A cemetery sits on the north side of a peninsula, running from a suburban road down to a swath of green grass and native bush. Thin paths line the rows of graves, where headstones crumble to lie flat atop the plots, and solemn monuments rise in memoriam. A walkway runs down the side of the cemetery, disappearing into the trees before it reappears among the mangroves. Halfway down the path and several rows in, a lone pōhutukawa stands sentinel. Under its shade lie several casualties of the First World War, and among them three stand out for the island nation represented on their headstones: ‘Gilbert Island Contg.’
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a collection of islands in the Pacific and had been under the administration of the British Crown since 1892. In 1916 the islands changed from being a protectorate to a colony – a shift that gave the British full control over the islands. Today they’re known as Kiribati and Tuvalu after moving towards self-determination in the twentieth century. These first led to the island group becoming a dependency, and then splitting into two fully independent nations in the 1970s.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands made offers of military support to the British Empire in the earlier years of the First World War, but the geographic isolation relative to the rest of the Empire proved to be an obstacle. The Pacific Phosphate Company operated in the islands, and had several European employees who volunteered for service, but as the company was reluctant to meet the cost of transport to New Zealand or Australia, the offer was never taken up.
The same issues arose when Indigenous subjects expressed their willingness to enlist with the Commonwealth forces. New Zealand newspapers of the time reported that the cost led to the Resident Commissioner declining their request to enlist. The Commissioner instead approved a counteroffer by the population of the islands to ‘be allowed to contribute to some of the Empire’s funds.’1 Through sales of copra, the fundraising efforts led to £10,000 being raised – an astonishing amount from a small nation of some 30,000 people.
By 1918, the islands were a colony of the British Empire and another personnel offer was made. This time it was for the services of members of the Native Police Force, who would travel to New Zealand as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Contingent. There were a total of 25 men who made the voyage late in the June of 1918. The colony paid for the travel costs, as their service was seen as the duty of good citizens of Empire.
Initially, the contingent sailed to Australia, where they disembarked in Sydney for a few days before sailing on to Wellington. Their arrival was hailed as evidence of the unity of the British Empire. During their brief visit to the capital, the newspapers wrote with enthusiasm about the arrival of the volunteers: ‘When this little company of men […] arrive at the front, it may be said that every part of the British Empire is helping’.2 Christchurch’s Sun newspaper was able to interview some of the men, with one saying ‘We would like to see the great fighting’ and explaining that more volunteers would have come, ‘but we are not many in the islands.’3
Finally, the small party made their way from Wellington to Narrow Neck Camp on Auckland’s North Shore. This was where the Māori and Pacific units of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force undertook their training. It was also where preparations for embarkation to Europe and the Great War would be finalised. Upon arrival, the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders arrived in Narrow Neck they joined Māori, Fijian, and Rarotongan recruits. The Gilbert and Ellice Islanders would serve alongside soldiers from Fiji and Rarotonga as part of the 4th Rarotongan Contingent.
The 4th Rarotongan Contingent was comprised of men who had been in camp since mid-1918, and it is reasonable to expect that their embarkation would have occurred in September of that year, in line with the embarkations of other soldiers. However, as influenza struck New Zealand and members of the contingent were exposed, the embarkation was delayed to avoid the risk of illness making its way onto the ships and spreading once they were underway. There was also reluctance to send more Pacific soldiers to the European front as the Army considered the climate to be hazardous to their health. For example, in 1916, Niuean volunteers in the Pioneer Battalion had been withdrawn and returned to New Zealand after many of them came down with illnesses attributed to the cold of Europe.
The delays in preparation meant that the 4th Rarotongan Contingent, including the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders, were due to embark in late October 1918. By that point however, the war was beginning to wind down and further embarkations were delayed indefinitely. The Gilbert and Ellice Islanders, after more than four months of travel and preparation, were returned to Narrow Neck to await further orders. It was there that they suffered their first casualties of the war.
Unlike thousands of others killed in the last days of four years of war, the casualties of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands weren’t suffered on the battlefields of Europe. They were struck down at their camp in Auckland by the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918. Three members of the contingent are recorded as having caught influenza: Manuao Fati, 38, and Tonuia, 20, both of Nanumea; and Laliqapata litomasi, 27, of Fiji. Sadly, all three passed away in early November. They were buried in adjacent plots at O’Neill’s Point Cemetery, Bayswater, and their gravestones still stand today.
When armistice was declared in November, planning shifted from the business of war to that of getting the Pacific soldiers home. The uncertainty and upheaval that had followed the contingent continued well into 1919. Before, their movements had been in preparation for embarkation to Europe – now they had a doubtful path home.
Travel between the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and New Zealand wasn’t easy – Nanumea is some 3,500 kilometres from New Zealand, and even today, travel to Tuvalu requires a flight to Samoa and then an overnight journey by boat. In 1918 the situation was even more difficult, as despite being part of the British Empire, the islands were not visited regularly by commercial or passenger vessels.
The regular shipping routes were via Sydney, and this presented another difficulty – authorities there had restricted access to the port to prevent the spread of influenza. Similar policies in the islands also led to delays in the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders departing for home. The New Zealand authorities were asked by the High Commissioner of the Western Pacific to keep the contingent in New Zealand until it was safe for them to travel to the islands.
Finally, in August of 1919, the soldiers of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Contingent were given passage back to the islands via Sydney. George Burge, a European officer with the contingent, took discharge and remained in New Zealand, while another soldier, Sima Viki, remained in New Zealand to convalesce. In correspondence between officials of the Auckland Military District, one mentioned that ‘owing to Viki’s destination being out-of-the-way it may take some time to arrange for his passage’, yet another reminder of the distance between the islands and New Zealand. When Sima Viki was finally declared fit to return home in late November, three months after his comrades, the contingent’s service came to an end. Of the 25 men who had left the islands, 21 had returned home.
Though the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Contingent never saw conflict, and they never received medallic recognition for their service, theirs is a story of pride. They had volunteered and made their way to New Zealand, and through no fault of their own were unable to make the war in time. Yet they had travelled nearly the same distance as the first New Zealand soldiers did to reach Egypt and had also lost members of their unit. They are permanently linked to New Zealand by their service, and by the memory of those that did not make it home and rest now on our shores.
We have created two lists of servicemen for those identified as Gilbert (Kiribati) and Ellice (Tuvalu) Islanders. Please contact the Online Cenotaph team if you are aware of an individual who is not represented on these lists.
1 Capture of Mezy. Manawatu Times, 24 July 1918, p.5.
2 Frothing for Fight. NZ Truth, 3 August 1918, p.5.
3 Island Warriors. A New Contingent. Sun (Christchurch), 18 July 1918, p.3.
Liava'a, Christine. Taan Buaka Mai Nukan Te Betebeke: Men from the Central Pacific Islands in the Great War. Auckland: Polygraphia, 2015.
Weddell, Howard. Soldiers from the Pacific: The Story of Pacific Island Soldiers in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War One. Wellington: Defence of New Zealand Study Group, 2015.
Cite this article
Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 14 September 2023. Updated: 19 September 2023.