The story of the Cook Islands in the First World War is one of remarkable service and sacrifice. One of the smallest territories in the British Empire, it responded immediately to the call for service and eventually sent five contingents to the war (totaling at least 500 men). Recruited to reinforce the Maori Contingents, the islands' young men volunteered en masse at the outbreak of the war despite the risk of severe labour shortage and economic breakdown. Going even further, a Patriotic Fund was quickly set-up and money poured in to support the war effort; Mangaia, for example, raised the equivalent of a days pay for the entire population (Scott).
After training in New Zealand at Narrow Neck Camp, Devonport, the first Cook Islanders departed New Zealand on 13 October 1915 on the SS Te Anau, arriving in Egypt just as New Zealand units were about to be transferred to the Western Front. Combined with Maori and Pakeha soldiers of the Pioneer Battalion, they soon saw heavy action in the Allied attack on Flers at the first battle of the Somme in September 1916. Exposed to enemy fire, they helped construct the famous 'Turk Lane' trench that stretched for 8 kilometres - from Flers to Delville Wood - and later assisted the tunnellers at Arras. Despite the unprecedented challenges of the Front and the European winter, the soldiers performed their duties well and singled out by Major Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) for their hard work in tough conditions.
The 2nd and 3rd Cook Islands Contingents served in the Middle East as part of the Sinai-Palestine campaign; first in a logistical role for the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Rifles at their Moascar base and later in ammunition supply for the Royal Artillery. Well-organised and disciplined, they again excelled and were noted as especially vigilant sentries. Their hard work and physicality was also widely admired, with one officer estimating that a single Cook Islands soldier did the work of two to three Europeans. In one example, 30 men unloaded and re-loaded 800 45-kg rounds of 6-inch shells from a train to trucks in 30 minutes (Scott). Elsewhere, their speed and prowess in running surf boats from supply ships in Egypt led to threats of strike action by local labourers put out of work (Weddell). Importantly for the soldiers, a separate Cook Islands Company was formed in October 1917 and the unit remained an indispensable part of the Royal Artillery in the British XXI Army Corps for the rest of the war.
However, along with the story of exceptional service is one of great sacrifice. In the 1st Contingent, three Cook Islanders died from enemy action and at least ten died of disease as the men struggled to adapt to the extremely different conditions of Europe. More tragedy came after the war as men returned to the influenza outbreak in New Zealand and sought recovery from European diseases. A large number did not make survive and died in New Zealand or on their return home over the coming years: Lance Corporal Robert (Bob) Ngapo of Tautu, Aitutaki (pictured) died in Auckland of pneumonia while Private Tuakana Atama Akeau of Manihiki (pictured) died of tuberculosis back home in 1924. These were just two among many sacrificed their lives to serve. Their families suffered and their names are not forgotten.
To honour the service and sacrifice of Cook Islands soldiers and ensure that their stories are not forgotten, Auckland Museum is asking families and the public to add their information and photographs to New Zealand's national digital war memorial, Online Cenotaph.
Grateful acknowledgement to Ma'ara Maeva for advice on this article.
Title image credit: 'William Marsters buying cakes from a vendor in Belgium', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-ALB-418 H32. Image has no known copyright restrictions.
Background image credit: Portrait of Sergeant Pa George Karika, Private Iaveta Karika, and Private Piautu Mani in greatcoats with uniform hats and swagger sticks. Image has no known copyright restrictions.