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.
Following the Chatham House briefing I received a series of emails from those who had kindly offered their help. Chief Constable Andy Bliss was the Chairman of the National Police Chief’s Heritage and Cultural Property Crime Working Group. He invited me to join his Group to foster co-ordination between the police and the MOD on this issue. A long email arrived from Martin Roth, Director of the V&A Museum, inviting me to meet with Vernon Rapley, the Director of Security at the V&A. Vernon and I had met before when he was Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit. Vernon ran a Fakes and Frauds exhibition at the V&A while he was the Head of the Unit and I was working with the Art Loss Register. Since this first generous offer of support, the V&A have hosted meetings of the Military Cultural Property Protection Working Group in their Board Room under the rather unamused, but hopefully approving, gaze of Queen Victoria.
The UK is coming quite late to the involvement of their Armed Forces in CPP (Cultural Property Protection) in the modern era. The last time we had such a capability was with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections in WW2. Since then a number of our Allies in Europe had not only signed but also ratified – brought into law – the Hague Convention (1954). With ratification came the military obligation to form a specialist CPP unit within their Armed Forces. Perhaps the leading example has been the Carabinieri’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC). The Carabinieri are military police – halfway between the Armed Forces and the civil police – akin to the Gendarmerie in France but with no equivalent force in the UK. The Carabinieri TPC was formed in the late 1960s and for most of its existence has been under the MOD, only recently being separated off under the Ministry of Culture.
The rest of the Carabinieri continue to provide a military policing capability to the Italian Armed Forces as well as a Gendarmerie service within Italy. The primary roles of the TPC’s 360 strong contingent of military police are to prevent damage to and theft of Italy’s cultural heritage and to investigate these activities when they occur and to recover the stolen property when they can. During deployments made by the Italian Armed Forces, the TPC has deployed with them to Kosovo and to Iraq to provide their specialist advice regarding the protection of cultural property encountered during those operations. I knew that if we were to understand how to deliver a CPP capability we needed to talk to those of our Allies who were active in this area. Dr Laurie Rush, who runs the US Combatant Command Cultural Heritage Action Group at Ft Hood in up-state New York, introduced me by email to Dep Lt Fabrizio Rossi of the Carabinieri TPC. Fabrizio has provided me with a stream of articles, papers, advice and useful comments.
Lord Renfrew, one of our most eminent archaeologists, invited me to tea at the House of Lords. Tea was Earl Grey and delicious cream scones taken with Baroness Berridge and Tim Loughton MP. As the Army’s plans for CPP were not at all advanced – in fact, it is probably fair to say that we did not have any plans at all at that stage – there was very little that I could discuss apart from outlining what had taken place in the Military CPP Working Group. It was encouraging, however, that there was interest in what the Armed Forces might do as a result of any legislation that might be passed by Parliament. Forming a new unit, or re-forming one that had last been in the Armed Forces order of battle at the end of WW2, could be a visible demonstration of the country’s commitment to the Hague Convention.
One result of tea in the Lords was an invitation from Lord Renfrew to brief the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Archaeology, co-chaired by Lord Renfrew and Tim Loughton MP, in Portcullis House. Lord Renfrew sent me a letter of invitation to speak about the Army’s plans to protect cultural heritage during conflict. At the bottom of the letter was a list of those copied into the correspondence. One of them was ‘Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence’. It can’t be often that an invitation from a member of the House of Lords to a middle ranking officer in the Army is copied to your 6 up boss! I informed my chain of command of the invitation and received permission to brief the APPG.
Almost at the outset of my investigation into what work had been done within the MOD on CPP, I had touched base with Lt Col Peter Sonnex in the MOD’s Arms Control and Counter-Proliferation department. It might seem an odd place for the responsibility for the Hague Convention to reside but Peter’s role involved almost continuous engagement with the various international bodies in Geneva responsible for agreeing and defining the minutiae of the applicability and meaning of very detailed clauses in international treaties relevant to the Armed Forces. Peter had now left this job and I managed to track down his successor, Lt Col John Stroud-Turp RA. Of course, the MOD had done the usual thing of ‘re-branding’ John’s department in between the time that I had last spoken to Peter – it happens regularly and confuses us more than it must the Russians – so it took several attempts to identify who and where John was.
As the Government had signed up to the ratification of the Convention through Parliament it was going to be vital for the MOD to be coherent in its position to Other Government Departments and to Parliament via Ministers. It was John’s role to ensure this. Our first email, conversation and meeting heralded the start of 2 years of very close work between us inside the MOD and with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – the Government Department which would shepherd any ratification legislation through Parliament. John introduced me to James Pender, the Head of Cultural Property at DCMS, whose responsibility it was to support his Ministers’ work on the Convention’s ratification in Parliament.
