In the recent film The Monuments Men (2014) starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray, a task force is assembled to rescue art masterpieces from the Nazis and return them to their owners. Far from being an invention of Hollywood, it transpires there is some basis in history for this story, and staff from Manchester Museum, including Eric Peet and Arthur Randall Jackson, were monuments men during the First World War.
Eric Peet was born in 1882 in Liverpool and was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford. From 1909 onwards he conducted excavations in Egypt for the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egyptian Exploration Society). From 1909 to 1913 Peet worked on the dig at Abydos with Swiss Archaeologist Edouard Neville where he was instrumental in pushing for more scientific methodology to be used. From 1913 to 1928 he was a Lecturer and Curator in Egyptology at Manchester University and the Manchester Museum.
Peet, against the advice of friends and colleagues, made the decision to enlist, which he saw as his patriotic duty. He was commissioned in October 1915 into the 14th Battalion of the King`s Liverpool Regiment, an infantry regiment from his home town. However, the Egyptian Exploration Fund considered him so important to their work that their controlling body agreed to pay him a retaining fee on top of his army salary to ensure his return to Egyptology after the war!
In 1917 Peet was serving with a unit of the Army Service Corps with the British Expeditionary Force on the Salonica Front. In this mountainous region formally Alexander the Great’s Kingdom of Macedonia and straddling the border between Greece and Bulgaria, a combined British, Serbian, Greek and French force faced Bulgarian, German, Austrian and Turkish troops. The front line consisted of trenches and mountain top strong points. Troops digging in here soon discovered that the area was rich in archaeology!
Edmund Barrett of the 12th Lancashire Fusiliers noted that “…you could hardly turn a shovel of earth without a piece of old pot coming out…..” At first the soldiers on the ground dumped the objects into sandbags without further thought, although the more enterprising would pocket items they felt of value to sell to local traders or their officers later. A drawing of an almost complete pottery vessel found whilst digging a well at Gallipoli in Manchester Museum collection provides a glimpse of what soldiers were finding during active service.
It wasn`t long before a number of men and officers with pre-war archaeological experience realised the importance of what was being found and alerted head quarters. In order to protect these potentially valuable finds and as much to mollify a sometimes hostile Greek Government as to further historical knowledge, both the British and the French forces decided to set up specialist archaeology units whose job it was to locate, catalogue and save these artefacts.
The British unit was initially under Lieutenant Commander Ernest Gardner, a leading archaeologist who established ‘B.S.F H.Q Museum’, as the unit became known. Manpower was provided by the Royal Engineers who also ran a Museum to hold finds, while field teams were formed to retrieve and record finds. These were commanded by officers with archaeology backgrounds recruited from units in theatre.
Peet with his huge experience was originally recruited as a field section commander. However, in 1917 Gardner was recalled to London and Peet took over command of the Unit. One of its major finds was a battlefield site found by the 7th Royal Berkshire Regiment while digging trenches in the “Birdcage Line” when Private Reg Bailey literally put his pick through an ancient oil lamp before turning over ‘…bones with ancient armour and helmets…’. Amongst the finds the field team involved discovered the finest example of a 5th century BC Greek helmet ever discovered. At the end of the War General Milne the British Commander negotiated with the Greek government for its transfer to the British Museum, where the collection resides to this day, a lasting reminder of Peet and the work of this unique wartime unit.
Peet himself remained a highly patriotic soldier who believed the war must be won but this was not without pangs of sadness for friends lost on both sides. German academics were well-represented in archaeology before the war and many were co-workers at the University and on excavations at sites such as Abydos. Former academic colleagues found themselves on opposite sides in the fighting. A letter home still in procession of his family reveals Peet’s dilemma when the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology recorded the death of a German Egyptologist serving with the German Army. This prompted some anger amongst two officers sharing the trench who thought it wrong to show regret for the death of a German soldier. Peet while understanding this animosity from men who had lost friends and brothers to the Germans could not at the same time bring himself to hate an old colleague. “…Both asked me how my paper could……print obituaries of slain Germans with …..expressions of regret for their deaths. I had no answer.”
