Compiled from service records by Deborah Ancell for the booklet “Remembering the New Zealanders in Walton-on-Thames”, produced by the New Zealand Women’s Association and sponsored by the New Zealand High Commission, London in 2017.
Terekia Taura, born 1894, was a British subject from Atiu, one of the Islands within the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Islands were an isolated and tranquil paradise of sunshine, blue skies, white sands and turquoise oceans – a world away from the misery, grey and dampness of the impending First World War.
At 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighing 185 lbs Terekia Taura was fit and healthy when he volunteered for service “for the term of war” to defend the British Empire and a King whom he had never seen and who resided thousands of miles away in England. Initially the British Army would not recruit from the Empire but eventually relented because of the prediction that the War would be lengthy.
In September 1915, 47 Rarotongans enlisted in the 1st Rarotongan Contingent to fight alongside the New Zealanders. One of the volunteers was Terekia Taura. As the recruits left the Islands, their families went into ceremonial mourning for six months as they believed they would never see their sons, brothers, husbands and uncles again.
According to records at the time of volunteering, Taura (he had no first name on the documentation) was unmarried, had never been imprisoned by the Civil power and neither belonged to – nor served in – any military or naval force. He was not registered for compulsory military training and had never been declared unfit for military service. The Army only took the fittest and healthiest to become soldiers. The medical examination certificate noted that Taura had brown complexion and eyes, black hair and he was of the Cook Islands’ Congregational religion. He had neither been ill nor had a fit and his eyes, hearing and colour vision were normal. His teeth were very good, limbs ‘well-formed’ and all of his joints were full and normal as were his lungs, heart and chest which, at 34 inches, could expand to 39 inches.
However, the Medical Examiner noted that “It is difficult to get the natives to properly inflate the chest. Practically all are more than fair divers and all are swimmers. Systematic drill would soon increase the chest capacity.” Taura agreed to be vaccinated and since he was illiterate, he signed the permission slip with an ‘X’. Like his colleagues, Taura could not speak English but was probably able to communicate with the New Zealand Maori soldiers. It is likely too that Taura, again like his fellow Islanders, was unused to the military uniform (particularly the boots) and the Army diet. On enlistment, he also signed his commission papers with an ‘X’ “as his mark” since he had not passed the “Fourth Educational Standard or its equivalent”. He was given his rank and as “Private Taura” Reg. No. 16/1202 he joined his fellow Rarotongans in the 3rd Maori Contingent of the NZEF. As one of 47 Rarotongans he was sent to Narrow Neck Camp in Auckland for training from 30th September 1915 until 4th February 1916.
On 5th February 1916 the Expeditionary Force embarked on HMNZT Navua bound for Suez, Egypt where they disembarked on 15th March 1916. Following a month in Egypt, on 9th April 1916, Private Taura was posted to the Western Front in France during a particularly harsh winter. Once there, the men dug trenches in the Battle of the Somme while being subjected to heavy shelling, gas attacks and bombing from the air. Six days later, on 15th April 1916, Private Taura made his Last Will and Testament so that in the event of his death, his estate would be inherited by Ua Maratai and Tukuvaine believed to be his parents on Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
In October 1916 Private Taura’s casualty form noted that he developed tonsillitis and with hindsight, this probably marked the onset of his fatal illness. He was transferred to England on the hospital ship (HS) St Dennis on 21st October 1916 via Boulogne and admitted to the 2nd New Zealand General Hospital at Walton-on-Thames, England on 8th November 1916. His medical notes recorded that the “Patient cannot speak English but so far as can be ascertained he reported sick with enlarged gland in the neck and cough. He was found to be feverish. The note which accompanied him from France recorded that he had signs of trouble in the left upper chest.” This was most likely the first apparent symptom of his tuberculosis. His hospital notes also recorded that he arrived with a cough and a neck wound with accompanying pain in his abdomen and glands. His body temperature fluctuated from 103 degrees Farenheit in the evening to 100 degrees in the morning. However, following the removal of an infected gland and confirmation of tuberculosis, no further operation was offered. The opinion of the Medical Board at an undecipherable date was that he should be returned to New Zealand by special transport as permanently unfit and to be paid a pension owing to his disability as a result of active service exposure. Private Taura was now diagnosed as permanently disabled and the doctor felt he would be unable to earn a living for “six months at least”.
By 6th November 1916 he was recorded as “seriously ill”. At that time, it would have taken many months for letters from the Cook Islands to have reached him (assuming there was someone literate to write them) and similarly for news of his condition to have reached his home. Private Taura was just 23 years old when he died on 8th January 1917 at Walton-on-Thames – a very long way from Atiu. There is a note that on 9th January 1917 a telegram was sent but to whom is unknown. Ultimately, of those first volunteers, eight had died from sickness, one from being shot and one from wounds.
After his death, it was noted on 29th August 1919 by the Controller of the Soldiers’ Estates Division of the Public Trust Office in Wellington that Private Taura’s estate was paid to the widow of his father through the Resident Commissioner, Cook Islands “upon his recommendation”. (His father had died intestate on 1st September 1917 – some nine months after his son.)
From 30th December 1922 onwards, Private Taura’s plaque, scroll and medals were eventually forwarded to the Resident Commissioner in the Cook Islands “for disposal to next of kin in order of relationship”. It would appear that he posthumously received the British War Medal (with red chevrons) and the Victory Medal (with blue chevrons). However, it was not until 1st October 1923 (some six years after his death) that these medals were noted as ‘complete’ which might mean they were finally given to Private Taura’s family.
Private Taura was buried in Walton-on-Thames Cemetery on 16th January 1917. We do not know who attended his service or burial or when his family discovered the sad news. His name without any initials is engraved on the wall plaque in the Church interior and on the stone memorial in the Cemetery. The inscription reads ‘Private Taura’. But behind that simple inscription lies a much deeper story – of the sacrifices made by a family and a nation to preserve freedom under a King they never knew and for an Empire of which their island was a very small and loyal member.