For 16 year old Aunoa Uele, her prize winning trip to France in September, has opened up her thinking, challenged her senses and fired up her feelings of patriotism.
An essay written on ‘what sacrifices by Samoans and Allied servicemen and women during the First World War mean to you”, won the Samoa College student the trip of a lifetime in September this year.
The journey with other Pacific students from Niue, Tonga and the Cook Islands to take part in the 100th anniversary of the First World War took her to France, first to Paris, and then to Somme – the scene of a major battle.
The competition was sponsored and organised by the New Zealand High Commission and included other cultural activities including visits to museums, Paris landmarks and meetings with other students.
“The purpose of offering this trip is to link our youth back to the past,” said N.Z. Deputy High Commissioner, Mike Walsh.
“And we are reconnecting youth with the sacrifices that were made.”
“Going to Somme was very emotional,” said Aunoa. “There was so much to learn. About the soldiers being far away from home; the conditions of life in the trenches; the different food; foreign languages being spoken and the fact that so many men had lied about their ages and were very young.”
Added to that, she said, was that many who saw war as an adventure, had no idea they would be away for so long.
“We learned that it was so terrible that many of the men who returned from war didn’t want to think or speak about it ever again.”
What became a personal Pacific link for Aunoa was learning that an Irish/Cook Islander, Private William Caffery had not returned from the war.
Private Caffery married a Cook Islander, Rongomate Veia and the couple had two children before he enlisted in the 1916 Auckland Rifles Regiment, the unit that took him to his death in Somme.
Private Caffery’s great granddaughter Annie, is married to a Samoan and lives in Apia with their family. One of her two sons looks uncannily like his great, great, grandfather.
“We had been looking for his (Private Caffery’s) grave,” said Aunoa.
She eventually learned that he was not buried in his own plot, but his name was recorded on a wall with that of other soldiers whose remains were not found.
“I felt connected to him. I had strong patriotic feelings because he gave up his life and also being able to acknowledge him and leave a poppy ‘as a remembrance’.”
“The Dawn Parade and Service at Somme was very moving.
“People talked about the war, some about their ancestors and people laid wreaths.
“Our Pacific group were called forward and we laid a wreath together.”
“As well as many people from the Pacific, there were also representatives from France and Germany whose soldiers were amongst the million killed and visitors from England and America.
“We met Prince Charles who was a special representative from England.”
Learning new information about the war which had taken place at Somme was not limited to the young students.
“Many people over there were unaware that we had contributed to the war effort,” said Aunoa.
Following the commemoration in Somme, it was back to Paris where Aunoa was billeted by a French family where she experienced the challenges of language communication.
Catching up with a friend of her mother’s and an uncle was an added bonus before flying back to Samoa via Singapore and Auckland.
The three Pacific students she travelled with had many mutual interests.
“But they were so much more than their biographies (revealed)”, she laughed.
The whole experience she said, has convinced her of several beliefs. “There are so many opportunities, you should go for it. There is so much to see and learn in the world.”
“It was such an honour to represent Samoa, and I am very grateful to the New Zealand High Commission for this opportunity.”
(With thanks for extra information and a photograph of Private William Caffery, from Mrs. Annie Petaia)