Passchendaele: Garden to grow in 'hell on earth' where hundreds of New Zealand troops died

By Andrew Stone

Landscape architect Cathy Challinor says designing the garden has been a career highlight. Photo / Dean Purcell
Landscape architect Cathy Challinor says designing the garden has been a career highlight. Photo / Dean Purcell

A garden made for contemplation on a World War One battlefield where New Zealand soldiers faced "hell on earth" will be built here and shipped to Europe.

The edge of the 15m diameter garden resembles a poppy, and is one of a series of connecting memorial gardens installed by the countries which took part in the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele.

All the gardens are poppy-shaped, the first flower to emerge from the churned-up soil of fallen soldiers' graves on the Western Front.

Germany, the enemy which inflicted immense damage on Allied forces, has completed its garden. The New Zealand garden has been designed and space allocated to it in the grounds of the Passchendaele Memorial Museum at Zonnebeke in the heart of the Ypres salient, a battlefield on low-lying Flanders.

The anguish of Passchendaele still resonates with the nations involved in the Belgium conflict and is mourned as one of most agonising episodes of the Great War.

In a single day - 12 October 1917 - New Zealand suffered the worst loss of life in its military history. By the end of the day, over 840 men had died, many succumbing from wounds on a battlefield so sodden from days of heavy rain that stretcher parties struggled in vain through cloying mud to reach soldiers in dreadful pain.

A survivor, Len Hart, called the carnage "the most appalling slaughter I have ever seen."

Landscape architect Cathy Challinor, who led the team from design practice Boffa Miskell which won a competition for the Passchendaele garden, says a theme of remembrance underlies the project, which features plants, visual art and words and verses which pay tribute to the fallen and remind visiting New Zealanders of their homeland.

The creative garden is composed of several elements. Red planks which represent petal edges have been installed, and a New Zealand flax sourced from an English nursery was planted in a ground-breaking ceremony by Arts Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry.

An artist's impression of the New Zealand garden in Zonnebeke which will honour the dead of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele.
An artist's impression of the New Zealand garden in Zonnebeke which will honour the dead of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele.

The hard permanent elements - the aggregate base with 846 scattered bronze inlays to acknowledge soldiers killed in the first few hours of battle, and a concrete 'memory column' pierced by 2700 pinholes to represent the wounded, dead and missing at day's end - are being made in New Zealand.

The plan is to ship the components early next year to Belgium and complete the garden before the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele. The $620,000 budget for the project is supported the Lottery Grants Board.

Challinor said plants for the garden had been chosen carefully to embrace the idea of honouring the soldiers and respecting their sacrifice for future generations.

A swathe of flax was designed to represent family, or whanau. Cultivars were selected to cope with the cool, damp environment in Belgium. A sweep of rata and manuka plants wrapped round two thirds of the garden, which Challinor said was selected to convey the soothing and healing of spilt blood.

Rata was chosen because of its connection to a Maori legend of Tawhaki, a young warrior who fell to earth and died while trying to avenge the death of his father. The plant's crimson flowers represent his blood. Manuka was picked for its medicinal qualities, its leaves and flowers having topical and infusion uses, its supple branches handy as splints.

Plans by Kiwi landscape architecht Cathy Challinor for a memorial garden at Passchendaele in Belgium.
Plans by Kiwi landscape architecht Cathy Challinor for a memorial garden at Passchendaele in Belgium.

Challinor said the plants, so obviously a homeland connection, were meant to invoke feelings of New Zealand and serve as a reminder that people at home had to keep going even in the toughest of times. A mixture of North and South Island stone would go into the circular garden concrete floor, Challinor said, which spoke to the fact that soldiers came from all over New Zealand.

The bronze inlays - one for every fatal casualty - were placed in the random way that poppy seeds would be tossed by the wind, and to convey the chaotic and far-reaching impact of war on families and communities.

Bronze was used to reinforce the gravity and significance of the memorial in a battlefield that held such a deep attachment. The memory column was placed to be experienced inside and out, with the low entrance wide enough to let a wheelchair inside and remind visitors of the confines of a trench.

It was open to the sky to convey a sense of space, and drilled with all the tiny holes as a metaphor for the chaos of war and its long reach on the lives of so many.
Challinor said: "The column is also meant to give a sense of isolation, of being away from home and being in such a terrible place and facing all these physical challenges."

Words in the garden will be engraved in black Timaru basalt and inlaid in bronze.

Challinor plans to use a verse from Chris Mullane's Poppies and Pohutukawa, a tribute to veterans and their families which is increasingly heard at Anzac Day ceremonies. In Challinor's design, the word 'Pohutukawa' appears in the stone band in larger text so Kiwis away from home will be reminded of their heritage.

Elsewhere English and Te Reo versions of The Ode of Remembrance from Laurence Binyon's poem For the Fallen will appear in the garden floor.
Challinor said she wanted visitors to the garden to feel a sense of remembrance.
She read a lot about the conflict and tried to connect the ideas of loss, memory, remoteness and ties to New Zealand in the design. "I just want to reach as many people as possible."

An Australian by birth, Challinor married a New Zealander. "I'm an Australian designing a New Zealand memorial in Belgium. "

She says being involved with the garden is a career highlight, given that the chance to design a memorial garden tied to an event of such profound significance was unlikely to recur. "I would say this has been my most fulfilling project. The importance of this project is very special."

• A commemoration for the Passchendaele casualties is being held this morning at the Auckland Museum. It starts at 11am.

- NZ Herald

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