The iconic Menin Gate lions, past which thousands of Australian and other allied forces marched on their way to the Western Front battlefields, have been returned to Australia from Belgium and are back on display at the Australian War Memorial.
From 1822 the stone sculptures bearing the Ypres coat of arms stood at the entrance to the town’s civic and commercial centre, the Cloth Hall, before being moved to either side of the road leading towards the nearby town of Menin in the mid-nineteenth century.
They remained at what became known as the Menin Gate during the First World War, even as Ypres was reduced to ruins by German artillery fire.
The statues had been at the Menin Gate during the period of the First World War, particularly that period in September through to October and November of 1917, when literally thousands of soldiers marched through the gate because it led to the battlefields which were to the east of Ypres.
From the Australian sense, there were about 13,000 men who were killed, many of whom have no known grave. There are more than 6,000 Australian names on the Menin Gate and all five divisions and all 60 Australian battalions went through the fighting at Ypres, so in many ways it touched all of the Australian Imperial Force
The lions, broken and scarred, were recovered from the rubble, and in 1936 the Burgomaster of Ypres presented them to the Australian government as a token of friendship and an acknowledgement of Australia’s sacrifice in the region during the war.
Both lions were deeply chipped across their backs, and one had lost its right foreleg. The other had been badly damaged on one side of its head, and major damage elsewhere had reduced it to only a head and trunk ending just below the ribcage.
When the lions arrived at the Memorial in 1935 the building was not yet completed and lacked a suitable place to display them properly. In 1985 it was decided to reconstruct the missing pieces of each lion in such a way that it would be obvious what was original and what was reconstructed. The reconstructed portions were designed so that they could be dismantled to return the sculptures to their original state should that prove necessary. Work was completed in 1987.
But an initiative between the Belgian, Flemish, and Australian governments saw the lions temporarily returned to the Menin Gate between April and November 2017 to mark the centenary of one of the most costly campaigns of the First World War, the Third Battle of Ypres, often known simply as “Passchendaele”.
The Australian Government has announced it will produce replicas of the Menin Gate Lions and gift them to Ypres in recognition of the 100th anniversary of Australians serving in Flanders during the First World War. Australia’s gift of a reproduction of the Lions is symbolic of shared history as allies in the First World War.
Instead of a speaker at our museum on 4th November we will be showing the AWM DVD, The Menin Gate Lions. You can “Bear witness to an emotional journey as the lions return to home soil for the first time in more than 80 years. Recommended for mature audiences. For more information