks about the tragic outcome to Niue's military contribution to the First World War..
Amid the stories being aired as the centennial commemorations of World War One start, is the tragic account of the 150 soldiers from Niue who volunteered to serve King George the 5th.
Historian and the wife of a diplomat, Margaret Pointer, wrote an account, called 'Tagi Tote e Loto Haaku or My Heart is Crying a Little' after living on the island for several years.
Margaret Pointer told Don Wiseman that, because of a lack of communications, Niue did not hear about the war starting until mid-September.
She says when they did find out, after a supply ship called, an immediate offer of troops was made, instigated by New Zealand's administrator on the island.
MARGARET POINTER: ...Had to make the offer quickly because the ship was leaving and they did not know when the next one would visit. So they made the offer and a year later it was accepted.
DON WISEMAN: And the Niuean community fell in behind that, or was it imposed on them?
MP: No I think they fell in behind it. There was a little bit of opposition but I think on the whole they went along with it. They had always had a very strong feeling for Victoria and now they put that feeling into words and actions for George, for King George.
DW: Why did they have strong feelings for Victoria, since they weren't part of the Empire for that long were they?
MP: Well no but Queen Victoria had an incredible following, a fan club in the Pacific and there was a real desire on Niue to be part of the British Empire. They were pretty disappointed when they found that they had been handed to New Zealand. They really wanted to be partnered directly with the British Empire and part of it was the love of this woman who had been Queen for so long, and there are wonderful stories imagining her in London with people sitting on mats in front of her, telling her what is happening in her Empire, and I am sure some of that was behind them agreeing to enlist. Also there was a feeling on Niue that the offer would go no further.
DW: So it was a gesture?
MP: Yes it was in many ways, especially for the Europeans on the island it was a gesture and I think and for many of the Niueans probably too, they thought that there was no chance of this happening. So when a ship turned a year later and said you are going to be sent to Auckland for training I imagine it came as quite a shock to a lot of people.
DW: There were major health issues right from the start with these guys.
MP: Yes. Right from arriving in Auckland and bringing men together, living together in large numbers in close quarters, and the isolation of Niue meant they did not have immunity to European diseases. Some had been exposed to things like measles in the 19th century but their immunity was really very, very low and so when you get them into army situations where you are dealing with large numbers of people together the illness rate was incredible.
DW: And that got worse on the boat over to Eqypt?
MP: It got worse on the boat and from that point on it just continued to get worse and here were men from the tropics wearing great coats and marching around in the mud in the north of France, in what was a particularly cold spring.
DW: They were part of a labour battalion.. Did they ever actually come under fire?
MP: A lot of the work was done at night because during the day there was too much action. There was still action at night of course but they were never in a position of fighting. They were part of the Pioneer Battalion which had been formed from the Maori Contingent and that was in keeping with the British policy of using what they referred to as black and coloured troops in support roles. They didn't want any of the contributions from the Empire being used to fight unless they were Europeans.
DW: So they arrived at the beginning of New Zealand's involvement on the Western Front but were withdrawn -
MP: - within a month. So just one month in France and they had reached this rate of, I calculated of over 80 percent hospitalised, and someone made the decision that they should be withdrawn.
DW: That sounds remarkably enlightened, to do it so quickly.
MP: Yes. I always say it was the one good decision that was made, a wise decision that was made. Although the New Zealand government was somewhat embarrassed about it, that they were returning the men rather soon. And they were slightly embarrassed about it and wondered how it might be received on the island, but it seems to me, looking back, that it was the one wise decision that was made.
DW: Still tough though coming home with a number dying on the way back.
MP: A number died on the way back and a few died in Auckland when they got back and then they were returned to the island and they continued dying, because they had these, particularly the chest problems, the pneumonia, the pleurisy and then the tuberculosis. And those were ongoing problems. I went through the death records in the Department of Justice in Niue, I don't have an exhaustive list but at least 15 died in the first 5 years back.
DW: So 150 went away and if you allow for those that died soon after they got back what was the death toll?
MP: I think in total it would be between 35 and 40, maybe slightly more than that.
DW: When it came to World War Two New Zealand said they wouldn't take troops from Niue for these reasons?
MP: Well they said they wouldn't take troops from the Pacific and they were very vague about why they wouldn't take them but they felt that the logistics of getting men from the Pacific to New Zealand - it was too difficult and too expensive, and they knew there had been difficulties in the First World War. So they didn't take any groups from the Pacific. Individuals volunteered but that ended when conscription was introduced in 1940. Niueans who were resident in New Zealand - some of them fought in the Second World War. They enlisted as volunteers, but they, like Maori, were exempt from conscription and nobody was taken from the island, as a body of people from the island.
DW: Now the history of these events they weren't that well known on the island itself until you were there with your husband the High Commissioner at the end of the 20th century.
MP: That is right. It is a story that had largely been lost because their history is an oral history and gradually the details had been lost. And I think a lot of the details had never really been known in the first place. They didn't have any records of it so they only had what the men told them when they came back. So it was a largely lost story that had to be pieced together again, starting with the personnel records in the Ministry of Defence here and then sort of spreading out from that. And so that had enabled them to really embrace that aspect of their history and really commemorate their men.
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