ACT News

War Memorial's Menin Gate lions to return to Ypres for Passchendaele centenary

The 192-year-old stone lions guarding the entrance to the Australian War Memorial are about to leave Canberra on a round-the-world trip that will see them return to the Belgian city of Ypres in time for the centenary of the battle of Passchendaele in 2017.

The Menin Gate lions will initially travel to Canada for inclusion in an Iron Harvest exhibition at that country's national war museum and will be accompanied by the painting Menin Gate At Midnight.

Back to Belgium: War Memorial director Brendan Nelson with the lion sculptures from Menin Gate.
Back to Belgium: War Memorial director Brendan Nelson with the lion sculptures from Menin Gate. Photo: Jay Cronan

The lions, which were gifted to Australia by the burgomaster of Ypres in August 1936, will return to Canberra in 2018.

AWM director Dr Brendan Nelson laid the groundwork for the loan while he was Australia's ambassador to NATO, the European Union and Belgium in 2010.

Officers Benson, Hartigan and Jackson of the 9th Lancers at the Menin Gate, February 1915.
Officers Benson, Hartigan and Jackson of the 9th Lancers at the Menin Gate, February 1915. Photo: From the collection of Geoffrey Winthrop-Young

A work crew will remove the lions in preparation for their shipment to Canada after the conclusion of the Last Post Ceremony on Friday.

"This [the loan of the lions to Belgium for the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres of which Passchendaele was a part] is really important because 18,000 Australians were killed in the Ypres Salient in WWI," Dr Nelson said.

"Almost every one of those 18,000 Australians (just under a third of all the diggers killed in World War I) would have passed between the two statues as they marched down the Menin Road."

Dr Nelson said 6169 Australians had their names inscribed on the Menin Gate, the massive arch built after the war to honour 54,900 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the salient but whose bodies were never found.

Coming to Canberra: The boxes containing the lions are loaded on a train by Ypres workmen Remi Loison and Theo Tanghe in ...
Coming to Canberra: The boxes containing the lions are loaded on a train by Ypres workmen Remi Loison and Theo Tanghe in August 1936. Photo: Georges Vanraes

"I had seen the lions before during my visits to the memorial," he told Fairfax. "It wasn't until I went to Belgium and visited the Menin Gate [memorial] that I made the connection.

"The Belgian authorities originally wanted to put the lions in the In Flanders Fields Museum. I said `they are already in a museum; if they are not going to be at the Menin Gate where they originally were, then they are not going'," he said.

"They will [again] welcome people travelling the Menin Road into Ypres. They will probably be lit, housed in ultra-strong glass cases and remain in situ for at least six months and probably nine."

Dr Nelson said while some of his staff had been concerned the lions might sustain damage, he felt that they had been through the worst they could endure already.

"German artillery targeted the gate because it was a choke point and all the soldiers coming in and out of Ypres had to pass through it."

By the time the Australian high commissioner, former prime minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, spotted the lions in 1936, they were in a bad way.

One had lost a foreleg; the other had been reduced to a head and a trunk. They were repaired by Polish-born sculptor Kaisimiers L. Zywuszko in the 1980s with the new sections deliberately coloured to stand out from the old.

The two lions were finally displayed together in 1991. This is the first time they have left the AWM since then.