Anzac Day in the Pacific

Page 2 – Early commemorative efforts

Cook Islands

From the early 1920s, commemoration of the First World War in the Cook Islands was linked to Armistice Day, 11 November. Messages each year from the Cook Islands Department in Wellington to the Resident Commissioner, Rarotonga, stated: ‘HM the King has expressed wish for two minutes silence November 11, Armistice Day.’

In 1923 the message was extended: ‘His Majesty has expressed a wish that throughout the Empire special services should be held and two minutes silence observed at 11am, 11 November.’

From this date services were held in Rarotonga and the other islands in the Cook group were instructed to observe the two minutes’ silence. Resident Commissioner H.F. Ayson arranged for services to be held in all churches on Rarotonga.

In Rarotonga two branches of the Returned Soldiers’ Association were formed, one for returned Cook Islanders and one for returned New Zealand expatriates, many of whom were working for the Administration. The Resident Commissioner invited the two associations to hold a combined church parade and later the Minister for the Cook Islands, Māui Pōmare, wrote to both RSAs in Rarotonga thanking them for combining for the service and urging them to work in harmony with their fellow soldiers.

By 1925 schoolchildren were being included in the commemoration. On 11 November 1925, special services were held in all the churches and at Avarua School the pupils saluted the flag. Short speeches were given by the Resident Commissioner, Makeanui Tinirau Ariki, George Karika DCM and Mr Binsted (the headmaster).

In 1926 the war memorial in Avarua was unveiled by the Governor-General, Sir Charles Fergusson. That year the Armistice Day ceremonies were extended to include a parade of returned servicemen from the London Missionary Society (LMS) church in Avarua to the Soldiers’ Memorial, where a short service was held and wreaths were laid. All branches of the Administration and all shops closed for the day.

The war memorial now provided a focus for commemoration services in Rarotonga. In 1927 possibly the first Anzac Day service was held there, with returned servicemen placing wreaths at the monument and also on soldiers’ graves. Armistice Day continued to be marked in the normal way and it is not certain when 25 April became the more important of the two dates for the Cook Islands community.

Armistice Day, and later Anzac Day, was marked in the outer islands of the Cook group by two minutes’ silence. Resident Commissioner Ayson was keen to have honour boards prepared for each island so the names of those who served would be in view and there would be a focal point for commemoration services. In 1926 a committee of returned soldiers, including George Karika DCM and Pori Ngoroio Makea, was set up to check names and ensure spellings were correct before details were sent to New Zealand for the Public Works Department to make the boards. Honour boards were prepared for Aitutaki, Mangaia, Atiu, Mauke, Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rakahanga and Pukapuka. In March 1929 Ayson reported to Wellington that all had reached their destination and suitable unveiling ceremonies were being arranged, presumably on Anzac Day that year.

On Mangaia the RSA decided to build a war memorial with funds raised for the celebration of George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935. Plans were drawn up, lists of names prepared, a site chosen and financial details settled. The Mangaia Soldiers’ Memorial was completed in time for Anzac Day 1936.

Niue

The Armistice celebrations on Niue focused on village efforts to plant ‘peace groves’ of coconuts, and there is no evidence of an annual day of commemoration. Remembrance was confined to the observance of two minutes’ silence on Armistice Day, 11 November. Each year the Secretary of the Cook Islands Department in Wellington sent a message from His Majesty and a note to the effect that Armistice Day should be observed in the usual way. In reply, the Resident Commissioner’s office in Alofi confirmed this was being done.

It was not until after the Second World War that a remembrance service on Anzac Day, 25 April, was started on Niue. Credit for initiating this commemoration goes to Percy Walsh, a Second World War veteran who had come to Niue from New Zealand to work in the Public Works Department.

The first commemoration was held in 1947. The Resident Commissioner, Hector Larsen, provided a government truck to go round the island and collect the returned servicemen. They were brought in to the main village of Alofi late on 24 April and spent the night in the cargo shed near the wharf.

A dawn parade was held at 5.30 a.m. The men assembled in front of the administration building and marched to the war memorial for a short service. They then returned to the administration grounds and were usually invited into a home, such as that of Percy Walsh in Alofi South, for breakfast/morning tea.

Meanwhile the government trucks made another circuit of the island to collect the wives and children of returned servicemen and, most importantly, the food that had been prepared in umu overnight.

When the trucks arrived the families joined their men for a service in the Alofi LMS church. Then a feast was shared, usually in the cargo shed. After the umu kai came speeches and then the singing of army songs, especially the much-loved ‘Tipperary’. At the end of the day the trucks returned the men and their families to their villages.