Many Pacific troops succumbed to disease.


It's easy to commemorate every Tongan who fought for New Zealand in the Great War - just 94 signed up to fight for the tiny country. Eleven died from combat, illness and accidents.

Twelve Pacific nations were once part of the British Empire, but never the Kingdom of Tonga.

The reason the "Friendly Isles" supplied soldiers to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), the UK and even France was due to its Treaty of Friendship with Britain. Things got complicated when Tonga was obliged to round up Samoan-Germans within its borders in May 1916, because they were subjects of an enemy nation.


NZEF contingents from Niue and Rarotonga comprised only 140 soldiers each. Tonga didn't supply a distinct contingent. Concerns were expressed over how these groups, used to tropical temperatures, would fare in Europe's bitter 1916 spring. Indeed, many died of illnesses which were new to their bodies and were buried in Europe; 82 per cent of Niueans alone were hospitalised - not surprising when marching in the cold and digging trenches at night were typical tasks.

Many of the 91 Tongans who fought served in the Maori Battalion, or were mixed into the Niuean, Rarotongan and Fijian contingents.

Sione Talia'uli (memorialised as "Jione") enlisted in early 1915, served on a hospital ship, and fought in France, Egypt and Palestine with the 3rd Maori Contingent. On top of fighting which earned him the Victory Medal and the British War Medal, Mr Talia'uli was expected to work as a Niuean/Rarotongan translator too.

Mr Talia'uli died of pneumonia in Egypt on October 11, 1918 bequeathing his medals to his child Bakelo. Mr Talia'uli missed seeing the Armistice by exactly one month.

Mr Talia'uli is buried with other NZEF Kiwis, in Ramleh Cemetery in Israel.

Christine Liava'a is a relative who described Mr Talia'uli on a Ramleh Cemetery message board as "the only full-blooded Tongan killed in the war".

Her book, Valiant Volunteers: Soldiers from Tonga in the Great War, is the definitive record of Tonga's contribution.

Men serving the Pacific Islander contingents of the NZEF had come from as far as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. While Samoans, Niueans and Cook Islanders were returned to lands governed by New Zealand, anyone who wanted to return to Tonga had to beg. War pensions were given out begrudgingly, too - while many lump sums were doled out, other veterans had to wait until the 1920s for payment.

The Tongan RSA's WWI Memorial lists just 50-odd names. Still, in a war which killed 17 million people, every contribution counted.

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