ABRAHAMS, VIVIAN RUDOLPH
(June 5, 1889 — February 3, 1965)
Overseer, Penang and Rewa
Member of 1st contingent of volunteers from Fiji to WWI
2nd Lieutenant, 4th Battalion, King’s Royal Riffle Corp, WWI
2nd Lieutenant, Fiji Defence Force & Army Reserve 1920-1939
Inspector of Labour, Fiji Civil Service
CSR, Rarawai 1924-1942
Captain, 2nd (Territorial) Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment, WWII
Civil Aviation Authority 1948-1955
Fluent in Fijian and Hindi
Warden, Anglican Pro Cathedral
By Michael Abrahams
My grandfather, VIVIAN RUDOLPH ABRAHAMS, was born on 5 June 1889 to parents John (b. London 1850) and Adelaide Jane nee Daniel (b. Hargraves NSW 1870), at Elliston on the banks of the Rewa River.
Vivian’s father John landed in Levuka in 1878, presumably to join his brother Abraham, (residing in Levuka since 1873), who was a partner in the local firm of Bowman and Abrahams (with extensive trading interests in the Lau Group including Lomaloma, Lakeba, Matuka, Totoya and Ono.) Or possibly to join Cohen (Lewis would later become Mayor of Adelaide SA and be knighted for his services to that city) and Abrahams also of Levuka. Bowman’s interests were purchased by Henry Marks and Co long after Abraham Abrahams returned with his family to Sydney.
John and Adelaide were married in Suva at the English Church, (as it was then known), in February 1888 and a sibling for Vivian, Esme Vera, was born in 1895 three years before her mother’s untimely death at age 28. In 1904 John acquired the Rewa Hotel, which in the Cyclopedia of Fiji is described as a ‘well known Fijian hostelry pleasantly situated on the right bank of the noble Rewa River, nearly opposite to the great Nausori mill.’ By this time Vivian had commenced his studies at King’s College, Auckland, New Zealand from where he returned to Fiji upon the death of his father in 1907. The children were made wards of the Morrison family. John Morrison was Chief Engineer of The Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s (CSR) Nausori Mill.
Vivian appears to have secured a job as a Clerk in Penang where he was residing in 1910 (Source: Fiji Times Directory and Handbook of Fiji.) In 1912 he is listed as an Overseer, in Rewa (Source: England, United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Registers, 1751-1921. Initiated Lodge of Fiji, Suva 21 October 1912.)
VR Abrahams answered the call for volunteers to fight in Europe in late 1914 – he was enrolment No. 17 in a force of 56 which made up the 1st Fiji Contingent, Fiji Defence Force (57 in total if Cpt Charles Swinbourne, who accompanied both the 1st and 2nd Contingents to England, is included.)
The contingent was farewelled by the Governor, Sir E Bickham Sweet-Escott KCMG, who hosted a luncheon for them at the Club Hotel on 31 December 1914 and they departed Fiji at midnight on 1 January 1915 on board the RMS Makura bound for Vancouver via Honolulu.
RMS Makura, with signatures of members of the Ist Fiji Contingent
The contingent arrived in Vancouver on 16 January 1915, ill prepared for the Canadian winter, having travelled in tropical dress. Thanks to the kindness of some of the women of Victoria (where the Makura made a brief stop), they were provided with warm clothing, caps and mittens for their journey across Canada. On disembarkation in Vancouver the Fijians marched to the railway station where they boarded a train for Montreal and then onwards to Halifax.
The Edmonton Daily Bulletin of 22 January 1915 reported the arrival of fifty seven Fiji Islanders in Montreal ‘en route to Britain, where they hope to enlist in Kitchener’s army …… when they reach England they will have completed a trip of 11,177 miles, the longest undertaken by any colonials rushing to the defence of the empire. The men are irregulars and are ready to be drafted for whatever purposes seems best. All are expert horsemen and accustomed to discipline and authority. It is expected they will become commissioned officers.’
The contingent sailed from Halifax on the RMS Scandinavian on 24 January 1915 bound for Liverpool – a journey not without some peril! As the Scandinavian approached its destination the Captain was advised that one or two German submarines were operating off Liverpool and that he should return to Queenstown in the south of Ireland, where according to Rifleman A Bursill and reported in the Fiji Times of 13 April 1915 ‘we had to stay for eight hours. Just before we did leave, we heard that this submarine had sunk one or two British steamers off Liverpool, so we had a lucky escape; next day we passed over the exact spot where they had been sunk, but we could not see anything about anywhere.’
The Scandinavian arrived in Liverpool, England on 1 February 2015. VR Abrahams attested in Liverpool on the same day as Rifleman (R/10204), 6/4th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), which in turn formed part of the 80th Brigade, 27th Division of the British Army.
