You can’t get much farther from the Western Front than Tahiti, but it was a world war. Then as still today, Tahiti and the surrounding islands were French territory.
Enter the German Navy’s East Asia Squadron, under the command of Vizeadmiral Maximilian von Spee (1861-1914). Home-ported at Tsingtao in China, when the war began most of the unit was steaming towards German New Guinea, and von Spee was ordered to divert to the island of Ponape in the Carolines to await orders.
His squadron consisted of the heavy cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisnau, the light cruisers Emden, Nürnberg and Leipzig (the Dresden was enroute), some auxiliaries and several colliers. However, at this time Emden was still at Tsingtao, Nürnberg and Leipzig were on detachment visiting the US west coast and Dresden was showing the flag in the Caribbean.
On August 6th, von Spee was ordered to the island of Pagan in the Marianas, where the Germans had a high-power wireless station. While there the squadron was reinforced by the arrivals of Emden, Nürnberg, and Leipzig, plus another auxiliary, the Prinz Eitel Friederich. On August 14th the Emden was detached to serve as a commerce raider in the Indian Ocean.
On September 8th the Nürnberg, being the fastest ship in the group at the time, was dispatched to Honolulu to get news and further orders. Upon reuniting with Nürnberg at Fanning Island, von Spee learned of the capture and occupation of Samoa by New Zealand forces, and decided to proceed there to try to engage British or Australian ships in the area. Finding none, he decided against attacking the Allied troops ashore, since doing so would risk killing civilians and damaging German property.
Instead von Spee set off for Tahiti, where the French had a depot containing 5,500 tons of coal, a tiny garrison and no wireless station. Dispatching his colliers to safety at Nuku Hiva, guarded by Nürnberg, his force arrived at Papeete, Tahiti on September 22nd . In a brief encounter they sank the French gunboat Zélée, damaged or destroyed some merchant ships (including one that was German) and were futilely engaged by a few French shore batteries. The German ships then fired over one hundred shells into the commercial center of the town, doing an estimated 2 million francs worth of damage, essentially destroying the economy of Tahiti. Due to evacuation the civilian casualties were light, with only two reported dead, and there were no military casualties on either side.
However, the locals had started a fire in the coal depot, thus denying this resource to the German squadron as they had no time to put out the blaze, so they steamed away. Their story doesn’t end here, and it doesn’t end well.
On November 3rd the fleet put into Valparaiso, Chile for the allowed twenty-four hour neutral post call, where the Dresden joined them. While there von Spee told his hosts:
“You must not forget that I am quite homeless. I cannot reach Germany. We possess no other secure harbor. I must fight my way through the seas of the world doing as much mischief as can, until my ammunition is exhausted, or a foe far superior in power succeeds in catching me. But it will cost the wretches dearly before they take me down.”
They had sunk two older British cruisers off of Coronel, Chile on November 1st, but by December 8th they were running out of both coal and luck. In a last ditch effort to refuel they aimed for the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately there was in front of them a British Task Force which significantly outnumbered and outgunned them and the German squadron was destroyed; only Dresden and the auxiliary Seydlitz survived. Dresden made it back to Chilean waters where she was scuttled in March, 1915 and Seydlitz was interned in Argentina. Von Spee and his sons Heinrich and Otto were among the 1,871 seamen lost.
However, even before the Germans attacked Papeete, WW1 had begun in Tahiti when on August 29th , 1914 165 volunteers had been sent to New Caledonia to join a new unit named Le Battalion des Tirailleurs du Pacifique (‘BTP’). The French Governor had the authority to conscript if there were insufficient volunteers, and eventually 1,057 men from Tahiti and the surrounding islands were called to the colors, out of a total population of about 32,000.
On June 4th, 1916 the BTP was sent to Europe, where the men were mostly employed as stevedores in Marseilles and Salonika, although a small number did see combat against the Bulgarians.
With the addition of an artillery battery, the unit was retitled as Le Battalion Mixte du Pacifique (‘BMP’) and transferred to the Colonial Corps on the Western Front commanded by Gen. Charles Mangin (1866-1925), known as “The Butcher”. The BMP was heavily engaged in The Second Battle of the Marne (July 15th to August 6th, 1918), and they distinguished themselves in the Oise-Aisne Offensive (August 18th to September 16th, 1918), fighting alongside the American 28th, 32nd and 77th Divisions to break the Vesle River line. On December 10th, General Mangin cited the BMP for the capture of Vesle, Caumont and Petit Caumont.
There is an impressive WW1 memorial standing in the center of the old section of Papeete, in a style evocative of La Gloire de France, which commemorates the service of the BMP and the 203 men who died.
Tahiti has another WW1 connection. After the war the former aviators Charles Nordhoff (1887-1947) of the Lafayette Flying Corps and James Norman Hall (1997-1951) of the Lafayette Escadrille took up residence on Tahiti, where each married a Tahitian and they wrote twelve books together between 1920 and 1945. Two of these are about their experiences in the air war over France, The Lafayette Flying Corps (1920) and Falcons of France (1929). Nordhoff left Tahiti in 1941 and Hall died there.
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