The four Pacific students at Carrière Wellington in Arras, France

The four Pacific students at Carrière Wellington in Arras, France

Tonga High School student Anna Jane Vea was given a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent her country at New Zealand’s Battle of the Somme commemorations in France this month.  The New Zealand High Commission interviewed Anna Jane on her return to Tonga.  Listen to the interview  (external link) to hear how she developed a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made by New Zealand and Tongan soldiers in the First World War.

Anna Jane Vea joined three other young people from Samoa, Niue, and the Cook Islands at the Somme centenary commemorations in France on 15 September after winning a WW100 essay competition run by the New Zealand High Commission in Nuku’alofa.  The competition was supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the WW100 First World War centenary programme and was aimed at helping the students remember and deepen their understanding of the contribution their countries made to World War I, and the ongoing impact of this.

During the week-long trip, the four Pacific students attended the New Zealand commemorative services in Longueval and each laid a wreath at on behalf of their country.  The students also met His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales after the ceremony.  In addition, the students visited significant towns and memorials close to Arras, such as Le Quesnoy, the Thiepval memorial and the Newfoundland memorial at Beaumont-Hamel.  A highlight for the Pacific students was visiting Carrière Wellington in Arras, where the NZ Tunnelling Company worked during WW1.  Going into tunnels not open to the public was a very special opportunity, which enabled the students to truly imagine what life was like for those working there during WW1.  

While the trip was highly educational, there was also time for sight-seeing in Paris, including climbing the Eiffel Tower, visiting Notre Dame and the Army Museum.  The students were also lucky enough to tour UNESCO and to lay a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe with NZ Defence Attaché Shaun Fogarty. 

The presence of the four Pacific students brought a unique Pacific flavour to the commemorations, and allowed New Zealand to recognize the significant contribution made by these countries to WW1.

New Zealanders in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were joined by approximately 500 Pacific Island soldiers in the First World War.  The majority were Cook Islanders and Niueans, 40 per cent of whom were part of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion in France during 1916-17, while over 300 Cook Islanders served in the Middle East throughout 1917-18.  Men from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Norfolk Island also served overseas with the New Zealand forces during the First World War.  

The Battle of the Somme was the first major battle for New Zealand on the Western Front. Of the 15,000 members of the New Zealand Division who were involved in the battle, approximately one in seven was killed and about four in every 10 were wounded.  The Somme commemoration was also an opportunity to remember and reflect on the fact that there are more New Zealand soldiers buried in French soil than in any other country.