Passchendaele – The concrete garden of remembrance

Passchendaele – The concrete garden of remembrance

Article written for The New Zealand Herald by Andrew Stone, News Editor, 12 October.

The dedication in Belgium of New Zealand’s Passchendaele garden will be immensely satisfying for a specialist Auckland firm. Jagas Paving & Precast made the components which were assembled in a leafy forest on what 100 years ago was the resting place for 846 New Zealand soldiers killed in a single day of conflict.

Warwick Smith, general manager of the East Tamaki precast concrete company, said the contract to create the garden was one of the most rewarding projects of his career.

Click to see a video of the garden here.

He said staff spent long hours pouring concrete and designing moulds to make all the elements of the memorial. The firm was approached because it had done work in the past for landscape consultants Boffa Miskell, which won a design competition for the garden. “And l think because we were mad enough to take it”, he joked.

For the pavers at the base of the design, bronze inlays representing the fallen troops were glued down and covered in hard mix. The solution set in two days, when the 1.2 tonne pavers were lifted and sandblasted to reveal the Mangutoroto aggregate concrete mix.

Smith, who went to Belgium to supervise the installation, said it was an emotional contract for the firm, given that it was designed and made in honour of young men who lost their lives in the name of New Zealand.

The garden took the firm about eight months to make, with the most challenging item being designer Cathy Challinor’s three metre tall ‘memory column’; a concrete cylinder pierced by 2700 tiny holes. The total represented the number of casualties at the end of the day’s fighting on 12 October 1917 when Allied forces suffered a punishing defeat at the hands of Germany.

“It was a problem waiting to be solved,” Smith said. “I wanted to do it. It was scary, but the question was working out how to do it.” Making the column involved using two precision cut metal cylinders with 10m plastic rods filling 2700 holes. Concrete was poured down between the cylinders to create the column.

The job was done carefully as Jagas staff had to keep turning the rods to prevent them setting in the concrete. Once the mixture had cured, the rods and cylinders were moved, leaving the finished column, which was shipped in a special cradle to protect it on the six week voyage to Antwerp.

Smith felt the finished work was a real accomplishment for Jagas Paving & Precast. The 30 tonne cargo arrived in Belgium with just one cracked paver, a problem Smith repaired with epoxy glue. He spent seven days seeing the garden placed on the Passchendaele battlefield, an experience he said left him “blown away” knowing what had happened to the young New Zealand soldiers.