The Cook Islands sent 45 men to the war in October 1915. A second contingent of 120 men, with representatives from every island in the group, left Rarotonga for Auckland in July 1916. They went into training at Narrow Neck camp.
By September 1916, the Niueans had been withdrawn from France and the Rarotongans there were also suffering from the cold. General Godley recommended that the second Cook Islands contingent remain in New Zealand until after the northern winter. Instead the British were asked to deploy these men initially in defence of the Suez Canal. When the weather improved they could be sent as reinforcements to the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion that was serving on the Western Front. This request was agreed to and in November 1916 the Cook Islanders sailed for Suez as the ‘11th Maori Reinforcements’.
Pa George Karika served with the Rarotongan Company in Sinai and Palestine, winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’. He was the only Pacific Islander to receive this decoration during the First World War. Read more here.
The Cook Islanders never made it to France. They were attached to the NZEF in Egypt but began working for the British in the campaign against the Ottoman Turks in Sinai and Palestine. The group became known as the Rarotongan Company of the NZEF and served in this theatre of war until the end of the war. In February 1918, the remaining Cook Islanders and other Pacific Islanders in the Maori Pioneer Battalion in France were sent to join the Rarotongan Company in Palestine. In August 1918 the third Cook Islands contingent arrived from New Zealand. The total strength of the unit was now 280 men.
Baisley and Francis Leger travelled from Tonga to New Zealand to enlist in the NZEF in 1915. They served with both the Pioneer Battalion in Egypt and France, and the Rarotongan Company in Palestine. Read more here.
The Rarotongan Company's duties were to unload supplies from surfboats on the Mediterranean coast and carry ammunition for the Royal Artillery Eastern Force Ammunition Unit. They were formidable workers, faster and stronger than anyone else. This caused friction with the Egyptians who also did these jobs and the Pacific Islanders were reassigned to a more responsible role: handling ammunition. Their task was to carry ammunition to the firing line, keeping the dumps concealed to prevent attack. Towards the end of the war they were also involved in clearing stockpiles of captured enemy ammunition.
While the Middle East climate was more suitable for these men, they were still vulnerable to disease, especially malaria. However the death rate was lower than in France and this influenced the decision to transfer men from the Pioneer Battalion to the Rarotongan Company.
In December 1918 the Rarotongan Company was returned to New Zealand. Because of the influenza epidemic the men were quarantined on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. Most of them were sent back to Rarotonga in March 1919, when there was no longer a risk that they would spread infection.