The British roots of the Monuments Men

While George Clooney’s film offers a Hollywood view of the true story to save Europe’s art treasure, few know about the very British brand of hero who helped pave the way for the Allied armies’ art detectives


Sir Leonard Woolley (right) with T.E. Lawrence at the excavation of Carchemish, around 1912-13

With the release of George Clooney’s drama about the Monuments Men and their adventures in saving Europe’s art treasures during the Second World War, viewers get a glimpse of a true, dramatic, epic story of the race to rescue an estimated five million cultural heritage objects, from paintings and sculptures to rare books and valuable archival materials, that were looted by the Nazis and were threatened with complete destruction. The Clooney film is only loosely based on historical fact—it necessarily compresses, condenses and alters reality to fit the rules of a Hollywood feature. But one aspect of the Monuments Men that most American accounts skip past or exclude altogether is the fact that the Monuments Men began as a British operation—and was led by a very British brand of hero, Sir Leonard Woolley.

In anticipation of the film, much is has been written about the Monuments Men, but what tends to go overlooked is the role of British scholar-soldiers in protecting the world’s cultural heritage. It was the British who first recognised, early in the war, the need for a division of officers trained in, and dedicated to, the protection of art and monuments in conflict zones. In January 1943, during a pause in the fighting near Tripoli in North Africa, Mortimer Wheeler, the director of the London Museum and a renowned archaeologist, grew concerned about the fate of three ruined ancient cities nearby along the coast of Libya: Sabratha, Leptis Magna, and Oea (the ancient city around which Tripoli grew). With the impending defeat of the Axis in North Africa, and the chaos of the war, Wheeler worried that the ancient monuments could become “easy meat for any dog that came along”. Wheeler noted with concern that there was no system in place for the Allies to safeguard any archives, works of art, museums or monuments in the path of their armies.

Wheeler grabbed a friend and fellow officer, a famous British art historian and archaeologist in his own right, John Ward-Perkins, and they drove by jeep to the sites of Oea and Leptis Magna. Leptis Magna, the birthplace of the emperor Septimius Severus, had recently been excavated by a team of Italian archaeologists under Mussolini’s orders. This meant that the marvels of the ancient architecture, and even statuary, were unearthed, but had not been secured and moved to museums. When they arrived, Wheeler and Ward-Perkins were dismayed to find a Royal Air Force team setting up a radar station in the ruins, which they thought would provide good cover.

The two archaeologists pretended to have an authority they did not possess. As Ward-Perkins would later write, “we bluffed our way through a number of fairly effective measures”. They improvised “Out of Bounds” signs, which they mounted on key monuments and beside statues, and they began to provide informal lectures to troops about their surroundings, to instil a sense of respect and appreciation for the ruins and antiquities around them. These measures would become standard procedure for the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme, colloquially called the Monuments Men, the division that their actions would in part inspire.

In June 1943, Wheeler decided to use his impressive list of contacts to make something official out of their improvised policy. He was spurred on by his knowledge of the planned Allied invasion of Sicily, which Wheeler described as “a top secret to which I happened to be a party. The archaeologist in me was filled with anxiety”. One of the richest places on earth, archaeologically and artistically, the island’s treasures were in serious danger, if something was not done before the attack. Wheeler suggested that a small, well-organised group, led by a qualified archaeologist, be established protect monuments in Sicily. This message eventually reached the Secretary of State for War, P.J. Grigg, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself. Agreeing with the idea, they immediately sought out an archaeologist to lead the operation.

Enter Sir Leonardo Woolley.

In October 1943, the British established a division of the War Office, the Archaeological Adviser’s Branch, that would deal with the recovery and protection of art objects in newly liberated territories. It was originally a one-man operation, run by Woolley, who was already a renowned archaeologist, with his wife as his only assistant. Woolley liked it that way, rejecting the offer of staff. He liked to think that his uncluttered judgment was far superior to what a committee could produce, and he wanted to be able to boast of the triumphs he’d achieved, ostensibly alone. In truth, he was a brilliant archaeologist and politician. The son of a clergyman, Woolley was a curator at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and was best known for leading archaeological excavations at Ur (in present-day Iraq), but he had also worked alongside T.E. Lawrence in Syria in 1913. The budding novelist Agatha Christie was a great admirer of Woolley’s, particularly noting his capacity to galvanise listeners about the wonders of archaeology.

When the war began, Woolley corresponded with various institutions to compile lists of art and monuments in the path of the fighting. He eventually began to recruit personnel, as it became clear that a field force would be needed to accompany Allied armies, though he did so very much against his will. He wrote: “The idea that we should leave the most eminent experts who have high artistic or archaeological qualifications to walk about the battlefields for this purpose is really one which I think would not be accepted as at all suitable.” There was an element of classism in this statement—the lives of the highly educated should not be risked in combat zones—in addition to Woolley’s desire to be the one and only operator in the tiny “theater” of art and archaeological protection during war. It would take a strong American push to dislodge Woolley’s hands-off policy, and encourage Allied field-work to safeguard Europe’s art and monuments…

Noah Charney is a professor of art history specialising in art crime. He teaches the history of art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. This article was adapted from his international best-seller, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.


By Noah Charney. Web only
Published online: 15 February 2014