National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

The Railwaymen in Samoa

Workers of the NZ Railways Section opposite Vaea Camp, Samoa (NAM 2003.100)

Workers of the NZ Railways Section opposite Vaea Camp, Samoa (NAM 2003.100)

The WWI exhibition Samoa: An Urgent and Imperial Service tells the relatively unknown story of the occupation of Samoa at the start of the war. New Zealand was asked to neutralise the German wireless station capable of sending long range Morse signals to Berlin.

The Company of NZ Railway (NZRE) were important in getting an existing narrow gauge tramway operational so stores and troops could be moved from Apia to the wireless station 6.4km inland. They rather grandly described themselves as the ‘Samoa Branch, NZ Railway Department’ or ‘Apia Division, NZ Railways’.

The wireless station had been recently built to improve communications throughout German Pacific territories and was constructed by the German Sudseetelefunken Kompagnie normally referred to by the kiwis as the ‘Telefunken Company’.

The origins of the tramway are more obscure but located German reports refer to it as the ‘Feldbahnschienen der Telefunkenges’. The New Zealanders referred to it as the ‘wireless tramway’. It would have been originally built to support the construction of the wireless station but could also have been an extension of the existing coconut plantation tramways.

Whatever the original reason, the NZ railwaymen made excellent use of the railway line although some of the equipment had been removed by the Germans as the occupying force advanced.

In the months that followed, the tramway proved invaluable in getting men up to the wireless station especially when the heavy rains made the road impassable. Very quickly, the railwaymen constructed additional track to link with the camps established at Vaea and Malifa. A further extension was also laid in Apia to the Army Service Corps store.

Throughout occupation by the initial force and then later by the Garrison Force, the tramway was kept busy hauling ammunition, ballast and camp material. This included timber and shingle for the tents and roads in the new camps, and the wireless station. The ‘Apia Express’ was also used by the troops for regular outings on a Sunday when they were on leave.

As well as operating and maintaining the tramway, the men from the NZRE proved themselves useful in other ways – patrolling the area around Apia, guarding the wireless station, unloading ships, working as supply clerks, running the Samoan Postal & Telegraph Service, designing and building barracks, maintaining the wireless and telephone system, and keeping the occupation force’s small boat fleet operational. At one stage, a NZRE sergeant even became the Apia Commissioner of Police for a few months.

Whatever their duties, the members of the NZRE earned accolades as first class tradesmen.