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.
The first meetings of the Military Cultural Property Protection Working Group took place at the Defence Academy at Shrivenham in Oxfordshire, hosted by Victoria Syme-Taylor, Head of Military Outreach at King’s College London who was based in the Academy’s building. Victoria was already looking at inserting cultural property protection into the courses being run for military officers at the Defence Academy.
Led at the Working Group meeting on 28th April by Army educator, Maj Al Mason from the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU), we looked at the skill sets required by a Cultural Property Protection (CPP) officer. This process ended up with a whiteboard covered, in an orderly fashion of course, with different coloured stickies each labelled with a skill. This first step helped Al to write the Operational Performance Statement (OPS) which would then define what future CPP officers would need to be taught on their Special to Arm trade course as they came into a future military CPP unit. We also discussed around the table what was happening in academia and at the international level with CPP. The next meeting was fixed for December.
All our work at this stage was entirely aspirational. Having had my proposal for a paper approved in mid-March by my boss, Col Tim Law, by early May 2014 the first draft of the paper titled Delivering a Cultural Property Protection Capability was coming together before its circulation around Army Headquarters at full Colonel level and externally to key advisors in academia who sat on the Military CPP Working Group. Lt Col Peter Rowell RE, an experienced Concepts Branch desk officer and shortly to command an Engineer Regiment, helped steer me through the jargon and procedure of the paper’s passage along the corridors of Army power. Although the Government had announced in 2004 that it was their intent to ratify the Hague Convention (1954), which would make it an obligation for the Armed Forces to have a military CPP unit, to conduct more CPP training and to collect global CP geo-spatial data, the Parliamentary time had not, so far, been found to bring about ratification.
In my quest for more information about what the Army had done in earlier conflicts with protecting cultural property I contacted Lt Col Scud Steel SCOTS, an old mate, in the Lessons Exploitation Centre at the Directorate of Land Warfare at Warminster in order to interrogate their databases of Lessons Identified from previous military operations. Although there was a ‘nil return’ on CPP there were some useful pointers towards other lines of enquiry at the Defence Doctrine and Concepts Centre (DCDC) at Shrivenham and Joint Forces Command (JFC). Hugo Clarke, a former Army Major who had been an Assistant to Maj Gen Barney White-Spunner at Multi-National Division (South East) at Basra in Iraq, who had recently left the Army from Scud’s organisation was suggested as a point of contact with operational experience of CPP. I emailed Hugo who was back in Basra working towards the opening of the Basra Museum.
I emailed and spoke to Lt Col Peter Sonnex, the Desk Officer for issues relating to cultural property protection in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) as part of his post’s portfolio of International Humanitarian Law responsibilities. At that time, with Parliamentarians and Non-Govermental Organisations (NGOs) pushing for the ratification of the Hague Convention (1954), the MOD was keen to not get involved in the politics of what was another Department of State’s (DCMS) business. If we, the Army, could see providing the capability as a funded military task, Peter said, ‘crack on’.
International military expertise in CPP was and remains a key input into how the UK Armed Forces could deliver CPP in the future. The Italian military police, the Carabinieri, have been protecting Italy’s cultural property since the 1960s, armed with tanks, helicopters and submarines. The Austrian and Dutch Armed Forces set up their military CPP units when their countries ratified the Hague Convention. In Switzerland those called up for national service can opt to work their time in the CPP organisation. By early April I was in contact with Lt Col (since retired) Joris Kila in the Netherlands Armed Forces who pointed me towards libraries of further CPP reading to work through. Joris kindly sent me a couple of packs of CPP playing cards, operationally specific cards given to soldiers, each one marked with a different information point about CPP.
In the meantime the major project on my desk for my day a week as an Army Reservist was to write an analytical concept or research paper which would propose a direction of travel for the future development of the Army’s use of cyber at the tactical and operational levels. This involved a lot of reading, attending courses and conferences and then having this all drawn together when the Concepts Branch organized a military cyber conference at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, attended by leading cyber professionals from Allies, commerce and academia. Following the conference I wrote the first draft of the analytical concept with the help of the Army’s own leading cyber expert. The paper then, like all our others, went on circulation around the military departments before receiving comments back from desk officers and recirculating at the next rank up until it reached the Army Force Development Committee (AFDC) where it was endorsed (approved). That paper provided the starting conceptual work which Army cyber officers have used to develop more detailed policies and plans for the future development of military capability in this key area.
By early June my military email Inbox was starting to fill up with comments from the full Colonel circulation of the CPP paper. The purpose of these paper circulations is to get feedback from key officers whose business it is to run the current Army and to plan for the future Army. They are all busy, experienced staff officers, virtually all of whom have commanded soldiers on military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They don’t suffer fools gladly, they see through waffle and pull no punches, they identify the kernel of the argument and then argue with it, playing devil’s advocate, until the resource, planning and policy implications of the paper have been identified, justified, mitigated and, finally, resourced noting that if they resource this capability they are going to have to stop resourcing something that was already planned or was even already taking place. As I digested these comments I was quite surprised how critically supportive the majority of the comments were. There were helpful points, a tangentially assisting example, direction to more information and guidance on style and substance.
With the Army 2020 programme assigning Army Brigades to be ‘twinned’ with regions of the world, CPP appeared to fit well with the development of a regional understanding that these Brigades required within their areas of interest. I emailed the draft paper over to Brig Charlie Herbert at 4th Armoured Brigade – soon to become 4th Infantry Brigade with North West Africa as its region of interest – for his view. I received some useful suggestions in return.
