They weigh about one and a half tonnes each and have travelled more than 30,000 kilometres in the past year alone. But now 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.
It took seven collections staff about six hours to manoeuvre the lions through the Memorial and back into position on Wednesday evening as their long journey came to an end and they once again took pride of place guarding the entrance of the 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 lions, broken and scarred, were later 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. Since 1991 the lions have been on display at the Memorial in Canberra.
But an initiative between the Belgian, Flemish, and Australian governments saw the lions temporarily returned to the Menin Gate between April and November this year 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 Memorial’s Assistant Director and Head of the National Collection Branch, Brian Dawson, said the lions symbolised the ongoing friendship between the two countries and all that they had fought for during the First World War.
“Certainly, the feeling from the people of Ieper was that they very much appreciated the gesture of the loan,” said Dawson, who is also a retired Major General with more than 40 years of service in the Australian Regular Army.
“I’d served previously in Brussels for three years in my last job as the Australian Military Representative to NATO, so I was familiar with the area of the Menin Gate, but when I first saw the lions outside the gate, even though I’d seen them in photographs, it was quite moving.