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Friday, 19 April 2019 10:04 am

Cook Islands Anzacs remembered with service

Apr 23rd, 2016 | By | Category: Diversity, Editor's Picks, Front Page Layout, News, Top Picture

A little known part of New Zealand’s wartime history will be commemorated in Porirua over ANZAC weekend.

A service for the Cook Islands soldiers who fought under New Zealand command during the First World War will be held at Mungavin Hall on Sunday April 24 from 5pm to 7pm.

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Sandra Tisam examines ‘500 Coook Island Soldiers’ by Michel Tuffrey.

The event is being organised by the Cook Islands Soldiers of World War One Committee and Cook Islands High Commission.

Sandra Tisam, Cook Islands High Commission First Secretary and organising committee member, says the service is an opportunity for the Cook Islands community to reflect on their small nation’s contribution to the war.

Attendees will lay poppies on a wreath which Tisam says will be placed inside the cenotaph on ANZAC Day.

A roll of known Cook Islanders who served will also be read out.

Tisam says the exact numbers of Cook Islanders who went to World War I is not known but it is believed to be about 480 to 500.

“Many of them didn’t register in the original contingent. Some went from the Cook Islands, some of them registered in New Zealand and went with [non-Cook Islands] contingents,” she says.

Tisam says it is hard to trace Cook Islands soldiers because they served as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and would have simply been classed as New Zealanders in the records.

She says very few people, including Cook Islanders, know about their contribution to the war because little written or oral history has been recorded.

“Most people aren’t aware that 500 Cook Island soldiers went to World War I to fight for a war which they probably didn’t understand.”

Tisam says because of the lack of awareness around Cook Islanders in the war New Zealand’s Cook Islands community has only been holding  services to commemorate their soldiers since 2014.

Many families were unaware they had relatives involved in the war with some only finding out when they attended ANZAC services.

“We had three days of commemorations [last year] and many of them did not realise they had relatives that went to the Great War. When they saw their names on the role they were surprised. They had never known their family history.”

She believes like many soldiers, Cook Islands veterans would have been reluctant to speak about their wartime experiences.

Tisam says the service will be an opportunity for attendees to acknowledge the soldiers and their experiences.

“It will be a good opportunity for the next generation to actually know about what their ancestors or family members went through. They’ll probably get a better connection to the elders and the stories they haven’t been told.”

Allan Dodson, who has been researching stories of soldiers with connections to Porirua, says the story of the Cook Islands soldiers deserves a wider audience.

He says while their story is unique, it echoes the experiences of soldiers throughout the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

“It’s really amazing that these guys left their islands and travelled to New Zealand to go and fight in a foreign war. [They] end up in France in the middle of what was a horrendous winter under bombardment and were exposed to things that they would have never really experienced before.”

The Cook Islanders were known as the Rarotongan Company and served as part of the New Zealand Pioneer battalion, later renamed the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion, which undertook engineering tasks.

Although they weren’t infantry troops, they often found themselves under fire on the frontline while performing duties such as trench digging.

A small number of Cook Islanders left for France in 1916, but along with a Niuean contingent found it hard to adapt to the cold European winter.

At one point, 82 percent of the Niueans and a smaller number of Cook Islanders had been hospitalised through illness.

In 1918 the existing force of Cook Islanders and later reinforcements were sent to Palestine where commanders felt they would be better suited to the climate.

The Cook Islands soldiers spent the rest of the war involved in the Middle East in the campaign against the Turks and returned to New Zealand in December 1918.


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