So here we are again, back at the Menin Gate, and if there was ever a time to visit, this was it.
Why so, I hear you cry?
Well, here’s a photo taken back in 2008, and it’s fair to say that not only were the environs of the memorial somewhat chaotic back then, but there was only one lion, and he sits atop the memorial, gazing out to the battlefields away to the east where the majority of the men whose names are listed on the panels he guards lost their lives.
And here’s a photo of a much more peaceful scene photographed a few weeks ago.
My recent flying visit to Flanders had two main objectives, namely to see the Zonnebeke Church dugouts, and to visit the lions. The lions I refer to are the Menenpoort lions, back where they stood for maybe sixty years before the Great War (see inset photos).
In the 1820s the two lions had been placed on either side of the steps leading to the entrance to the Cloth Hall in the centre of Ypres, and in the mid-19th Century were relocated at the Menenpoort, one of two entrances to the old mediaeval city.
And there they stayed, one on each side of the road on specially built brick plinths, as the earlier insets show, until the Great War and the Germans intervened.
The lions survived the early months of the war intact,…
…and they were certainly still here in 1915,…
…as the inset photo below, of Australian officers, shows, but at some point they were toppled from their plinths by German shellfire and then removed to prevent their total destruction.
…the Cloth Hall visible through the arch as we cross the road.
Whether they had already sustained all the damage that you can see in some of the old photos, or whether more occurred at some later time while they were in storage (for storage, I suspect read stonemason’s yard or similar) in Ypres, I do not know. And quite where they were for the next twenty one years until we pick up their story again, I also cannot tell you (but I suspect the stonemason’s yard was as good a place as any).
What can be said is that in 1936, when the Mayor of Ypres at the time offered them to the Australian government (for display at the new Australian War Memorial as a gesture of friendship), the lions were both in poor condition, deeply scarred across their backs from shell fragments, one missing a leg, the other missing part of its head and much of its body below the ribcage (again, see foreground of right inset above, in case you missed it), and both shieldless.
In September 1936 the two lions arrived at the yet-to-be-completed Australian Memorial in Canberra, which once completed did not have a suitable space to display both of them (I have often thought this somewhat dubious – surely they could have been displayed somehow? I reckon they only wanted to display the least damaged one).
And indeed there was room for the more complete lion to be displayed, and so it was, without its twin, for many years, until 1985, when some Aussie genius came up with the idea of not just restoring the two lions, but reconstructing the missing sections of each lion as identically as possible from available photos, and in a way where it would be obvious which pieces were original and which were not (I believe the new pieces can be removed leaving the lions in their 1936 state if necessary), but retaining the integrity of the original pieces. Brilliant, in my book.
And so a Polish-born sculptor called Kasimiers L. Zywuszko was commissioned to recreate the missing pieces, and he completed the work in 1987, in 1991 both lions returning to the Australian War Memorial to, for the first time, be displayed together just inside the front entrance.
During the Great War centennial commemorations, between 2014 & 2015, the two lions spent the best part of a year at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, and now, until today, here they are in their rightful positions at the old Menenpoort, after which they will once more return to Australia. But they will be replaced at the Menin Gate by two reproductions, a gift of the Australian Government.
Anyway, it’s ever so nice to see them back, if only temporarily,…
It’s a good job they did remove the lions in 1915; if you take a note of the houses and the trees in the inset photo above, and compare them with the inset photo below, you will notice that both photos are of the Menenpoort, and that the lions would have had little chance of survival had they been left there.
And finally, a couple of inset photos showing one of the lions finally being hoisted into its new position at the Australian War Memorial in 1991, and both lions in position on either side of the entrance to the War Memorial (below).
“Far, far from Ypres I long to be, where German snipers can’t snipe at me,
Damp is my dug-out, cold are my feet,
Waiting for whizz-bangs to send me to sleep.”