Ronald Edmond Balfour (1904-1945)
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. Balfour 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 volumes 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 2ndLieutenant 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.
Balfour was recruited to become one of the Monuments Men 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. By April 1 he served 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 U.S. Monuments Man 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 to 21stArmy Group, commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery and initially composing 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 Monuments Officers Lt. George L. Stout, USNR, Squadron Leader J. E. Dixon-Spain (RAF) and American Capt. Robert Posey with the United States Forces under the 21stArmy Group. After the Normandy landings on June 6, 12th Army Group was activated on September 1 under General Omar Bradley, leaving 21st Army Group with British Second Army and the newly activated First Canadian Army.
Balfour arrived in France in August. Before heading off to combat Balfour made a compelling case for the importance of the task confronting the Monuments Men in a speech he planned to deliver to his men. He wrote: “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.”
Major Balfour’s detachment on August 30 as Monuments Officer for First Canadian Army 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 retreat of German forces. From Rouen, Balfour moved on to join up with First Canadian Army in Belgium.
He arrived in Bruges, just days too late to prevent the evacuating Nazis from stealing Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, along with 11 paintings from the Church of Notre Dame as they fled the city. 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. 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 with Monuments Officer John Edward Dixon-Spain at Second British Army when the accident happened. Balfour was taken to a hospital in Eindhoven where he outmaneuvered the medical staff 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. LaFarge then called on British Major Paul Baillie Reynolds only to learn that he had received the news from Balfour himself two days previously. LaFarge then rushed to the General Hospital in Brussels where he found Balfour in a very good mood. He told LaFarge that he thought he may be active 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 returned to duty just as 21st Army Group attacked the Siegfried Line. During combat operations that month, Balfour helped to recover and protect archival collections in several German cities. 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.
Balfour filed his last report on March 3, 1945, in which he 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.”[i]
In his last letter, to Webb, dated March 3, Balfour 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.
One week later, Balfour was killed in Cleve, Germany by a shell burst while he and some other men were attempting to relocate pieces of a medieval altarpiece to safety. He was the first of two Monuments Men killed in action.
Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Adviser to the War Office on Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, paid tribute to his countryman writing:
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.[ii]
Balfour left his papers and library to King’s College. The college subsequently named an archive room in his honor. So, too, did the town of Goch. 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.”
Ronald Balfour is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, near Cleve.*
*The Foundation wishes to express thanks to The National Archives and Dr. Greg Bradsher, longtime friends and supporters, for their contribution to this biographical profile.
Photo courtesy of the King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge, The Papers of Ronald Edmund Balfour, Misc. 5.
[i] Major Ronald E. Balfour, Kings College Archives Centre, Cambridge, The Papers of Ronald Edmund Balfour, Misc. 5.
[ii] Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Kings College Archives Centre, Cambridge, The Papers of Ronald Edmund Balfour, Misc. 5.