At the time of attestation VR Abrahams’ middle name, Rudolph, was struck out and replaced by the more politically acceptable Randolph. For the duration of the war he was known as Vivian Randolph Abrahams. On the same form he gave his sister as his next of kin – Mrs Vera Cozens of Nausori and later of Matanigara Estate, Ba River.
After training in Winchester and Sheerness the soldiers from Fiji, before departing for Flanders via Le Harve, are said to have carved their initials with bayonets in the bar top of the Chandos Hotel located near Trafalgar Square in London – a tradition continued by those who followed from Fiji and other troops from the colonies. That bar top is now on permanent loan to the Defence Club in Suva, thanks to the efforts of two former Presidents, Les Lawlor (a member of the 2nd Fiji Contingent) and Len Usher.
Following their arrival in France on 1 April 1915 it was then on to Vlamertinghe, a few miles west of Ypres, by train where they re-joined their regiment, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. The Battalion’s War Diary records the arrival of ‘a draft of an officer and 100 others, including a detachment of 41 from Fiji.’
According to Captain Swinbourne, in an interview on 4 May 1915, ‘the Fiji contingent were granted a number of privileges, and not the least was the permission to retain their identity, preserving the Fiji brass badge, worn under the regimental badge, a black Maltese Cross, worn on the hat.’
Indeed, this explains the decision announced on 7 April 1915 that the Fiji Contingent was to preserve its identity as a platoon of the regiment and took its place as No. 8 Platoon (43 men), B Company in the 4th Battalion KRRC.
On 9 April 1915 they replaced the Shropshire Regiment on the front line (the notorious Ypres salient.) The Second Battle of Ypres (usually divided into four battles) commences 22 April 1915, when German troops release poison gas against Allied lines north of Ypres, the first time this deadly weapon had been used in war.
On 23 April VR Abrahams sustained a wound to his thigh. This occurred in the vicinity of Nonne Bosschen and Polygon Wood. He was initially treated by 81 and 83 Field Ambulances (operating in the Poperinghe area) and then evacuated by train to 5 General Hospital in Rouen where he was admitted on 27 April 1915. (VR Abrahams named in The Times List of Casualties published on Monday 24 May 1915, page 4, Issue 40862.)
The 27th and 28th Divisions come under heavy bombardment on 8 May at the start of the Battle of Frenzenberg Ridge. During this battle which lasted until 13 May 1915, 9 members of the First Fiji Contingent had been killed and 31 wounded. This marked the end of the Fiji Platoon.
VR Abrahams left a nearby convalescent camp on 15 May 1915 and re-joined his Battalion, in a non-combatant role.
The 27th Division remained in action in Flanders for several months before moving on to the Somme and then to a new theatre of war – the Balkan Front in November 1915 where they became part of the British Salonika Force (BSF).
In early 1916 VR Abrahams’ headquarters appear to have been temporarily relocated to Alexandria, Egypt and from there to Sidi Bishr camp in Cairo. Headquarters returned to Salonika in August 1916.
Between 30 September and 2 October 1916 27th Division KRRC was involved in the capture of Karajakois, followed by the capture of Yenikoi. Action in 1917 included the Battle of Tumbitza Farm and the capture of Homondos.
Vivian R (Randolph) Abrahams in France 1915
VR Abrahams, Lance Corporal, acting Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Mentioned in Despatches ‘for distinguished service rendered during the past six months in this theatre (Salonika) of operations’ by Lt General Milne (see The London Gazette of Friday 20th July 1917) – represented by a small bronze oak leaf emblem attached to the ribbon of the Victory Medal.
From his application to join the Fiji Civil Service after the war, it appears that he also contracted malaria whilst in Salonika. The BSF was encamped in between two malaria infested rivers, so this is probably not a surprise. There were more deaths in this theatre of war from malaria and sexually transmitted diseases than sustained on the front line.
In May 1918, after a period of leave, VR Abrahams was posted to No 11. Officer Cadet Battalion, Pirbright. I have a much-faded photo of his ‘B Company’ rugby team, which appears to had some success given the trophy proudly displayed in front of the players.
4th Battalion KRRC returned to France in June 1918 and saw action in the battles of the Hindenburg Line; pursuit to the Selle and the final advance on Picardy. There is no evidence that VR Abrahams returned to the Western Front.
VR Abrahams was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant on 3 February 1919 (see Supplement to The London Gazette, 27 February 1919). At this time, he gave his private address as 39 Lexham Gardens, London. This I discovered later was the residence of the former Governor of Fiji, Sir Everard Ferdinand im Thurn, KCMG, KBE, CB (1904 – 1910.)
Lt VR Abrahams departed Liverpool aboard the RMS Scotian on 25 March 1919 bound for St John, New Brunswick, Canada (arrived 4 April 1919) and then by train to Vancouver and sailed on board the RMS Niagara to Suva Fiji.
