A British Monuments Man Killed in Action: Ronald Balfour
This is the eleventh in an ongoing series of posts on real-life Monuments Men. Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher. See related posts on Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, Walter J. Huchthausen, Seymour J. Pomrenze, Mason Hammond, Edith Standen, Karol Estreicher, S. Lane Faison, Sir Hilary Jenkinson, Walter Horn and Douglas Cooper.
The newly released 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 focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett respectively. Beginning in December 2013, I thought it would be illustrative to discuss some of the lesser known individuals, and thus started a series of blog posts. I enlisted my colleague Dr. Sylvia Naylor to write some of them.
This post focuses on British Major Ronald Edmond Balfour and is the 11th in the series of posts on the Monuments Men.
Ronald Edmond Balfour was born in England into a wealthy military family in 1904. He excelled at Eton and won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a “double first” in history and theology. He became a lecturer in history and a Fellow at King’s College, where he began amassing one of the largest personal collections of books in Great Britain, some 8,000 by the time war broke out in 1939. That year, the unmarried, bespectacled and mustached academic joined the French desk at the Ministry of Information. Less than a year later he enlisted in the British Army, passed through the Officer Cadet Training Unit and became a 2nd Lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1940. He was promoted to captain in 1941 and joined the Recruiting Branch of the War Office.
In 1944, after Geoffrey Webb, Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, was appointed to head the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) organization, Balfour was recruited to become one of the Monuments Men. By April 1 he was on Webb’s staff helping to make plans for MFA&A operations after the landings in France in June. In the early planning for the invasion of the Continent, Webb thought that United States Capt. L. Bancel LaFarge and Balfour should be with the first group, as he believed they would make a good impression on all sorts and conditions of soldiers. He wrote on April 26 that although they may have missed the practical training and final polish they could have received at the Eastbourne training center, he thought LaFarge’s experience in Sicily and Balfour’s service in the army “and more important, their native mother wit and savvy will in some degree compensate for this.”
By the end of May Balfour had been assigned as a Monuments Man with the 21st Army Group, command by General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and initially composed of by the First U.S. Army and the British Second Army. Webb’s recommendation for officer personnel for the Normandy landings resulted in LaFarge, Balfour, and British Maj. Lord Methuen reporting with the British forces under the 21st Army Group; and the assignment of Lt. George L. Stout, USNR, Squadron Leader J. E. Dixon-Spain (RAF) and American Capt. Robert Posey with the United States Forces under the 21st Army Group. After the Normandy landings on June 6, and when sufficient American forces had landed, their own 12th Army Group was activated on September 1, under General Omar Bradley, and the 21st Army Group was left with the British Second Army and the newly activated First Canadian Army.
Balfour arrived in France in August. Before heading off to combat Balfour made the compelling case for the importance of the task confronting the Monuments Men in a speech he planned to deliver to his men. He said: “No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.”
His detachment on August 30, as a major, to the First Canadian Army, to be its MFA&A Officer, was delayed by crowded roads, poor transport and destroyed bridges. He arrived in Rouen on September 9 and made his first report, carefully recording the city’s damage from the German air bombardment in 1940, the Allied bombardment in 1944 and the retreating Germans. From Rouen, Balfour moved on to join up with the First Canadian Army in Belgium.
He arrived in Bruges, just days too late to have hoped to prevent the evacuating Nazis from stealing Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and 11 artworks from the Church of Notre Dame. He did, however, manage to persuade the Allies to avoid bombing the Church of St. Katharina in Hoogstraeten, a municipality located in the Belgian province of Antwerp.
At the end of September, Balfour reported to Webb that “For the past five weeks movement has been entirely dependent on hitch-hiking or the chance of a vehicle going in the right direction. This is necessarily uncertain and time-wasting.” He noted that he was supposed to get a vehicle in October and he did indeed get a truck, on October 2, but it developed mechanical problems, and in mid-October Balfour reported the truck was out of commission most of the time.