Demobbed in 1919 and declining a post with the Egyptian Exploration Fund, Peet returned to the University and in 1920-1 was involved on the Amarna excavations in Egypt. This would be his last major excavation as he began to concentrate on academic research. He became a noted expert and author on Egyptian military campaigns, and in 1933 he was appointed Reader in Egyptology at the University of Oxford. He died in February 1934 aged 52, leaving a wife and daughter only weeks after taking up his new post. The Queen’s College, Oxford houses the University’s Egyptology library, and it is named the Peet Library in his honour.
The second of Manchester Museum’s ‘monuments men’ was Dr Arthur Randall Jackson, sometimes known as the “Father of British Arachnology”. Born in Southport in 1877 he studied Medicine and Zoology at Liverpool before setting up a practise originally in Hexham but moving to Chester in 1905. As a GP he was noted for his accuracy in diagnosis. He described himself as a ‘…cyclist, spider hunter and bird watcher.’ He was a distinguished amateur scientist and became an acknowledged expert on British spiders, discovering 47 new species. He wrote a number of papers and books on the subject and won the Charles Kingsley Medal for his work.
On the outbreak of the Great War Jackson enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was appointed a Captain and the Medical Officer of the 9th Seaforth Highlanders with whom he served in France and Flanders from March 1916 until the end of the war. He was noted by his men for his jokes and stories as well as what some of them considered his eccentric habit of collecting natural history samples in the front line. In this Jackson was like Francis Buckley who collected Palaeolithic artefacts from the Red Trenches at Coigneux in northern France during the First World War. In late 1917 Jackson was awarded the Military Cross for ‘… conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty….in his efforts to get in casualties, repeatedly going forward through enemy barrages…’ (Edinburgh Gazette March 11th 1918).
His links to the Museum came through his membership of the Cheshire and Lancashire Natural History Society and a long standing friendship with the Museum Director Walter Tattersall. Jackson seems to have been donating samples to the Museum from long before the War and is fleetingly mentioned in the 1915 Museum year book. He sent samples from the trenches back to Manchester Museum and kept up a lively correspondence with the Museum`s temporary wartime Director Thomas Coward. These letters reveal his passion for collecting and study even in the midst of war. Some of his personal feelings are revealed in an excerpt from a letter to the Museum dated September 1918:-.
“Imagine Tattersall hasn’t been over yet! I am awfully tired of it, but there is no escape, nor home service for the likes of me. Whether I shall have any Natural History work when I return I don`t know. My practice at Chester has vanished and possibly I may have to move elsewhere or even emigrate. Anyhow all my old habits have been broken up and retired and physically and mentally I`m not what I was three years ago.” (Manchester Museum Collection)
(Tattersall was the Director of Manchester Museum, then serving in the Royal Garrison Artillery.)
After the War however Jackson didn`t emigrate but re-built his practice and became a keen gardener and a collector of art and antiques. On his death in 1944 he donated his personal collection to the Atkinson Museum, Southport, in memory of his son who was killed with the RAF in World War 2. The items he sent back to Manchester Museum from the trenches are still extant and form part of the Natural History Collection alongside some of his wartime letters.
This blog post is a slightly shortened version of an article sent me by Michael Whitworth, Head of Commercial Operations at Manchester Museum, which has drawn upon information kindly provided by Clare Lewis at UCL, as well as excerpts from letters in the possession of the Peet family. Deepest thanks to both for sharing this for Ancient Worlds.
Clare Lewis (2014) Peet,The JEA And The First World War – Journal of Egyptian Exploration Society
Alan Wakefield (2013) Archaeology Behind The Lines – “Mosquito” The Journal Of The Salonica Campaign Society
Manchester Museum Annual Report 1915