Everyone who visits Ypres on a battlefield tour, or for any other reason for that matter, has to pay a visit to the world’s best known war memorial; the Menin Gate.
There has always been a gate on this site and it has been called many things. Firstly, in the middle ages it was known as the Hangwaert Gate meaning the gate leading to the gallows field. When this was rebuilt for defence purposes it was renamed the Antwerp Gate and became more of a sally port into the city. When Vauban modernised the defences of Ypres and the ramparts, the Antwerp Gate was reinstated as an actual gateway.
In 1792 the invasion of the French Revolutionary Army saw its name change once again to, the Napoleon Gate but after his defeat at Waterloo it was renamed for the last time, The Menin Gate, logically because it linked Menin Street with the Menin Road.
Following the creation of an independent Belgium, sections of the city’s defences were dismantled and the Menin Gate nothing more than a covered passage. In 1862 it was decided to demolish this and replace it with a 13-metre wide causeway driven through the ramparts. The finishing touch to this causeway was the addition of two stone lions placed either side of the road. And there they sat from 1862 protecting the entrance to Ypres.
The lions were sculpted by Monsieur Dubois of Zennik in 1822 and stood either side of the monumental staircase on Market Square which gave access to the bell tower of the Cloth Hall. The staircase was removed during restoration work and the lions stored at an unknown location until they were mounted on a two-metre high pedestal at the Menin Gate.
When the First World War broke out and the Germans invaded Belgium, the locals filled the mouths of the lions with straw in the belief that the Germans would never enter Ypres until the lions had eaten the straw, or so the legend goes. The Germans ignored this and on 7th October 1914, German Uhlans entered the city through the Menin Gate. This was the only time the Germans occupied the city through the war. They left in a hurry on 13th October when a British Cavalry division approached the town and entered it.
The lions survived the First Battle of Ypres and had no damage inflicted on them. The proof of this is a photograph taken in February 1915. It shows Rex Benson and Cornet Jackson of the 9th Lancers, along with Herbert Hertigan of the 4th Dragoon Guards, posing in front of one of the lions.
The lions also survived the Second Battle of Ypres and despite the ‘Big Bertha’ howitzers inflicting much damage on the town, they failed to knock the lions off of their pedestals. However, German artillery began to target the gate because it was a choke point and all the soldiers coming in and out of Ypres had to pass through. By the time the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) had come to a close the lions had disappeared into the rubble of which the ramparts and the causeway had become.
When hostilities ended, the lions were left until they were eventually extracted from the rubble and brought to the Cloth Hall. The north lion had lost his front paw and the southern lion had been reduced to a head and a piece of hind quarters.
During the 1930s they were removed to the stonemason’s yard of De Plancke Company which was situated between the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral and there they stayed until they were spotted by Australian High Commissioner, former Prime Minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1936. Bruce asked the Burgomaster (Mayor) of Ypres if the city would donate the lions to the new Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the city council agreed. The lions, in a poor state of repair were crated up and shipped to Australia. The Northern lion stood along the famous painting by Will Longstaff, The Menin Gate at Midnight, but the more damaged southern lion was not put on display.
The lions were eventually repaired in 1985 by Polish-born sculptor Kaisimiers L Zywuszko with the new sections deliberately coloured to stand out from the old. They were finally displayed together in 1991 guarding the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
It is incredible to think that thousands of allied soldiers heading off to the battlefields would have walked through the Menin Gate between these two proud beasts on their way to the frontline between 1914 and 1918, my Grandfather included.
This year, the 192 year old stone lions are about to leave Canberra on a round-the-world trip that will see them return to the Belgian city of Ypres and to the Menin Gate in time for the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele in 2017. Dr Brendon Nelson was approached by the Belgian authorities and put this idea to him. “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.
So this year, I for one, am really looking forward to seeing these lions at the gate and taking my battlefield tour groups to Ypres for the 100th Anniversary of Passchendaele.
Lest we Forget