|Measurement||Overall: 150 x 154.5 cm x 59 cm|
|Physical description||calcareous blue stone|
First World War, 1914-1918
Item copyright: Copyright expired - public domain
This item is in the Public Domain
Menin Gate lions
The Menin Gate Lions are one of the most well-known objects in the Memorial’s collection, flanking the main building’s entrance through which all visitors pass. They represent the ongoing friendship between Australia and Belgium and are a reminder of the important role that Australians played in Belgium during the First World War.
The Lions are made of calcareous blue stone (sometimes also called 'little granite'), a blue-grey coloured stone from the provinces of Hainaut, Namur and Liege in Belgium. The stone is quarried exclusively in Belgium and is constituted from fossilised marine organisms. The stone used for the lions was quarried at Soignies, Belgium, where industrial extraction of the stone began in 1668 when the Wincqz family established a small mine there.
The Lions’ completion can be traced to the first half of 1822. They were originally sculpted to sit on either side of a remodelled Neo-Classical staircase, built to replace the earlier 17th century example in front of Ypres’ Cloth Hall which had fallen into disrepair. The Cloth Hall, much like a town hall, was built in the 13th century and prior to the First World War, when it was almost completely destroyed by shelling, was regarded as one of the largest and most beautiful gothic-style civic buildings in Europe. The new Neo-Classical staircase was completed on 2 June 1822, complete with Lions, which were recorded as having been carved by a sculptor known only as ‘Dubois’ from the nearby town of Soignies.
Less than 20 years later in 1848 the Cloth Hall was restored to reflect its original medieval construction. This led to the demolition of the neoclassical staircase and the removal of the Lions. Between 1848 and 1862, the lions disappeared from the public eye and are not found in any records, with parts of the staircase recycled on a pathway just outside of Ypres. In 1862 they were installed on plinths either side of the Menin Gate (one of two gates in the Ypres's defensive walls) until the First World War, however by the time Australian Troops first entered the city on 20 September 1917 the Lions were no long on their plinths, as they do not feature in photos taken of the area from that day. It was only after the War that photographs indicate the Lions soon found themselves in a rubble pile within the city walls – much of the city having been destroyed by shellfire.
For those taking part in the Third Battle of Ypres, the British offensive of 1917, the Menin Gate was the point at which they left the town behind and headed toward the battlefield. The Menin Gate holds particular significance for Australia as all of the five Australian infantry divisions on the Western Front spent a significant amount of time in and around the town. Hence, as pieces relating to the Menin Gate, the Lions hold great significant to the collective Australian and Allied memory of the First World War in Europe.
In 1936 Australian Prime Minister Bruce made a request to the Mayor of Ypres for the Lions to be gifted to Australia from the city of Ypres. This request was granted by the Ypres City Council on 8 June and soon after the lions were crated up and shipped to Canberra. It is likely that Bruce, in his role as Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, first saw the Lions himself on a visit to the city in 1923. This may have led to his request 13 years later.
Following the news of the Belgian gift of the Lions, the 'Barrier Miner' (Broken Hill; 28 August 1936, p.3) newspaper noted; 'Through this historic gate during the war marched the great armies of the British Empire, France, the United States and Belgium, who fought in the battle of Ypres'. Similarly, the 'Adelaide News' (27 August 1936, p.9) notes; 'The Menin Gate was pulled down 80 years ago, but hundreds of thousands of allied troops, including many Australians, marched through the passageway in the ramparts during the great war'. In return for the Lions, a bronze casting of Charles Webb Gilbert’s sculpture ‘The Digger’ (ART12591) was presented to the city of Ypres in 1938.
When the Lions arrived at the Australian War Memorial in September 1936, the building was not yet complete and lacked a suitable space to display them properly. Additionally, both Lions were deeply chipped across their backs, one had lost its right foreleg and the other had been badly damaged from shellfire, reducing it to only a head and trunk ending just below the ribcage. Despite this, the Lion with the missing leg was displayed by itself until 1985.
In 1985 the Memorial 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. 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.
In 1991, the Lions were put on display in the Memorial’s entryway – united for the first time since their arrival at the Memorial. They remained on display until September 2014, when they were loaned to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, returning in mid-2015. While in Ottawa, the Lions were fittingly displayed alongside Will Longstaff’s Menin Gate at Midnight (ART09807). The Lions also temporarily returned to their original home in Ypres between April and November 2017 to coincide with the centenary of Passchendaele. It was during this latter trip that the Australian government presented the city of Ypres with exact replicas of the Lions that today sit either side of the Menin Gate.