Our Thoughts on the Niue RSA and the current debate
The commemoration of Anzac on the island did not happen after the First World War. It was not until the end of the Second World War that a returned serviceman by the name Percy Walsh, who was a saw miller working for the Public Works Department of the Niue Government, organised a dawn parade. Percy who was married to Mafini from Alofi Tokelau had the backing of the then Resident Commissioner Hector Larsen.
There are descendants of Niue’s contingent to WWI and some others, who can still remember, in the 50s and 60s, when the returned servicemen and their familes would gather in Alofi on the day before Anzac. They would bring with them their own bedding so they can sleep in the old cargo shed at the wharf ready for the Dawn Parade. This was a time for old soldiers to remember, to recall their experiences in Cairo, in England and in France. It was a time to sing their songs, but these were no ordinary songs. These were the songs that held special meaning that brought back memories – perhaps a night out in Cairo, perhaps a cold night standing sentry in France. Sometimes the songs were to put in their place the boastful that could but didn’t volunteer for service.
Ko mutolu na e tau fuata hiki pule, kia tanu la ki lalo ia au . . .
When I came on the scene in the late 60s, the overnight sleeping arrangement for the veterans had changed from the cargo shed to Araura Hall. These were the early embryonic years of radio broadcasting on the island and so I approached the boss at that time Harry Coleman, himself a WW2 veteran, to see if we can record the songs. Harry readily agreed.
Armed with a cumbersome studio reel-to-reel tape recorder, Harry and I loaded up the Mini Moke to drive next door, for that was where the hall was located, not far from our tin-shed studio. It was early evening when we arrived at Araura Hall and the servicemen, their wives and families were settling in for the night. Neither Harry nor I were aware of it at the time, but this was destined to be the one and only recording ever made of the old soldiers and their songs.
As we were setting up the equipment, I remembered looking at these men, just a handful of them from the original 149, sitting in a semi-circle, getting themselves ready for the singing and I wondered why they would voluntarily go off to fight in someone else’s war. Just then Private Tilimaka cleared his throat and tested his voice. It was time to switch on the Ferrograph 7-inch reel-to reel quarter inch mono-half-track.
I gave the signal and from Private Tilimaka’s skinny aged frame came a strong tenor/baritone voice that reverberated off the four walls of the hall. And then the different voices joined in. This was hair-tingling stuff; traditional all-male Niuean singing at its best. The ranks of the old warriors had thinned considerably but it was obvious to me that the bond between these men still remained strong; I can only speculate that this bond was forged from facing adversity together in some far off land, a long way from the warmth of their small isolated tropical island.
The following morning the veterans were up early for the Dawn Parade. All were dressed in white for the old uniforms had long disappeared but the war service medals were real enough. There they stood, facing the memorial honouring their comrades who never came back. The service itself was simple but dignified; the only person who spoke at any length was the Resident Commissioner who outlined the reason for the gathering, which was to remember the fallen, to remember those who never came home. For the men on parade that day, it was a chance for them to remember their comrades lying in Egypt, in France, in England, in New Zealand and at sea. As far as I can recall there were only three wreaths; one from the Administration, one from WW2 veterans and one from Niue RSA itself for the WW1 veterans.
Years later, after being absent for a time, I attended the Dawn Parade to find that the ceremony had changed. The most notable change was that there were no longer any veterans from the contingent of 149 who embarked from Alofi in 1915. I started hearing for the first time the words like Heroes, Toa, Tau Toa Lekaleka. It was as if the descendants, in the absence of their loved ones, were trying to find some way to honour the enlisted men; it was no longer a ceremony just to honour the fallen.
It seems that each Committee of the Niue RSA added their own interpretation of how the event should be commemorated. A roll call of all the enlisted men became part of the ceremony and in time, it came to be known as the Roll of Honour, a label usually reserved for the fallen. A church service was added to the proceedings, often followed by shared food. In time, each village erected their own structure with a plaque with the names and again, over a period of time, these became Village War Memorials. Visitors often expressed surprise, when seeing the Memorials, at the numbers from one village alone who lost their lives in the war, only to be told that these were commemorative plaques, remembering all those who enlisted and not necessarily the fallen while on active service.
The current criticism of the Niue RSA from members of the Niue Assembly is a reflection of the Association’s struggle to create in a single ceremony the true purpose of Anzac and Gallipoli while at the same time acknowledging the contribution of all the young men who left our shores all those years ago. The perception now from the families of the men who were buried in France and elsewhere is that their sacrifice has become secondary in favour of acknowledging the whole contingent of enlisted men.
The challenge now for the Niue RSA, with assistance from appropriate sources, is to come up with a ceremony to return the dignity to the commemoration and give purpose, not only for the fallen but also for all the enlisted men.
Let me end this with something that has bothered me for some time, the use of the word ‘heroes’ to describe the men who enlisted in 1915. The word hero is probably one of the most over-used word in the English language, so much so, that it has become common-place. Were the men of Nukututaha who volunteered to join the Maori Pioneer Battalion in 1915 heroes? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
For me, what they were, were a group of young men who had no idea of modern warfare and the wanton destruction of lives that war can bring. What they were, were young men in their prime, who were prepared to leave their families and travel hundreds of miles to face the unknown, not knowing if they’ll ever return. That takes courage; these were ordinary and probably very frightened young men who had the courage to step forward when called upon. It is that courage that we should revere and remember. If we must use the word hero, then let us do so for the men of Niue lying beneath a white cross in a land far far away.