As with many organisations, those at the top set the strategic direction and those below them deliver the detail to make the direction into policy and plans which delivers activity. While John’s post was very close to the top of the MOD tree he was one of the detail deliverers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the international humanitarian law concerning the governance of munitions used in armed conflict. John’s support for the work of delivering a CPP capability was instant and has been a constant over the last two years. It has never ceased to amaze me that across the Army and the MOD, staff officers with plenty of other difficult work to complete have not only given me the time of day but have gone way beyond that mark with their support.
During my time on the Concepts Desk I have sat opposite or next to the Dutch Exchange Officer. It’s a bit of a misnomer of a title as we don’t send an officer to the Netherlands in return. The Dutch Armed Forces set up a military CPP unit following their ratification of the Hague Convention. They have five to six officers under a Lt Col providing CPP advice to commanders within the Netherlands as well as having deployed officers to Iraq and Afghanistan. Lt Col Jeroen Teunissen, the current Exchange Officer and also the Commander of the Royal Guard ceremonial unit, put me in touch with Lt Col Robert Gooren, commander of the Dutch military CPP unit.
With the military activity in Syria and Iraq it was important to make sure that our geo-spatial intelligence systems had the benefit of the best data available on the locations of the cultural heritage in those countries. I turned to the academics on the Working Group and asked what data could be made available to the Armed Forces. Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) is based at Oxford, Leicester and Durham universities and is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) supported by the Arcadia Fund.
Since 2015 EAMENA has mapped and assessed archaeological sites across the MENA region using satellite imagery in order to make the data available to those who can preserve the archaeology. In a very short time Emma Cunliffe at EAMENA emailed though large spreadsheets of data which I passed onto Jean Smith at the Defence Geographic Centre.
In early October I attended a three day course on Cultural Property Protection run by the Islamic Manuscript Association at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall. The course, organised by Armin Yavari and Rachel Telfer, brought in many experts with very personal and affecting experiences of the destruction and saving of cultural heritage during conflict. Not only was the course good for its content but also for the contacts made with other attendees and lecturers. Amongst the briefers were Andras Riedlmayer, the Islamic manuscript expert from Harvard, Col Matthew Bogdanos, a US Marine Reservist and US District Attorney in New York who tracked down many of the looted objects from the Iraq Museum in 2003, and officials from the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.
The day after the course ended I met with Detective Sergeant Claire Hutcheon, Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit. Liaison with the Metropolitan Police has gone on to include regular contact with SO15 which runs the National Terrorist Financial Investigation Unit (NTIFU). We set up the Illicit Antiquities Trafficking Working Group, comprised of officials from across Whitehall, to determine if organisations in Iraq and Syria were using looted antiquities to fund their activities. I was also put in touch with the UK National Central Bureau (NCB) of Interpol. Interpol is the international policing co-ordination organisation based at Lyon in France. Every country has a NCB through which that country channels its international police enquiries. Cultural property crimes are trans-national and it was clear that, once Defence had established a CPP capability, we could well be in a position to report looted items to Interpol for international circulation. An officer from the UK NCB joined the Military CPP Working Group. In a similar vein, the military conduit to the UK NCB was likely to be known to the Provost Marshal (PM) at Army HQ – the head of military policing in the Army. I emailed across to the Army (PM)’s department and then walked over for a meeting. One of the best aspects of developing a new unit and being based at Army HQ while you’re trying to do it, is that all the key departments and people are based there. Someone, somewhere at Army HQ will own the policy, the budget or the contacts or know who does.
I had a call from Jean Smith at the DGC. Could I come down to Feltham, their HQ on the west side of London, to take part in a video teleconference (VTC) with the National Geo-spatial intelligence Agency (NGA), an agency of the US Department of Defense. It was also a chance to see the inner workings of the US-UK ‘special relationship’ which, at the defence end of the relationship spectrum, is in many places fully integrated to the point of fusion of our combined capabilities. It was a hugely useful two-way briefing with our ‘cousins’ in Washington DC. The geo-spatial part of the delivery of cultural property protection is absolutely fundamental. Without knowing what is where we would hardly be able to discharge our obligations to protect cultural property on the battlefield.
