Pacific Islanders in the NZEF

Page 2 – Niueans and Cook Islanders

Niueans and Cook Islanders in the 3rd Maori Reinforcements 1916

Niue and the Cook Islands offered men for the NZEF as soon as news of war reached the Pacific. To begin with the offers were not accepted. New Zealand had pushed for the inclusion of a Maori Contingent and by the time this was accepted by the British authorities, there were sufficient volunteers in New Zealand to fill the ranks.

It was only when the ranks of the Maori Contingent were seriously depleted during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 and recruitment in New Zealand became more difficult that the government looked to Niue and the Cook Islands for reinforcements. Maui Pomare, the Member of Parliament for Western Maori and Minister Responsible for the Cook and Other Islands, took personal responsibility for this recruiting.

Pomare sailed to Niue and returned to Auckland in October with 150 men. They joined 45 men from the Cook Islands who had sailed to Wellington and paraded at Parliament. These groups trained at Narrow Neck camp as part of the 3rd Maori Reinforcements until February 1916, when they embarked for Suez.

Sergeant-Major Uea

Uea was a leading figure on Niue in encouraging support for the war effort. He volunteered for service overseas and was the oldest member of the Niue contingent that sailed for New Zealand in October 1915. Read more here.

On arrival in Egypt the Pacific Islanders went into training at the New Zealand Base camp at Ismailia. They became part of the newly formed New Zealand Pioneer Battalion (renamed the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion in September 1917). This was an infantry unit trained to carry out all the labouring duties required by the army.

In April 1916, the New Zealand troops were sent across the Mediterranean to a sector of the Western Front in northern France. Concerns had been expressed about sending Pacific Islanders to a cold climate, but the commander of the NZEF, General Godley, felt that with the onset of spring the weather would be warm enough. The Niueans and Cook Islanders were included in the transfer.

Spring in France in 1916 was particularly cold. On the bleak northern plains the men began training again. Route marching, bayonet fighting practice and gas mask drills were the order of the day, to the accompaniment of rumbles from the front line.

In May the Pioneer Battalion moved into the combat zone. Now much of the work had to be carried out at night. Trench digging was physically demanding and they were exposed to German artillery fire while doing so, which made it dangerous as well.

The main difficulty, however, was illness. By late May, 82% of the Niueans had been hospitalised. They were withdrawn from the Western Front and sent to England, then returned to New Zealand. The smaller group of Cook Islanders, who were also suffering from illness, were retained in the Pioneer Battalion. They remained in France until early 1918, when those still fit were sent to Palestine to join the Rarotongan Company.

The Niueans were sent to the main New Zealand convalescent hospital in the village of Hornchurch, Essex. The arrival of more than 100 Niueans in this small village had quite an impact on the local inhabitants, who went to great lengths to make them feel welcome. The presence of four Niuean graves in the village means there is still a strong link between Hornchurch and Niue.

The main body of Niuean soldiers returned to New Zealand in two troopships. As they sailed down the west coast of Africa there were five further deaths. On arrival in Auckland the men were kept in convalescent hospitals until shipping to Niue could be arranged.

The cost of shipping had been a major problem in accepting the men and it was a factor in deciding not to take a further contingent from the island. While regular shipping services called at the Cook Islands, Niue was off the shipping routes. Transporting the men to Auckland in 1915 had involved the charter of a vessel at a cost four times that of using a regular service.

While more men were accepted from the Cook Islands, no further contingents were sent to France. These men saw service in Sinai and Palestine as the Rarotongan Company.

How to cite this page

'Niueans and Cook Islanders', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/pacific-islanders-nzef/niueans, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016