01 February 2007

From Niue to a grave in Hornchurch

Yesterday, I posted some photographs of war graves in the churchyard of St Andrews in Hornchurch. A little bit of searching on the internet and I found out that the gravestones do not mark the burials of Maoris but men from the small pacific island of Niue. This is an edited version of an article written by Margaret Pointer New Zealand Herald.

The military parade in Auckland's Queen on February 4, 1916 was unusual: among the 1500 men that day were 140 from Niue. The men were part of the 3rd Maori Contingent and, along with 50 recruits from the Cook Islands, they were being sent to make up the numbers needed to maintain the Maori Contingent which had suffered heavily during the Gallipoli campaign the previous year.

Niue had become a New Zealand Protectorate in 1901. When war began in August 1914, the island had a population of around 4000, including 30 Europeans. The Europeans felt the need to make some sort of war effort and they suggested a Niue regiment and arranged the recruitment of men and their drilling on the village greens.

The offer to provide soldiers was sent to the, but no one seriously believed the offer would be accepted. But a year after the offer was made, word arrived saying the Niue Regiment was to prepare for shipment to New Zealand. Minister for the Cook and Other Islands, Maui Pomare had taken up the offer because he was finding it so difficult to recruit enough reinforcements to maintain numbers in the Maori Contingent.

The 140 men brought south to New Zealand had never left the island before. After a rough passage, y were assembled on Calliope Wharf and marched to their new home, Narrow Neck Military Camp, or Nalo Neke as it became known in Niuean. Over four months the Niue Islanders underwent training at Nalo Neke. Most of the Niueans spoke no English. They found the army clothing restrictive and the boots were impossible for those used to walking barefoot on the coral island.

But their greatest problem was their lack of immunity to European diseases. Measles and similar common complaints were unknown on Niue and the real danger lay in the secondary, especially respiratory, infections. On Christmas Day, 1915, the first of the Niueans died of pneumonia. Others were too ill to continue with training and were held in hospital until a ship went to Niue. In February 1916 the Niue Islanders were ready for service and were sent initially to Egypt. but soon the order came to go to Northern France to provide support on the Western Front.

The Niueans were part of a Pioneer Battalion working at night to maintain a network of trenches in the mud. During this time the Niueans suffered terribly from illness and men had to go to hospital constantly. By late May 1916, 82 per cent of them had been hospitalised. Some recovered and were returned to duty, some were sent home by hospital ship, some were transferred to other hospitals and several died. Mercifully, the army authorities made the decision to withdraw the Niueans from Northern France and assemble them at the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital in Hornchurch, England, where they could be cared for before sailing to New Zealand. The people of Hornchurch still tend the graves of the four Niueans who are buried there.

Gradually the men were returned to Niue where the welcome was tinged with sadness for those who had been lost. Today descendants of the men from the Niue Regiment commemorate their contribution with Anzac Day services each year in Niue and Auckland. The sadness of the story is tempered by a pride that their men participated. Participation in World War I marked a point of contact with the outside world that changed Niue forever. The journey to war and back remains an extraordinary story of ordinary men caught up in the madness of that war to end all wars.


Pete said...


What a terrible waste. Strangely enough the Germans tookover several islands of Micronesia and Melanesia as colonies before World War One. This gave fighting the Germans, across the globe in Western Europe, a rare relevance.


jams o donnell said...

Wstern Samoa and Nuaru wasn't it?

I was just pissed off that these guys shared headstones when the other WWI dead got one each. I find this a very sad story... A sad waste indeed

Pete said...

Yes the group headstone was a racist slap - selectively economising.

Actually I don't think the Germans were worse colonisers than others. Those Niueans who drilled on their hot island would have wondered alot why they were fighting Germans in freezing France and Belgium.

jams o donnell said...

I can only imagine it must have been an awful shock for the islanders. I their ending up sharing headstones is not a fitting memorial

stephen said...

Hello Jams.
I came across your blog when I was looking for St Andrews Church and info on the Niue soldiers there. Can I use your pictures?

Background is, I am in Niue as I post this and am a few hours from flying back to Australia.
This afternoon as a last item I was taking pictures of one of the war memorials in Alofi (Niue capital) when I was approached by a local named Charley who was past president of the returned services organisation here. Apparently there is a big 60th ANZAC anniversary here in a few weeks (they held the first one in 1947) and Charley was intrigued that info from CGWC and others was now available which can give them more info about their past. Niue lost a good deal of history when the island was devastated by cyclone in 2004.
I have been doing research on a group of WW1 soldiers from Quorn in South Australia and gradually adding their stories to my blog.
Charley will get in touch with me when I am back in Australia and I would like to give him a fair bit of info to get them going.

Hope you can help.