VR Abrahams qualified for the British War Medal; the 1914-15 Star and the Victory Medal. As an officer he had to apply for these medals and did not appear to have done so until 1935.
He is formally appointed 2nd Lieutenant, Fiji Defence Force, with effect from 1 January 1920 (see Royal Fiji Gazette, No. 65, 14 August 1920.) VR Abrahams relinquished his commission on 1 September 1921 and was allowed the continued honorary use of the rank of 2nd Lieutenant – though he appears to have been kept on a list of officers in the Army Reserve.
In 1919 he applies for and joins the Fiji Civil Service and is appointed Temporary Inspector of Labour.
Vivian Rudolph Abrahams
Maud Wilhelmina Ambler
On 9 February 1921 he married Maud Wilhelmina (Minnie) Ambler at Suva’s Pro Cathedral (Holy Trinity) by the Rev Richard T Matthews BA in the presence of Trevor Johnson, Lloyd E Ambler (bride’s brother) and, according to records of the Family History Centre of the Mormon Church, William Kearsley. Miss M Ambler, at the time, worked with the Lands Department in Suva.
My father, Maurice John Abrahams, is born in Suva on 10 June 1922.
Following a few different roles, my grandfather resigns from the Fiji Civil Service and joins CSR Ltd in Rarawai in 1924, where he remains for the next 18 years.
Father and son Rarawai c. 1935
In 1938 reference to 2nd Lieutenant VR Abrahams having been in the Army Reserve appears in The Half Yearly Army List for the Period Ending 31st December 1938 (published by HM Stationery Office, London.)
I discovered in the Chamberlain papers at Birmingham University that my grandfather had written to the British Prime Minister on 14 November 1938 as follows (conveyed to the PM through the offices of the Governor, Sir Harry Luke):
“Your Excellency, I have the honour to report that, at the ex-Servicemen’s dinner held at Ba on November 11th, at which twenty-nine were present, it was decided unanimously – to request Your Excellency to convey to the Right Honourable Mr Neville Chamberlain: ‘That this meeting of ex-Servicemen appreciate the Prime Minister’s actions on behalf of the British Empire, and express confidence in his leadership.’ I have the honour to be, Sir, Your faithful and obedient servant, Vivian R. Abrahams”
Lieutenant VR Abrahams joins the local rifle company (approximately 100 strong) when compulsory training is introduced in the districts of Lautoka and Ba on 24 August 1939, after it became obvious that war in Europe could not be avoided.
In an interesting historical aside, the New Zealand Herald of 30 March 1940, under the banner Victory Tribute, reported on “the presentation to HMS Achilles of a silver tankard, commemorating the River Plate engagement against the Graf Spee, in which the ship took a prominent part, was made yesterday by Captain VR Abrahams on behalf of the Fiji Defence Force. The tankard, which is decorated with the arms of the force, bears the inscription: ‘To HMS Achilles from the 1st Battalion, Fiji Defence Force, to commemorate the victory of the River Plate.’
In making the presentation to Captain W E Parry, commanding the Achilles, Captain Abrahams described how, on receipt of the news of the Graf Spee engagement, all work ceased in Fiji for a day, and those who knew Fiji would be able to imagine the celebrations that took place. He felt it was an honour to set foot on board a ship whose deeds were hallowed by her recent victory.
Captain Parry asked Captain Abrahams to thank Major C Brewster, commanding officer of the 1St Battalion, Fiji Defence Force, for the handsome gift. He said all his officers appreciated the great voluntary effort made by all ranks of the Fiji force. All in the Achilles look forward to revisiting Suva. Following the presentation Captain Abrahams lunched on board with Captain Parry.”
In 1942 he is officially called up. Captain VR Abrahams, 2nd (Territorial) Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment is deemed to be on loan to the Fiji Government from CSR from 18 March 1942 in response to the move south of the Japanese.
After military service (1942-47), he returns to CSR and retires from the Company in 1948.
My grandfather’s fluency in Fijian and Hindi sees him recruited by the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (1948-1955) to take charge of labour relations during the construction of the new Nadi International Airport.
My grandparents in Suva c. 1963
In 1955 he returns to Suva and in retirement remains active in many areas including the welfare of ex-servicemen and as a Warden of the Anglican Pro Cathedral (which is recognised on a plaque in the entrance hall.) My grandfather died on 3 February 1965 aged 75 years at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital and was buried, with full military honours, in the family plot at Suva Cemetery alongside his mother and father.
As a footnote my grandfather was one of a 115 members of the Fiji Rugby Union who volunteered to fight overseas in WW1. It was intended these persons names be ‘inscribed on a marble tablet which will be affixed in some conspicuous place as an everlasting memento of those who have left Fiji in the cause.’ The Roll of Honour did not eventuate. I live in hope that this may yet come to pass, even if it is the descendants who pay for it.
Entry By: Michael Abrahams, Sydney, Australia.