Lions and kangaroos : mobilising the Anzac legend in the Ypres salient

In 1936, the Australian War Memorial acquired two stone lions that once guarded the Menin Gate entrance to the Belgian town of Ypres. The Memorial’s director, John Treloar, felt the Memorial had scored a “great scoop” because of their “historical value”. However, when the lions arrived in Canberra, it was apparent the damage they sustained during the war meant they would need to undergo some form of restoration. Unfortunately, little progress was made in this endeavour for several decades and the lions did not end up going on permanent display until 1991. In 2017, these stone beasts briefly returned to their hometown when the Australian War Memorial lent them to the Flemish city for the centenary of the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). To make up for the temporary nature of the originals’ sojourn, the Australian Government then decided to offer the Belgians permanent replicas, further strengthening the memorial bond between Canberra and Ypres. The rhetoric surrounding these acts of memorial diplomacy, past and present, has centred on the key notion that the lions symbolise the “friendship” between Australia and Belgium that was, according to the then minister for the Department of Veterans Affairs, “formed of blood, mud and tears one hundred years ago”. Unsurprisingly, such rhetoric conceals a far more complex memorial relationship between Australia and Belgium. Taking the history of the Menin Gate lions as a starting point, this article explores the evolution of Australian commemorative activity in the former Ypres salient. In doing so, it reveals the divergent commemorative aims of those involved in the lions’ exchange, with the Australians keen to promote a distinctly national First World War narrative – the Anzac legend – in a distant country where local agents emphasise the multinational nature of the conflict.