Sir Charles Leonard Woolley-The Background and Early Activities of an Unlikely Monuments Man

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher and is the first in a series featuring real life Monuments Men.

The forthcoming movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II.  Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so it focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett, respectively.  Over the course of the next two months, I thought it would be illustrative to discuss some of the lesser known individuals.  I thought I would start with British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, in part, because on my bookshelf is a book by Woolley that I often referenced when pursuing my interest in clay tablet archives.  I was aware of Woolley long before I was aware of the Monuments Men, and was quite surprised when I learned the role he had played during World War II in preserving cultural property with the Monuments Men.

Charles Leonard Woolley, born April 17, 1880, graduated from Oxford, and then traveled to the Continent, where he improved his knowledge of French and German.  He started archaeological work in Great Britain in 1907. Before World War I he spent three years with T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) doing archaeological work in the Middle East. The two entered military service in the fall of 1914, and Woolley was commissioned and placed in the Intelligence Service in Egypt, where the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre for his work. A ship on which he was sailing in the summer of 1916 hit a mine and Woolley was rescued by a Turkish vessel, at which time he became a prisoner of war. In the autumn of 1918 he was released from captivity. Captain Woolley in 1919 was ordered back to Syria as a Political Officer with the temporary rank of Major with the joint Anglo-French occupation.  Once there he started his archaeological work, time permitting from his military duties.  By the end of 1919 he was released from military duty and began his full-time archaeological work.  In 1929 he published a preliminary version of what was to become the most widely read book ever on an archaeological subject: Ur of the Chaeldees.  Agatha Christie, famous for her detective novels and mystery writings, arrived in Mesopotamia in the late autumn of 1928, where she met Woolley.  She would marry his assistant in 1930 and in 1936 she published one of her “Poirot” stories, Murder in Mesopotamia, based on her impressions of Mesopotamia and her first experience of an archaeological dig.  The conclusion of the Ur excavations in 1934 resulted in Woolley publishing Volume II of Ur Excavations which brought forth more public excitement and knighthood for him in 1935. He then returned to the Middle East for three years before going to India in the fall of 1938, and then back to the Middle East in February 1939.

On September 4, 1939, under emergency regulations, Woolley was re-commissioned with the acting rank of captain and posted to the Intelligence Division at the War Office.  There he handled intelligence regarding the Middle East.  Woolley was pleased in 1940 when his friend Anthony Blunt (who had published a book on Poussin’s drawings just before the war), returned from France where he had served with British counterintelligence and settled in at The Security Service (MI5).  They had frequent discussions regarding art and the danger of artistic treasures falling into the hands of Nazi leaders or being destroyed by bombing.  Blunt’s contact in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Kim Philby, was also known to Woolley, who knew his famous father, Harry St. John Philby, who had served in Mesopotamia before going off to Transjordan and Saudi Arabia between the wars.  In 1942 Woolley befriended film producer Roy Boulting who sought him out for information about the Middle East as he suspected that an important battle might be about to start.  Out of his assistance and guidance came Desert Victory,  winner of a 1943 special Academy Award.

Soon after his encounter with Boulting, Woolley was transferred to a new directorate, Public Relations, and was again given the temporary rank of Major.  The work was not demanding, and Woolley used his free time to work on a project he had begun in 1941, organizing a card-index of British monuments and fine arts, so that in the event of loss or war damage, the records could be easily traced for restoration purposes.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill began to take a personal interest in Woolley’s work. A year later he was transferred to the Civil Affairs Directorate, where he provided liaison with the Military Intelligence Directorate regarding keeping watch on Nazi looting of cultural treasures.  Three times during 1943 Churchill called Woolley to Downing Street and Chequers to hear about his work.

In 1943, with the help of the intelligence agencies, and various individuals, Woolley built up a record of the world’s most important treasures, together with files on those paintings and sculptures known to have been concealed by friendly governments and agents, or stolen or damaged by occupying forces.

In June 1943, a group of museum directors in Britain was so concerned about cultural treasures in Italy that it put out an urgent call for the protection of monuments there.  The War Ministry responded by setting up an Archaeological Advisory Branch of the Army Staff within Civil Affairs, with “minimum strength.” It consisted of Woolley, his secretary Lady Woolley, and a clerk.  During the summer and fall Woolley was at first informally and later more officially asked to give advice as questions arose, but the entire responsibility for action rested with the Civil Affairs Officers who, he would later write, had plenty of other things to occupy their minds and possessed no technical knowledge. Thus, he was pleased when his appointment was officially published in October, at which time he was named Archaeological Adviser to the Directorate of Civil Affairs and given the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.  This meant, he wrote in March 1944, that “Monuments and Fine Arts” was directly represented on the Staff.

Woolley visited Algiers, Sicily, and Italy during November and December to observe first hand Monuments, Fine Archives, and Archives (MFA&A) operations.  While on this visit he advised certain modifications to the program, which, he later wrote, were on the whole, had been approved and put into force.  As a result of his report following his visit to Italy, and for other reasons, on December 29, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, issued AFHQ [Allied Forces Headquarters] General Order No. 68, regarding measures to be taken to preserve historical and cultural treasures. It noted that “The prevention of looting, wanton damage and sacrilege of buildings is a command responsibility. The seriousness of such an offense will be explained to all Allied personnel.”  On that same day he also addressed a letter to his army commanders instructing them regarding cultural property:

Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows. If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go. But the choice is not always so clear cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference. It is a responsibility of higher commander to determine through AMG [Allied Military Government] Officers the locations of historical monuments whether they be immediately ahead of our front lines or in areas occupied by us. This information passed to lower echelons through normal channels places the responsibility on all Commanders of complying with the spirit of this letter.

These two documents would serve as the basis for the statement of further policies of MFA&A operations.

In January 1944, Woolley successfully recommended the appointment of Geoffrey Webb, Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge, as adviser to Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC) on all matters relative to Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives.  Webb built up the Monuments Men organization increasingly during the spring of 1944 in preparation for the cross-channel invasion of the continent.  Woolley, meanwhile, would continue his work at the War Office, providing advice and helping establish policies and procedures that would guide the Monuments Men in their work on the continent in 1944 and 1945.

For more information on Woolley’s MFA&A activities see the Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949, General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165 and the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331. Also useful, particularly regarding his work in Italy, see his Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Branch of Civil Affairs, War Office: A record of the work done by the military authorities for the protection of the treasures of art & history in war areas (His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1947).