At the end of October John Whittingdale MP, Secretary of State for DCMS, hosted conference at Lancaster House, next to St James’s Palace, to launch the £30m Cultural Property Fund (CPF). The aim of the fund is to support the protection of cultural heritage during conflict or where it is threatened by conflict. One project, which was already being supported at the time of the CPF announcement, was the British Museum’s work to train Iraqi archaeologists in the recording and preservation of the many sites in Iraq. Dr John MacGinnis, from Cambridge University, and Dr Sebastien Rey, from the Sorbonne, lead the work. The meeting in Lancaster House was attended by many of those who I had already met through the Military CPP Working Group. Lt Col John Stroud-Turp and I attended. Lancaster House was, I think, a regular haunt for John who was often involved in high level talks as the house is most often used by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for international meetings.
On the last weekend of October I headed up to Oxford to take part in a conference on cultural property protection at St John’s College organised by Liz Carmichael and supported by the V&A Museum. Fortunately there was no accommodation available at the College so I was very lucky to stay with the Dominican Friars in their community at Blackfriars, directly opposite St John’s. It was an intriguing glimpse into a monastic lifestyle and a great privilege to share an evening with them over a glass of beer! The Oxford conference served to remind me how little we in the Armed Forces were aware of the issues being dealt with daily by many hugely experienced academics and practitioners who were desperately trying to protect cultural property across the world. After the conference I was approached by at least three people who were interested in joining any military unit that we might form in future as a result of the ratification of the Hague Convention. That one of these individuals is still in contact with me shows commendable tenacity and patience, both of which will be useful qualities in delivering a cultural property protection capability in the Armed Forces during conflict.
In mid-November, I presented myself at Portcullis House to brief the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archaeology, co-chaired by Lord Renfrew and Tim Loughton MP, on the work of the Army and to outline emerging plans for the development of a military CPP capability. Amongst others attending the briefing were Lord Redesdale, Earl Clancarty, and Col Bob Stewart MP.
At Army HQ in Andover I got in touch with the co-ordinator for all the Allied Liaison Officers at Army HQ and for the British Army Liaison Officers in Allied HQs overseas. I was interested in determining what our Allies did in the field of CPP. I drafted an email with a list of questions and attached my Army HQ paper on CPP to see what response it would elicit. It was sent out to all points. I contacted the Army’s LO in the Stabilisation Unit to see what activity we could co-ordinate between us given that the protection and preservation of cultural property was likely to foster a quicker return to a more stable environment post conflict. The Stabilisation Unit is a joint MOD, FCO and DfID unit providing cross-Government advice and personnel to operations to deliver coherent and co-ordinated responses to crises overseas which require a stabilisation element – pretty much all of them. The net result was that a Stabilisation Unit official joined the Military CPP Working Group.
At the end of the month I went down to City Hall by Tower Bridge in London for the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. The APPG was launched by David Burrowes MP and Lord Renfrew and hosted by Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. There were a number of good speeches and a cup of tea and a good opportunity to meet and chat with other attendees afterwards.
In mid-December I was contacted by the Army Historical Branch which is based in MOD Main Building in Whitehall. When I had been the Spokesman for the Army in the MOD Press Office in 1992-94 I had almost daily contact with the Branch as many of the press enquiries I was being asked by journalists related to past events. The Branch not only answers journalists’ enquiries but also writes excellent papers on past military operations (perhaps every commander should have a military historian in his HQ to set his current operation in context of the type of operation he is running and to remind him of the history of Britain’s and others’ involvement in the region?) and runs the Army’s archives. This time the Branch had got in touch with me regarding an article in our Regimental magazine – the Vedette was the magazine of the 17th/21st Lancers – about the Gulf War in 1991 – it being the 25th Anniversary of the war to liberate Kuwait. I piggy-backed my response with an enquiry into any paperwork and documentation that the Branch might hold on the activities of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections in WW2. Their reply was surprising.
The year ended on an unexpected note. On 25 December, the Daily Telegraph’s Defence Correspondent, Ben Farmer, put out a story about the Army re-forming up the Monuments Men to ‘save treasures from war zones’. It was clear from the detail in the article that Ben had seen or been well briefed on all or parts of my Army HQ paper. We had advance warning of publication as Ben had contacted the Defence Press Office for an MOD comment on the story. This, we agreed, would be a suitably non-committal and factually correct: ‘Defence is currently scoping the establishment of a cultural property protection capability.’ Happily, there was no ‘Monuments-Men-Gate’ leak enquiry following the publication of the article. In the same way that, as the saying goes, no one ever believes what is written in the papers, quite a lot of people don’t believe anything unless they do read it in the papers.