The Monuments Men

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George Francis WIllmot ( 1907 - 1977 )

British archaeologist George Francis Willmot was born in Bournemouth, Hampshire, England on August 19, 1907. He developed an interest in archaeology from a very young age, a seemingly prophetic career path which was confirmed with his discovery of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Abington, Berkshire when he was just nineteen years old. The son of a solicitor, Willmot attended Weymouth College and Keble College, Oxford University, before becoming the schoolmaster at Ampleforth College, a coeducational independent day and boarding school in North Yorkshire. He also participated in excavation projects alongside the world’s most notable archaeologists, including Mortimer Wheeler and E.T. Leeds.

During World War II, Willmot served with a camouflage unit of British Second Army. In December 1944 he received a transfer to the British MFAA in Germany. Willmot’s first assignment was with the SHAEF Mission to the Netherlands, where he underwent intensive training in MFAA operational procedures, fieldwork, and Military Government plans under Monuments Men Maj. L. Bancel LaFarge and Maj. Ronald Balfour. When Balfour suffered a broken leg, Willmot’s studies went uninterrupted due to daily meetings at Balfour’s hospital bedside. Willmot later assumed responsibility for MFAA activities in Hamburg, Germany, conducting inspections of numerous damaged monuments and churches, including St. Catherine’s Church and St. Michael’s Church, both of which sustained severe bomb damage. Meanwhile, he reported that the Archives of the Hamburg Society for the Advancement of Arts & Crafts were destroyed. In the course of his inspections, Willmot deduced that many of the most important collections from the Hamburg museums has been dispersed across farms and houses in the Gemran countryside. He acquired a list of Hamburg art dealers from the city’s Chamber of Commerce, then examined each dealer’s ledgers for suspicious foreign purchases.

During the war, tens of thousands of metal objects from all over Germany, as well as from France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, were brought to Hamburg to be melted down for German war materials. Following the German surrender, thousands of surviving church bells filled an area in Hamburg harbor the size of an American football field. Nearby, bronze monuments from public squares and institutions in Paris, Krakow, Berlin, and Munich, as well as many other cities, were piled in sheds. In summer 1945, the British MFAA began the arduous task of sorting and identifying each object. At the time, Willmot stated that, “9,229 bells were stolen from Czechoslovakia and sent to Hamburg. Only one remains. Every single bell in Holland was taken.”

Willmot remained involved in the effort to restore the sound of bells to church towers across Europe until September 1946, when he was transferred to the MFAA office in Dusseldorf. He later assumed control of the art protection office in Hanover in April 1947. Following his return to England, he began a twenty-year career as Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum in York, England. Despite a challenging financial budget, he undertook a transformative project to reorganize and redisplay the museum’s collections for a new age. In addition to his duties as Keeper, Willmot was involved in numerous excavations of prehistoric sites in Britain and Ireland. In the early 1950s he began a study of the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey in York, a comprehensive dig which penetrated to Pre-Norman and Roman levels. Willmot cleverly staffed the large project using students of the nearby Bootham School and volunteer members of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. He was named a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1951.

George Willmot died in York, England after years of ill health on February 14, 1977.