In July 2014 I went to Salisbury Plain to meet up with Richard Osgood, the Senior Archaeologist with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO). Salisbury Plain is 100,000 acres of Wiltshire which has been owned by the Army since the late 1800s. This 100+ year ownership has meant that it is a remarkably well preserved landscape, free from agriculture, villages, buildings and people while remaining a haven for wildlife and archaeology as well as a fantastic and vital training area for the British Army to ensure that we can continue to train to keep Britain safe. On a balmy summer’s day I followed some tac signs – roadsigns for soldiers only – out into the oo-loo of the training area to find a tented camp next to a circular stand of trees. Not content with just managing the archaeology on the Defence Estate, Richard has been instrumental in setting up OP NIGHTINGALE for serving and former soldiers who have suffered mental or physical injuries. OP NIGHTINGALE arranges for these personnel to do archaeological work on military sites to aid their recovery process. Some of these sites, like the Neolithic encampment that was being excavated during my visit, were generally traumatically benign for those on the dig and some, like excavations of service personnel killed on the Western Front during the First World War or of shot down aircraft from the Second World War, had the potential to be traumatic for the participating Service personnel. The whole environment of the dig was supportive, encouraging and very positive to the extent that quite a number of the former Service personnel have now qualified as archaeologists.
Richard also sits on a NATO Working Group looking at CPP. He emailed me the papers that were under discussion and asked the Danish NATO organiser if I could join the Group.
Towards the end of 2014 the CPP paper had been redrafted to the satisfaction of my boss, Col Tim Law, and was now sent on 1* (One Star or Brigadier level) circulation. This was an opportunity for Branch Directors across Army HQ and in other Joint Headquarters to comment on the paper. They were given two weeks to turn around their comments. This would be the final chance to refine the paper before it went to the small number of Generals at Army HQ for their views and approval, or not.
Alongside this work, I had to submit three essays for the AGILE WARRIOR programme report. As the Chief of the General Staff’s Strategic Foresight unit the Concepts Branch has to stress test our ideas for future capabilities in a simulated environment with Defence scientists, Allies and academics. This is the AGILE WARRIOR programme. But, to be of use, we had to report on our work to the rest of the Army so that the capability desk officers in Army HQ and staff officers in other military headquarters could start to think about the future of their niche capabilities and areas. The three subjects I covered were on the future media, cultural property protection and ‘atrophied skills and capabilities’ (things that we used to be able to do but for which we no longer retained the capability or personnel).
As 2014 closed we had a further meeting of the Military CPP Working Group at Shrivenham. There were six of us – Prof Peter Stone, Dr Victoria Syme-Taylor, Lt Col Alasdair Morrison, Dr Andrew Shortland, Richard Osgood and myself – two years later there were to be more than twenty of us around the table representing 18 different organisations, Departments of State, policing, military formations, museums and academic institutions. I updated the Group on the progress of the CPP paper at Army HQ and told them that comments from Brigadiers had now been received and that I had been directed to produce the paper for 2* (Two Star or Major General) circulation. The Prof updated us on work he was doing with the UN in Lebanon and with international Committees of the Blue Shield. Richard briefed us on his attendance at the NATO CPP Working Group. Alasdair said that he would find out who had replaced Lt Col Peter Sonnex in the MOD. Finally, Alasdair reported that Prof Sir Adam Roberts (Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University) had been discussing CPP with the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon MP, who has a degree in Classics and Ancient History from the University of St Andrews. The next meeting of the Working Group was arranged for May 2015.
The New Year opened with me trying to understand how to calculate how many officers we would need to staff the CPP unit. The reason why officers would be required was from a Lesson Identified from WW2 that I found in the US National Archives. The lesson was that the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives sections ranked mainly at Private soldier to Senior Non-Commissioned Officers with a sprinkling of Lieutenants to Lieutenant Colonels did not have sufficient rank to persuade senior commanders, staff officers or hard pressed unit commanders on the battlefield to listen to their advice or the rank-horsepower to arrange logistical, engineering and even administrative support. I turned to Reserves and Army Organisation (Org) expert at Army HQ, Lt Col Henry Ricketts RE, who sent a masterful email explaining the intricacies of Reserve Mobilisation ratios, Defence Planning Assumptions (DPAs) and harmony guidelines. I’m still not sure I understand it as I re-read it today. The net result, however, once you have put all that military terminology through the Org process meat grinder, was a requirement for 40-50 military cultural property protection officers! There was no way, I knew, in a month of Sundays, not even with Reservists, that the chain of command would tolerate a new unit of 40-50 officers. My certainty was gently reinforced during a short meeting with a senior staff officer at Army HQ 12 months later.
In February, having sent out on circulation the 2* draft of Delivering a Cultural Property Protection Capability to the Military CPP Working Group, I was in a minibus edging up into the Alps for a week on skis with Swiss friends when my phone rang. The batphone showed that the number calling was the Art Loss Register. For 12 years, from leaving the Regular Army until I was mobilised to deploy as the Spokesman for Task Force Helmand with 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines in 2010, my civilian job had been to work for Julian Radcliffe, a former Colonel in the Army Reserves, serial entrepreneur and innovator, political risks expert and the founder of Control Risks Group, the Art Loss Register and The Equipment Register. Julian had heard of the work being done to restart the CPP capability in the Armed Forces. He was calling to give some useful advice on ways of employing Reservists as well as to offer up some of his employees as potential officers for the unit – almost certainly, knowing Julian, without their knowledge!
Little did I know then that a Government announcement to be made later in 2015 was going to completely change the outlook for the efforts being made towards developing a military CPP capability in the Armed Forces.
Lt Col Tim Purbrick was also interviewed by BBC Radio 4 on the matter (23.29)