On November 29, four days after advancing into Holland, Balfour fractured his ankle in a traffic accident. He was driving back to his headquarters from a visit to Dixon-Spain, at the Second British Army, when the accident happened. He was taken to a hospital in Eindhoven where he dexterously outmaneuvered the doctor by refusing to be shipped home. Instead they flew him to Brussels for medical treatment. On November 30, Balfour wrote LaFarge a brief note from Eindhoven about the accident. After receiving the note on December 4, LaFarge rushed to 21st Army Group to tell them the news, which they had not heard. He then called on British Major Paul Baillie Reynolds, who told him that he had got the news from Balfour himself two days previously, that he had unsuccessfully sought to telephone LaFarge, and that Ronald was in the General Hospital in Brussels. LaFarge then rushed to Brussels and found Balfour in a very good mood. He told LaFarge that he thought he may be about again in a few weeks and that he believed that he might be able to do work at Army headquarters in a month or so, during which time he would be preparing his chief for the German venture, which was “still a long way off as concerns his own formation.” He remained hospitalized during the Battle of the Bulge and did not return to duty for two months.
In February 1945, Balfour was back in action as the 21st Army Group attacked the Siegfried Line. During combat operations that month, Balfour, in several German cities, helped to recover and protect archival collections. At Goch he successfully persuaded Canadian commanders not to destroy the 14th century stone entrance gate as they attempted to enter the town. While in Goch he also found the abandoned archives from the Collegiate Church of Cleve, which he transferred to a monastery in Spyck for safekeeping.
His last report, filed March 3, 1945, described his work in the church in Cleve: “Fragments of two large 16th century retables of carved and painted wood have been collected and removed to safety. Parish archives found in a blasted safe and strewn over the floor of the wrecked sacristy have also been removed for safekeeping.”
In his last letter, to Webb, dated March 3, he wrote:
It was a splendid week for my job – certainly the best since I came over. On the one hand there is the tragedy of real destruction, much of it completely unnecessary; on the other the comforting feeling of having done something solid myself.
There are no civilian officials to annoy one; the cares of quick decisions are left to oneself. Added to that, is the excitement of being right in the firing line. I met a battalion of my Regiment one day and ate my sandwiches with them at RHQ less than a mile from the front and I was actually sitting in a building when it was hit by a shell.
The plundering is awful. Not only every house is forced open and searched but also every safe and every cupboard. All that I can do is to try and rescue as much as possible and put up signs of warning. We did that in Kalkar but I do not know whether they actually had any effect.
In the meantime I’ve spent several days arranging the staff I’ve collected. What I did with the Goch archives would make the archivists’ hair stand on end, but I saved them from complete destruction.
And my storage place in Cleves [Cleve] wouldn’t be exactly approved of by Washington as it’s an attic in a building occupied by troops and refugees. The house is without proper protection and shells fall ceaselessly in the neighbourhood but it’s the only building in the town that still has a roof, doors and windows. There’s a local monk there (the only civilian who’s allowed to move freely round the town) in whose charge I can leave the things when I go.
If all goes well, I hope to be back at my headquarters next week as I’ve got a good deal of long-term work to do there. I’ve also got most of my luggage in Holland. I’m afraid I’ll never see it again. Yours very sincerely Ronald.
He did not live to see his luggage again. Balfour was killed by a shell burst in Cleve on March 10 while he and some other men were attempting to rescue pieces of a medieval altarpiece to safety. He was buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, near Cleve.
Paying tribute to him, Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Adviser to the War Office on Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, said:
It is a great and unexpected blow. He was so cheerfully delighted at being at the front and was killed when actually engaged in saving some of those works of art, which he loved so much.
He had done wonderfully good work, as those who knew him knew he would do. He leaves a gap in our service, which no one will be able to fill so well. The whole field of art history has suffered a tragic loss.
Balfour left his papers and library to King’s College. To honor his feats and passion to culture, that college named an archive room after him. In the mid-1950s, Goch dedicated an archive room in his honor. And on the 50th anniversary of the reconstruction of the 105-metre tower of the Church of St. Katharina in Hoogstraeten, the municipality held an exhibition in “grateful commemoration of Major Ronald Edmond Balfour.”
For information about Balfour’s activities see File: CAD 000.4 (3-25-43) (1), Sec. 3, Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949, General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165; Subject File Aug 1943-1945, 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; and, General Records, 1938-1948, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Property Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 15 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).