A New Zealand garden set in a landscape of grief has been laid on a European battlefield in time for commemorations of the nation's most shattering military defeat.

The poppy-shaped garden near the Belgium village of Passchendaele features 846 bronze inlays - each one a tribute to the New Zealand Division soldiers cut down by German fire in a few awful hours on 12 October 1917.

Designed by Auckland landscape architect Cathy Challinor, the garden is one of a series of connecting memorials installed by countries who lost countless soldiers in the grim World War One battles on the Western Front.

A century after the Battle of Passchendaele, the scale of the tragedy still resonates. The single day's death toll remains the worst in New Zealand's history post-settlement history.

The military failure was so immense that in a few short hours 6 per cent of New Zealand's total WWI casualties occurred.

Advertisement

Soldiers were sent to certain death across a saturated killing ground churned into a muddy morass by artillery shells and ceaseless rain.

Private Leonard Hart described the scene as "nothing but utter desolation, not a blade of grass or a tree."

As the troops struggled towards Bellevue Spur and the ultimate objective of Passchendaele, thick barbed wire blocked their progress. German machine gun fire cut the men to ribbons.

Hart wrote: "Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades' eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his head was immediately shot. They were marvellous shots those Huns. We had lost nearly eighty per cent of our strength and gained about 300 yards of ground in the attempt. This 300 yards was useless to us for the Germans still held and dominated the ridge."

The pain inflicted by the defeat at Passchendaele was so complete that soldiers who survived the battle locked away their haunting memories.
The pain inflicted by the defeat at Passchendaele was so complete that soldiers who survived the battle locked away their haunting memories.

The pain inflicted by the defeat was so complete that soldiers who survived the battle locked away their haunting memories.

Gunner Bert Stokes, writing home after the disaster, admitted that "some of the sights l've witnessed have hit me very hard, various things have taken place right under my nose that l'll never forget."

But he, like other men spared death in the Flanders mud, cast aside the nightmare. "We won't say any more of these things, there's a cheerful side to all out experiences, so let's look at that side." The memorial garden, which will be dedicated next week, is partly a response by the New Zealand Passchendaele Society to ensure that all soldiers who did not come home are not forgotten. The garden reflects the theme of remembrance through native plants, visual art and literature.

Known as the New Zealand Memorial and Garden, its name in Maori is Nga Pua Mahara or the Petals of Remembrance. Pua is also a seed or flower and carries a meaning of hope for peace in the future.

Society president Iain MacKenzie believes the Gallipoli experience has shaped New Zealand's collective memory of the Great War. He wants the history Passchendaele to become as strongly etched in the national imagination as the 1915 defeat.

The society's Greg Hall inspected the garden last month. Because of an unusually dry summer, planting had been delayed. And though the garden was unfinished Hall said felt it was installed in a special and peaceful setting.

Located in Passchendaele Memorial park on the grounds of Zonnebek Chateau, the garden is reached by a path through a leafy forest.

The chateau houses the Passchendaele museum, a rich collection of documents, photographs and war material. It is just 3km from Tyne Cot Military Cemetery, where the main Passchendaele commemorations take place next week on the actual date of the battle.

Passchendaele memorial garden built in NZ and shipped to Belgium opened October 2017 to coincide with the centenary. Photo / Supplied
Passchendaele memorial garden built in NZ and shipped to Belgium opened October 2017 to coincide with the centenary. Photo / Supplied

Hall said he spent some reflective time around the garden, and was moved by the sense that he was in part of New Zealand. He is certain those paying respects will feel the same when they encounter familiar plants and the ruru, tui, and kereru cut from metal and late additions to the garden. The NZ native birds share the space with a Belgium skylark, a bird soldiers reported hearing on the battlefield when the guns fell silent.

Another familiar connection visitors will sense are the words to Chris Mullane's evocative Poppies and Pohutukawa, a song the Vietnam War veteran and society vice president wrote as a tribute to soldiers and their families. The lyrics have been cast in bronze and set in a stone curve.

The garden, like the young New Zealand men who got kitted up and sailed across the world to war, has been on its own journey. It was built from materials sourced from across the country, just like WWI fighting units were made up of soldiers drawn from towns all over the young nation.

Timaru basalt stone was used for curved pavers and aggregate from Maungaturoto features in the hard materials. Native plants used in the design were chosen for their unmistakable connection to New Zealand.

Flax was selected for its tightly bound family-like form. A curve of rata and manuka shrubs links myth and medicine. Rata's crimson bloom in Maori mythology represents the blood of Tawhaki, a warrior who died avenging his father's death. Manuka is the wonder plant with celebrated healing powers. The ground cover together conveys the idea of spilt blood, which 100 years ago soaked the sodden battlefield. Red larch planks outline the garden - the symbolic edge of a poppy flower, one of the first plants to emerge in the Flanders spring and the flower which left an indelible mark on New Zealand forces.

Besides the 846 inlays, a concrete column pierced by 2700 tiny holes stands upright in the New Zealand garden. The holes represent the final casualty count at the end of October 12, 1917.

And just as soldiers boarded vessels at the main New Zealand ports to leave for the front, the Passchendaele garden made its trip in five containers shipped from Auckland to Antwerp.

In 1917, troopships took two months or more to sail from New Zealand to the English Channel. The garden got to Europe in a little over a month.

Cathy Challinor, who in March saw her creation blessed at a dawn ceremony in front of Auckland Museum, experienced a wrench as the garden was packed away.

Landscape architect Cathy Challinor. Photo / Dean Purcell
Landscape architect Cathy Challinor. Photo / Dean Purcell

"I felt like a little piece of me was going with them," she said at the time.

This week Challinor, an Australian who has lived here for a decade, told the Weekend Herald: "On this project I really feel I am representing New Zealand and New Zealanders, and that too has been my privilege."

Challinor got involved in 2014 through her employer Boffa Miskell, a New Zealand environmental design firm. She met the society where she was struck that its vision embraced a humanity and a willingness to "engage with the poetical possibilities of landscape expression."

"I actually felt quit emotional when presenting the design ideas to them; to feel that the ideas had been received and deeply understood was a really special moment."

Challinor called the garden the highlight of her career. "Anyone who has the opportunity to be part of such an important and memorable project in their lifetime would feel very lucky indeed."