Monuments Men: Part One

Lt Col Tim Purbrick, The Royal Lancers

Lt Col Tim Purbrick

It has been more than 70 years since the British Army last had the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections during the Second World War.

Their job was to protect, stabilise and recover cultural property on the battlefields of North Africa, Italy and, after D-Day, across northern Europe.

Lt Colonel Tim Purbrick, an Army Reservist and former tank commander during Desert Storm, is Chairman of the Military Cultural Property Protection Working Group, which has been working since early 2014 towards the return of the ‘Monuments Men’ to the frontline of the British Army.

This blog will follow that journey.

During the latter stages of the Second World War a group of American and British archaeologists, museum curators and architects formed up as a curious military unit called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. Their job was to protect the cultural property where ever the conflict was being fought. This included places as diverse as North Africa and Italy, northern Europe, Greece and the Far East. The wartime activities of this specialist Allied military unit have been written about extensively and were recently portrayed by George Clooney, Bill Murray, Matt Damon and others in the movie Monuments Men.

After the war the nations of the world considered the implications of the damage, destruction and looting which had taken place during the Second World War. It was felt that the international humanitarian law extant during the war for the protection of cultural property during conflict could be strengthened. This led to the introduction of the Hague Convention (1954), which was followed by its two Protocols of 1954 and 1999. The UK signed the Convention in 1954 but did not ratify it. By not ratifying the Convention it meant that the Convention was not bought into UK law perhaps because the UK did not believe that the Convention was sufficiently strong to deter such damage, destruction and looting in future. In 2004 the Government decided that the effect of the 1999 Protocol met the criteria for ratification and announced that the Convention would be ratified at the earliest opportunity that Parliamentary time permitted.

US Military personnel recover paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration/American Jewish Historical Society/Center for Jewish History

At the back end of 2013 I was standing at the magazine racks next to my desk at Army HQ reading a fascinating article which I had written on green energy in the British Army Review, a largely internal Army magazine which was organised through the Army HQ Concepts Branch where I work for a day a week as an Army Reserve. Flicking through the other pages of the same British Army Review I came across a far more interesting article about the protection of cultural property during conflict. It had been written by Professor Peter Stone OBE of Newcastle University.

To understand why I was fascinated you need to know the three pieces of baggage that I brought to the start of Prof Stone’s article. Our family company, which I now work for, are private art dealers. We deal in Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art. I have been hanging around the business for 25 years and some of it rubbed off on me over that time! I had also spent 12 years tracking down stolen plant and equipment and stolen art and antiquities for The Equipment Register and The Art Loss Register, so I had some understanding of the issues around cultural property theft. Underlying these was been my long term interest in the activities of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections, aka the Monuments Men, in the Second World War, an interest which had been triggered by reading Lynn Nicholas’s outstanding book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. It led me to many other books on the same subject.

Fortuitously, my current post is in the Concepts Branch of Army HQ. Our job is to work with academics, think tanks, military scientists and subject matter experts to attempt to understand what the future environment looks like so that we can propose how best to shape the Army to meet the challenges of that future environment. By the time I came across Prof Stone’s article I had already written one of our papers, which we call analytical concepts, on the future of the media and Army media operations. A second paper, on the future employment of cyber at the tactical and operational level, was already on circulation for comments by senior officers. These analytical concepts are highly detailed pieces of research work akin to a university dissertation or even, I kid myself, a Phd as it is generally a unique, first time look, in depth at a key issue for the future development of Army capability. Could cultural property protection (CPP) be my next analytical concept?

Literally the moment that I had finished reading the article I tracked down Prof Stone’s telephone number at Newcastle University and rang him up. Prof Stone and I had one of those interesting conversations: ‘you don’t know who I am’, I said, ‘but I have read your article in the British Army Review, I work at Army HQ and there’s something that I think we may be able to do about your proposals.’ Prof Stone is also head of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield, an organisation which works with Governments to advise on the protection of cultural property during conflict. The Prof had some experience with the Armed Forces, advising NATO on what and where not to strike in Libya during OP ELLAMY in 2011. Having tried to persuade the Armed Forces to take more of an interest in CPP he was quite surprised to have someone from the Army calling him out of the blue to suggest that we could possibly do something about protecting cultural property during conflict.

I drafted a proposal for an analytical concept paper and took it to my Concepts Desk boss, Col Tim Law. Col Tim immediately agreed to let me write the proposed paper. Even though this issue was current and not one of our future concept papers, Col Tim and his boss, Brig Simon Deakin saw the merit of the recommendations in Prof Stone’s article and in the Concepts Branch writing and circulating a paper. Over the coming weeks this became a document titled Delivering a Cultural Property Protection Capability. In the way that happens with all our papers, it was first circulated around Army HQ at Colonel level, comments were received back from these officers, the paper was amended, then it was sent out to Brigadier or 1 star level, comments were received and so the process went on until it had been all the way to the top where it was seen by Lt Gen Sir James Everard KCB, Commander of the Field Army.

Alongside this internal circulation, with such a complex issue and with such little expertise on it within the Armed Forces, it was important for the paper’s credibility to have it validated by the real experts in academia, museums and amongst our Allies who had either already been involved in CPP for years or who had cultural property protection policies and plans in place for armed conflict. So I shared the draft paper widely with many of those who quickly became key advisors, amending technicalities and suggesting generalities, giving the paper credibility inside and outside the Army and also giving us all a stake in the paper’s success.

In parallel to the paper circulating around Army HQ and further afield I met up with a group of experts at the Defence College in Shrivenham. The group included Prof Stone, Richard Osgood the MOD’s senior archaeologist at the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, Victoria Syme-Taylor from King’s College London, and Dr Nick Marquez-Grant and Prof Andrew Shortland from Cranfield University. I brought in military educator Maj Dave Mason from the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU) at RAF Henlow to assist with identifying and drafting the individual skill sets required by cultural property protection officers and Lt Col Alasdair Morrison, a military lawyer from the Operational Law Department in Warminster to advise on military and international law.

This group became the Military Cultural Property Protection Working Group and it met for the first time in early 2014.

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