Pacific soldiers

Pacific soldiers

This hook explores the impact of the First World War on Pacific communities.

Nurse Nobbs soldiers’ group, including 22 Niueans

Nurse Nobbs soldiers’ group, including 22 Niueans, at the Auckland Trained Nurses Club, Epsom, 1916. Photograph by Herman John Schmidt. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 31-WP8025.

Context 

Niue and the Cook Islands had been “given” to New Zealand by the British in 1901 in recognition of New Zealand’s contribution to the war in South Africa. Life under New Zealand administration was less than ideal for the islands’ inhabitants: there were curfews, no alcohol, and limited opportunities for economic development. In 1915, the New Zealand colonial administrators campaigned to recruit Niueans and Cook Islanders. A hundred and fifty Niueans and 45 Cook Islanders were soon on their way to New Zealand for military training, with more soldiers following later. After 3 months at Narrow Neck camp in Auckland, the new recruits joined the New Zealand Māori contingent headed for Egypt and France. 

Life was not easy for the Pacific soldiers: few spoke English, they were unaccustomed to wearing footwear, and they found western food hard to digest. More significantly, the cold climate of Europe and the Pacific soldiers’ lack of immunity to European diseases drastically affected their health. Eighty-two percent of the Niuean soldiers were hospitalised, and several of them died. All the remaining Niuean soldiers were sent to England to convalesce and then sent back to New Zealand. The Cook Islanders fared slightly better, so they were transferred to Palestine, where they worked mostly as labourers and engineers. 

The Niuean and Cook Island soldiers who returned home were changed by their experiences abroad, with new worlds opened up to them. For many soldiers, it was a challenge to settle back into island life. Some had been away for 3 years and found it hard to accept that little had changed at home in their absence. Some chose to migrate to New Zealand or Western Samoa, some stayed and became leaders within their societies, and others suffered from ongoing health issues from their time abroad. 

Possible discussion questions 

Why do you think soldiers from the Pacific enlisted in the war? What similarities and differences might there have been between their reasons for enlistment and the reasons of New Zealanders (Māori and Pākehā)? Why? 

During the war, Pacific soldiers were generally treated as equals with Māori soldiers. How did this treatment of the Pacific soldiers compare with the way Pākehā soldiers were treated? 

How do you think Māori and Pacific soldiers viewed each other? 

In what ways did going away to the war benefit and disadvantage the Pacific soldiers? 

How might life have been different for people from Niue or the Cook Islands before and after the war? 

How would going away have influenced these soldiers’ relationships with each other? How would it have influenced their relationships with those who stayed behind? 

How might life have been different for these men if they had not gone to war?

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