|The damage inflicted by the German Navy on the commercial district of Papeete, September 22nd, 1914|
For much of 2013, I was absorbed in reading books about or set in the First World War. Most recently I read “Life Class” by Pat Barker and “The Home Front” by Sylvia Pankhurst and dipped into “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, which made me cry as much as the first several times I read it. All this reading has been for the purposes of Albion’s Millennium to help me keep my facts straight about life on the home front - about convalescent hospitals, munitions factories, and Zeppelin raids.
We tend to remember World War I as a European conflict, but across the other side of the world in Tahiti, the war was just as present and vivid and the national enmities just as strong. Tahiti as a French colony was automatically a combatant in the European conflict.
The biggest event of the war on Tahitian soil took place only weeks after war was declared. On the morning of September 22nd 1914, two warships hove into view beyond the reef at Papeete. The cruisers – large and grey and menacing – flew no identifying flags. A big crowd gathered on the shore to watch the ships including the Governor and the Bishop of Papeete. Ex-Queen Marau was there with her daughters as was her brother 64-year-old Tati Salmon.
Rumors and counter-rumors ran rife among the crowd. Were they German ships? What were their intentions? A bugle began to be played at the barracks to sound the call to arms, and the local defense troops hurried to man the town’s defenses. People started running along the streets, carrying bundles, getting ready to flee up into the mountains behind the town. Even the Governor’s wife was seen getting into an official car with her belongings.
Suddenly without any warning the cruisers began firing 8½ inch shells over the heads of the spectators on the shore. At first the guns were aiming at a small fort in the hills, but many shells fell in the heart of the town. Fires were soon raging throughout the commercial quarter where the buildings, nearly all made of wood, burned quickly. Clouds of black smoke also came from the 2,000 tons of coal stored at the naval dockyard, which the local commander had ordered to be set alight so it couldn’t be seized by the Germans.
Marau rushed back to her house. Her relatives urged her to join the exodus inland, but she was loath to leave town because her 25-year-old son Ernest Salmon was one of the defenders.
|Ex-Queen Marau of Tahiti|
|Princess Takau Pomare|
Before they left, Marau’s younger daughter Takau ran through the town to fetch Ernest’s wife Josephine who was eight months pregnant with her first child. The two women had just left Josephine’s house when it was hit by a shell and burst into flames. After delivering Josephine to Marau, Takau insisted the car leave without her while she ran back to her mother’s house to rescue her little dog whom she found hiding terrified under a sofa. With shells flying perilously all around, she and the dog managed to find a place in another car full of people heading inland.
Tati watched the whole barrage from under a tree in front of the American Embassy. He wrote in a letter to Henry Adams, “I think it was the flag, the stars and stripes at the top of the flagpole, which saved the houses behind it [including] Marau’s house (our old one) and... the old palace.” The German ships fired more than a hundred shells at the city in total. After over an hour of constant firing, the guns suddenly ceased and, under cover of a sudden squall of rain, the warships sailed away to the north. By this time, two onlookers had been killed, and all of the buildings up to the Catholic cathedral had been destroyed by the fire, including Papeete’s famous Municipal Market, a total of £150,000 worth of damage.
Meanwhile, up in the mountains, members of the Teva clan erected a native shelter for ex-Queen Marau and her family, and her sister Manihinihi was able to supply food and other necessities from her own house which was nearby. The women saw the cruisers withdraw but feared they might make a landing at another part of the island. It would be three days before the commander of the local defenses sent word to the women that it was safe to return to town. The excitement had been too much for Josephine Salmon. Two days after returning to Papeete, she gave birth one month early to Marau’s grand-daughter, Monique.
|Lieutenant George Darsie Jnr|
Since the end of the civil war in 1847, peace had reigned on Tahiti, so the bombardment was a rude awakening, bringing home the grim reality that this would truly be a global war. While there was to be no fighting on Tahitian soil, a total of 1,057 young men from Tahiti and nearby islands sailed to Europe to serve in the French army. The Battalion Mixte du Pacifique (BMP) played a key role in the capture of three strategic towns from the Germans in the second Battle of the Marne and received a citation for valor. Queen Marau’s son Ernest was one of the Tahitian poilus as was Norman Brander’s son Jock. Both survived the war, but 17 other men from the Salmon/Teva clan were not so lucky. Another member of the family ‒ George Darsie, one of Titaua’s two sons with her second husband ‒ also served, in this case in the British Army in the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. He was fatally wounded in July 1918 at the second Battle of the Marne – the same battle in which his cousins from the far South Pacific played such a vital part.