In 1936, two large stone guardian lions were donated to the Australian War Memorial by the burgomaster (mayor) of the Belgian city of Ypres. The lions, carved from limestone, were given to the Australian government as a gesture of friendship. In exchange, in 1938, the Memorial gave a bronze casting of C. Web Gilbert’s sculpture Digger on behalf of the Australian government. The inscription on the casting of Digger reads:
In assurance of a friendship that will not be forgotten even when the last digger has gone west and the last grave is crumbled.
The lions had originally stood on plinths on either side of the Menin Gate at Ypres. This gate was one of only two entries into the medieval fortified city. It was through this gate that allied soldiers, including Australians, marched to the battlefields of the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918. After the war, the Menin Gate was chosen as the site for a memorial to the thousands of allied soldiers who were killed in the area but had no known grave. The memorial consists of an imposing archway surmounted by a recumbent lion and it is inscribed with the names of 54,900 dead from Britain and Commonwealth countries. It was opened in 1927.
The lions had been toppled from their plinths by the shellfire which, during the course of the war, had reduced much of the city to rubble. 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 September 1936, the building was not yet complete and lacked a suitable space to display them properly, although the lion with the missing leg was displayed by itself for several years. It was decided in 1985 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. The work was done by Kasimiers L. Zywuszko, a Polish-born sculptor, with the assistance of period photographs obtained from Ypres. It was completed in 1987.
The lions returned to display in 1991. After double checking the load-bearing capacity of the foyer floor, the lions were lifted by crane over the Memorial steps and placed inside the front entrance.
On 5 September 2014, the Menin Gate lions were removed from display and went on loan to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, returning in mid-2015.
Currently, the Menin Gate lions are in their original home in the city of Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, as part of commemorations of the First World War. The lions will return to the Memorial in Canberra after Remembrance Day 2017.
The Menin Gate lions at the entrance of the Australian War Memorial
Elizabeth Burness, “The Menin Gate lions”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial 13 (October 1988): 48–49
John Richardson, "Menin Gate lions return to display", Journal of the Australian War Memorial 18 (April 1991): 67-68
- Menin Gate lion collection record
- Memorial farewells Menin Gate lions and painting for overseas loan (Australian War Memorial media release, 18 September 2014)
- Menin Gate Memorial (Australian War Memorial blog)