Remembering those lost on its shores, Malta has commemorated Anzac day with a dawn service every year since 1916. Long a strategic stronghold of the British Empire, the Mediterranean island played a crucial role in the First World War as it received more than 230, 000 sick and wounded soldiers from the bloody Gallipoli campaign, averaging 2000 new casualties a week.
To cater for this flood, some 27 hospitals were established or re-commissioned on the island in 1915. Many New Zealand soldiers spent time as casualties there, many being treated at Valetta and Cottenera military hospitals. A sanctuary from the hell of war, Malta came to be known as the 'Nurse of the Mediterranean'.
However despite the efforts of medical staff, many of those evacuated to Malta did not make it home. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database there are 72 New Zealand First World War soldiers buried in Malta: 61 at Pieta Military Cemetery, 10 at Addolorata Cemetery and 1 at Imtarfa Military Cemetery. Dying from wounds or disease suffered at Gallipoli, the men who died on Malta symbolise the wasteful carnage of the campaign. The impact of this tragic history is felt keenly by islanders who turn out every year to remember.
One Māori soldier still there is Private Ra Wairau of Muriwai. Enlisting for the war as a 20 year old, Private Wairau was wounded at Gallipoli and was evacuated to the Valetta Military Hospital on Malta in August 1915. He passed away on 11 September as a result of his wounds and was buried with comrades at Pieta Military Cemetery on the island.
Becoming aware of his family connection to Private Wairau and his brother Private Raniera (who died on the Western Front) later in life, Warren Wairau recalled that,
'Although at one of the marae at Mahia, Kaiuku Marae, Ra's name is recorded on a war memorial of those local servicemen who died during the Great War . . . . Even though I had looked at this war memorial countless times as a child, I did not fully appreciate the significance of this connection to my family.'
The family were moved to visit Ra's grave and travelled to Malta in October 2015, 100 years after his death. It was a powerful experience for the family.
'It had rained that morning in Valetta (an expression of grief in the Māori world) even though the previous few days it had been absolutely perfect weather. The Cemetery was a peaceful, beautiful place, very tidy and pristine . . . . We laid flowers on his grave and sang a song for Ra.'
Warren Wairau on visiting Ra's grave in Malta.
Though buried far from home like many New Zealanders, the Wairau whanau are comforted that Ra lies beside his comrades on an island-nation that remembers and honours his service and sacrifice.
Caption: Colour lithograph of Pieta Military Cemetery, Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Print W927. No known copyright restrictions.