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 new