Today, March 10, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the first death of a Monuments Man, British Major Ronald Edmond Balfour. On this day those many years ago, Major Balfour and four local workers were walking a short distance to Christ the King Church in Cleve, Germany, to relocate its treasures. An incoming enemy artillery round landed nearby missing the four workers, but killing Balfour. Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, Balfour’s superior officer, had the sorrowful task of informing his family. “I want very much to tell you how much Ronald was appreciated by all the officers who knew him in their work,” Webb wrote. “He had a quality of clear headedness and practical common sense and a knowledge of the army combined with the obvious distinction of his mind that gave him a special position among the monuments officers.”
In 1954, civic leaders in Cleve installed a plaque at the city archives building along with a photo of Balfour to honor his legacy. “Major Ronald E. Balfour, Lector in King’s College of the University of Cambridge, died in action March 1945 near Kloster Spyck,” the plaque reads. “This gentleman saved as British Monuments Officer precious medieval archives and items of lower Rhine towns. Honor to his memory.”
Ronald Balfour left this world far too early, at the still young age of forty, but not before sharing a timeless piece of wisdom about why the protection of our shared cultural heritage matters, then, now, and always. “No age lives entirely alone; every civilization 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.” Long live the memory of this great man.