Niue is a small island nation in the South Pacific, 1500 miles northeast of New Zealand.
On the afternoon of Saturday 17th September 2016, a service was held at St. Andrew’s Church, Hornchurch, attended by a delegation from Niue who had travelled over 10,000 miles to attend the service and visit the graves of four Niuean soldiers who died 100 years ago.
The 16 representatives had left Niue on 6th September. They
visited the First World War battlefields in Belgium and France and on Thursday 15th September took part in ceremonies in Longueval, France to commemorate the centenary of New Zealand’s involvement in the battle of the Somme, after which they were introduced to HRH the Prince of Wales.
In October 1915, 150 men from a total population of only 4000 left the island on the troopship Te Anua for Auckland and training. Life in Narrow Neck camp brought the first problems – many men spoke no English, they had to adapt to wearing boots, woollen uniforms and a meat-based diet that was markedly different to the fish and fruit based diet that they were used to.
In early 1916 they joined the New Zealand Division in Egypt, as part of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion. This was an infantry unit trained to carry out the labouring duties required by the army.
In April 1916 they travelled with New Zealand Division to the Western Front. They moved into the front line, digging trenches and labouring at night within the range of the German artillery.
The main problem however was illness. The cold, bleak open countryside of France and a lack of immunity to European diseases meant that by the end
of May over 80% of the Niuean contingent had been admitted to hospital.
The Niuean men were withdrawn from the front and sent to the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital at Grey Towers in Hornchurch. The arrival of over 100 Niueans had quite an impact, and the people of Hornchurch went to great lengths to make the men from the ‘South Sea islands’ feel welcome, including bringing them gifts of fruit. Unfortunately four of the Niueans succumbed to pneumonia and other diseases and are buried in Hornchurch cemetery.
By the end of the summer in 1916 all the Nuiean soldiers had been returned home. Many who returned suffered continuing health problems and at least 15 young men died within 5 years of their return.
During the service, attended by the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of E
ssex and the Mayor of Havering, a plaque was presented to St. Andrews church by the people of Niue to commemorate the sacrifices of the Nuiean men and the enduring friendship between the people of Hornchurch and Niue.
After the church service, the congregation processed to the graves in the churchyard where prayers of penitence were said and wreaths were laid by the mayor and the Hornchurch British legion. The Niuean delegation then laid floral tributes and seashell necklaces on the graves and sang a Niuean prayer for the dead.
Refreshments were provided in the church hall and the guests from Niue sang several songs, bringing a little bit of the south Pacific to suburban east London.
After the service in Hornchurch, the group travelled to Heathrow for the 30 hour journey home.
Mike Armitage September 2016by