Here we have the story of one Fiji man who decided to travel to New Zealand to enlist. His name is Herbert Powell, who I will refer to from now on by his common name, Bert. (Far right in the picture)
He was born at Loma Loma in the Lau group, an island group that is midway between Fiji and Samoa. We have no record as to how he made the voyage from Suva to Auckland; we may assume that his decision to travel to NZ was in part because he had 2 brothers already living in Wellington.
It is also worthy of note that the colonial powers in Fiji at that time had decided not to enlist Native Fiji men for active service, the reason being the Native Fijian population was in decline and they were concerned as to the effect that the further loss of young men may have. No men were attested in Fiji, however Fiji did send men of European extraction to England as volunteers, who were then attested in England and attached to different units. The majority of men with Fiji connections that served in WW1 in most cases were shipped out to their country of origin to enlist, the principal countries for enlistment being New Zealand and Australia. Fiji was still a young country at this time, so many young men that were in Fiji from these countries at the time left in droves for home, even before the declaration of war. even the men
Bert Powell, service # 15299 was attested at Trentham camp, February 21st 1916 at the age of 20. We know Bert was an instructor training new recruits both in marksmanship and the delivery of Hand grenades. At one time he held the rank of Sergeant, but reverted to the rank of Private at his own request to be allowed to ship overseas on active service.
Bert departed Wellington 28th July 1916, finally arriving at Sling Camp on September 29th. Bert was then sent to the continent on October 10th 1916 following his file we see he was in and out of hospital with various illnesses over the coming year.
On September 25th 1917 Bert and his Battalion began a 4-day march to take part in the Passchendaele Offensive (also known as the 3rd Battle of Ypres). They marched from their training ground in Coulomby in northern France to the frontline near Ypres in Belgium, covering 78 kilometres over the 4 days in full kit!
Unfortunately on arrival in the Ypres North area, he is recorded as being WIA on September 28th 1917 with shell splinters to both his right arm and leg, so he never made it to the frontline.
Bert was first treated at the Australian 6th Causality Clearing station and thereafter the 2nd Canadian Clearing Station where his right leg was amputated through the knee and he had Paralysis of the upper right arm from the splinters.
He was then evacuated back to England and admitted for a short period to the Mile Long Hospital, Tooting, London before being eventually transferred to New Zealand No 2 General Hospital at Walton on Thames where he spent nearly 6 months in rehabilitation.
Bert learnt to write using his left hand among other skills, he was fitted with an artificial leg and embarked for New Zealand on the “HS Maheno” being eventually discharged from active service in Wellington in July 1918.
On his return to New Zealand he continued to train to write left handed, before finally being granted a first class passage to return to Fiji, where he eventually married Anne Toaona Robertson in 1924, a Samoan lady.
Bert and Anne had 13 offspring, many of whom are still living at this time (2017), we are told that Bert found the artificial leg US for whatever reason and it was last seen hanging on the wall of the shop at Vanubalavu.
He had further operations in Suva some 20 years after he arrived home to remove more of the splinters in his neck, but carried some of this material with him for the rest of his life, living it to the fullest – he built houses and churches on Vanubalavu, rode a horse, he was an excellent swimmer and for 41 years he was Copra Manager, overseer & bookkeeper for the Borron Family on Mago Island, just using a crutch to get around.
Bert passed away in Suva at the age of 68 on January 28th 1964.
As a footnote, my father in law was injured and lost a leg a month after Bert in the later battles of Passchendaele, while researching Bert’s story I realised that Bert had been at NZGH #2 at Walton on Thames at the same time as my father-in-law, Norman Fleet.
Norm had sent home a collection of photos of his war years including a number of his time at Walton, we then went through the photos and have found 2 photos in the collection that show Bert in them.
In an emotional moment some 98 years later we have a photo of Norm seated in a wheel chair in a group photo and the soldier standing immediate behind Norm is Bert, his hand appears to be resting on the back of the chair.
Written by Michael Thoms.