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Our birds: remembering Passchendaele

To the men fighting at Passchendaele, the battle was more aptly known as The Battle of Mud. The miserable conditions and loss of life seemed to typify the horrors of World War I.

During a failed attempt to capture the town of Passchendaele, more New Zealanders were killed in one day than in any other military campaign since 1840. 843 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives and gained no ground for Allied forces. In all, 5000 New Zealanders still lie in Flanders Fields where many bloody battles were fought.

Metalbird were delighted to be asked to contribute to a memorial garden in the Passchendaele Memorial Park, in the grounds of the Zonnebeke Chateau in Belgium. The NZ garden is one of seven gardens, each representing a nation involved. When seen from the air, the gardens form the shape of a poppy.

With the last-minute addition of our sculptures, we could give the NZ garden an iconic Kiwi feel, connecting it to the homes of all those lost soldiers. As Metalbird's founder Phil Walters explains, it was an honour to be included.

"I got called out of the blue from a guy called Chris - and I was like, hell yeah! I loved everything about it. I knew a bit about Passchendaele and was very moved by it."

Creating the birds

Phil began working with the plans for the gardens alongside the lead deisgner, Cathy Challinor, who identified five sites for our birds. Based on restrictions of these sites, Phil evolved the designs to include a ruru (NZ native owl), a kereru (wood pigeon), piwakawaka (fantail) two tui and a Belgian skylark - a bird often heard singing during lulls in battle.

With designs for each of the silhouetted birds finalised, Phil also needed to decide how they would be installed.

Phil explains:

"I created a new tui, and morphed some existing designs onto different branches and different mounts, out of necessity more than anything. At the end of the day, stuff needs to work with the site. For example, the tui are sitting on a bit of flax mounted in-ground, with a specific flax flower that Chris wanted."

A lone Kereru was bolted to the central concrete column, drilled with a bullet hole for each of the soldiers lost. At first, this caused concern that the bolts would ceate splits on the concrete.

"We got an engineer involved who'd done the original concrete. The column was so symbolic of the whole thing so we needed to be careful."

Installation made easy

With our Amsterdam outpost, we were well positioned to deliver the birds - we manufactured them in Europe, and Phil drove them to the site to install.
As Phil says, the whole thing seemed to come together perfectly.

"We could make them there so there'd be no shipping issues, and I chucked them in the van, delivered and installed them. The whole thing really worked. I was so chuffed to be part of the process, and we just happened to have a good capability to do it."

Reflecting on Passchendaele

During his visit, Phil took some time to visit the cemetery and reflect on the lives lost.

"The gravity of being there - and the number of people walking around, visiting the site - it's sobering."

The gardens opened in October 2017, and Phil is looking forward to returning to see how the birds have bedded in, rusted and settled into the environment.
Placed subtly around the garden, they add a moment of discovery for visitors, who regularly comment on them.

"When Kiwis go there and see them, it's nice to have a bit of familiarity - that moment of recognition."

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