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Gone but not forgotten: France acknowledges Cook Islands WWI soldiers

Friday 21 April 2023 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Local, National

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Gone but not forgotten: France acknowledges Cook Islands WWI soldiers
An exact replica of the conch shell left behind in the Arras tunnel in France during World War I was gifted to the descendants of the three Cook Islands soldiers by the Mayor of Arras Frédéric Leturque. From left: Isaac Solomona, Minister George “Maggie” Angene, Mayor of Arras, Frédéric Leturque and Numangatini Tangi Ariki. MELINA ETCHES/ 23042005

The Cook Islands soldiers who worked in the tunnels of Arras, France during World War I have not been forgotten.

Frédéric Leturque, the Mayor of Arras, who personally presented certificates of acknowledgement to the descendants of the three Cook Islands soldiers – Angene Angene (Rarotonga), Solomon Itaaka (Aitutaki) and Tau Kopungaiti (Mangaia) – said the event on Wednesday night was “a very precious moment”.

The soldiers were part of the 43 Māori Pioneer Battalion members send to assist the New Zealand Tunnelling Company at Arras, France during WWI (28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918). The tunnellers in the lead up to the Battle of Arras in 1917, developed caverns under the city of Arras and prepared 12 miles of tunnels.

Leturque and his French delegation who are visiting Rarotonga for the first time met and personally acknowledged the descendants of the soldiers – Isaac Solomona, Minister George “Maggie” Angene and Numangatini Tangi Ariki.

An exact replica of the conch shell left behind in the Arras tunnel was also gifted to the descendants by Leturque who showed gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices the soldiers had made.

Speaking on behalf of Kopungaiti’s descendants, Numangatini Tangi Ariki said: “This is a historical moment for the siblings, for the generations and for the families of Private Tau Kopungaiti.”

He thanked Sue Baker Wilson who accompanied the French delegation and has researched hundreds of military personnel files and identified 38 of the 43 Māori Pioneer Battalion who served with the New Zealand Tunnelling Company.

Private Tau Kopungaiti was born in June 1878 in the village of Oneroa, Mangaia. He was enlisted and tested on Rarotonga in September 1915 and left Aotearoa New Zealand for France in November 1916.

After returning to New Zealand in 1917, he eventually returned to his home island where he died in February 1949. However the burial site for Kopungaiti is yet to be located and documented.

“Aere ra e Papa Tau, Aere ra, may he be never forgotten.

“Thank you to the Mayor of Arras for recognising us and for being a part of our history in the Cook Islands, we are honoured to have acknowledged,” said Numangatini Ariki.

Minister Angene, who spoke on behalf of the Angene Angene family, also offered his thanks and praise to Leturque and his delegation for their commitment to visit and show their appreciation.

Isaac Solomona speaking on behalf of his grandfather Solomon Itaaka’s family said he was from the village of Tautu, Aitutaki.

When Itaaka finally returned to Aitutaki, he married and had a son. One day out fishing he stepped on a stone fish and a few days later he tragically died leaving behind his young wife and son who was only two months old, said Solomona.

Solomona only knew about his grandfather when Sue Baker Wilson reached out to him in 2015.

“That’s when the revelation of what took place in Arras came to our understanding and I can say my father never knew anything about his dad,” said Solomona.

“We are very privileged and honoured that you have taken the time to come here to present these certificates,” he said to Leturque.

The special ceremony was held at the National Auditorium on Wednesday night.

Leturque and his delegation departed Rarotonga yesterday for Aotearoa where they will attend the ANZAC service.