War And Pieces
By Paul DaleyNovember 9, 2012
A beautiful mosaic pilfered from the Palestinian front during World War I now hangs in Canberra’s Australian War Memorial, shoved awkwardly behind a newly built wall, testament to a growing national embarrassment. The mystery of Australia’s Elgin Marbles.
OVER THE YEARS I’ve spent many hours sitting in front of the Shellal Mosaic at the Australian War Memorial, pondering its creators and admiring its exquisite artistry. It is stuck to a wall and softly lit behind a vast pane of glass in what was once a prominent position in the Hall of Valour, which honours all Australian Victoria Cross winners.
Sitting on the bench in front of the wall I’ve contemplated the many divergences between Anzac myth and reality as manifested in the official and unofficial stories of this relic. I’ve read the official literature about the mosaic that lends an impression that it was effectively rescued from Palestine, and the many mentions of it in the more nationalistic accounts of Australia in World War I, including in Patsy Adam-Smith’s Anzacs. I also found myself chuckling and shaking my head at the thought of the light horsemen pinching bits of it before a fretful Reverend Maitland Woods could rescue it.
There has been a long internal debate, stretching from 1917, within the Australian defence establishment about the rights and wrongs, first of removing the artefact to Australia and second, of declaring it a trophy of war.
The war memorial is filled with legitimate trophies of war — items that Australian troops captured on the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Palestine, such as Turkish and German guns and enemy uniforms. We even have one of the deer-fur flying boots of German air ace Baron von Richtofen (the Red Baron), who died after Australians shot him down near Corbie, France in 1918. (The collection also, incidentally, boasts a posthumous photograph of von Richtofen’s face, replete with wounds he could not have sustained in the air. But that is another story.)
Sensing, perhaps, that I knew more of the mosaic story than most people, in early 2010 one of the memorial guides approached me while I was sitting on the bench in front of the mosaic.
“We pinched that from Palestine,” he said.
“I know that,” I replied. “But who are we going to give it back to?”
I WALK EAST FROM THE SHADE OF THE OAKS for a few minutes and stop atop an undulating mound, Khirbet Shellal. The back of my neck and exposed arms burn as I squint into the glary north. On my left is Gaza and to my right the big Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, better known to Australians as Beersheba, the stage for that devil-may-care cavalry charge at the Turkish trenches by the 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment on October 31, 1917.
This is the Beersheba-Gaza Line. Ninety-five years ago it was a rabbit-warren of Turkish trenches, a near impenetrable system of diggings that the British troops — spearheaded by Australian and New Zealand horsemen — would have to penetrate to wrest from the Ottoman armies Gaza, Beersheba and the biggest prize, Jerusalem. On March 26, 1917, after vicious fighting in the giant maze of towering cactus hedges that surrounded Gaza, the British infantry and the light horsemen actually made it into the city only to be withdrawn, thanks to bumbling English command, at dusk. The first Battle of Gaza was a tactical disaster for the British.
At the second battle on April 17, 1917, the Turks withdrew their front from Besor Springs to reinforce the trenches nearer to Gaza in prescient anticipation of the second British attack. “Gaza II” was another shemozzle that needlessly cost thousands of British, including dozens of Australian, lives.
When the Australians marched into Besor Springs early on April 17 there was little Turkish resistance; just one Australian, Trooper Charles Austin, died — killed by a bomb thrown from a German plane. The Turks had deserted the trenches, two of which were cut through the side of the hill, Khirbet Shellal, where I stand. The Turks had used the pinnacle of the hill as a machinegun post and lookout across the expanse of open country north and south. The occupying Australians from the Anzac Mounted Division immediately set about establishing an observation station in their place.
It is said that an Australian signaller from the 5th Light Horse Regiment, Corporal Ernest Lovell-Shore, discovered part of a beautiful mosaic at the edge of one of the trenches in Khirbet Shellal. The mosaic, comprising thousands of individually hand-coloured tessera was typical to archaeologists of the era for an “inhabited” vine trellis — a popular figurative design for pavings in Southern Palestine at the time of its creation in AD 561. But this one, measuring 8.2 metres by 5.5 metres, was a particularly stunning example: comprising 45 medallions in nine rows of five, each circle incorporates animals and exotic birds facing a central stem containing baskets of fruit, a chalice and a caged bird. The mosaic formed the floor of an early Christian Church. It is distinguished, however, by heads of grain hanging from the vine and its delicate colours — every hue of russet and gold, subtle blues, oranges, agricultural greens and gentle eggshell blues — that render it an object of stunning beauty.
At the eastern end of the mosaic was a tiled inscription which, translated from the Greek, reads “this temple has decorated with a rich mosaic our most holy bishop ... and the most God-loving George, priest and sacristan, in the year 622 of the era of Gaza in the 10th year of the indiction”.
The Turks had hacked two trenches through the pavement with their tools. While the mosaic was far from complete, the Australian troops immediately realised the prize they had uncovered.
THE FOURTH CENTURY CHURCH for which the Shellal mosaic served as a floor was built for the small community that, reliant on the water source, had grown around it, and also for the caravan travellers who passed through.
Sir Granville Ryrie, the commander of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment, to which Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Wilson’s Queensland-drawn 5th regiment belonged, was, like many of the soldiers, immediately aware of the mosaic’s monetary and archaeological value.
“The mosaic ... has been examined by some experts and they say it is worth £20,000 and that there is only one other piece of work like it in the world and they are going to try to remove it,” he wrote to his wife at Micalago Station in southern NSW in 1917.
Oxford-educated Maitland Woods was the senior Anglican chaplain to the Australian Imperial Force in the Middle East. Besides being a man of god he was a keen amateur archaeologist whose “collection” after the war included objects of beauty from the canal to Tripoli in today’s Lebanon.
Wilson ordered a cordon to protect the mosaic until Woods’s arrival a few days later. Wilson also ordered an official drawing be made of the mosaic by the artist Sapper FL McFarlane. Another drawing was made by a Captain MS Briggs for The Burlington Magazine in May 1917 after Woods, with volunteers from the Anzac Field Squadron, spent two weeks working in the searing heat to completely uncover the mosaic.
In his 1942 book, The Shellal Mosaic: And other classical antiquities in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, the archaeologist Arthur Trendall observed how the elaborate tessera peacock at the bottom right of McFarlane’s drawing was almost gone in the Briggs drawing.
Trendall wrote: “From the very beginning the peacock plays a large part in Christian art as typifying immortality, either from the fact that it annually sheds and renews its tail feathers or because of an old tradition that it’s [sic] flesh was incorruptible.”
Immortal? Incorruptible? Mythically perhaps. But not as figuratively represented in the Shellal Mosaic.
“It is more than unfortunate that the right hand bird is now irrecoverable, the tesserae having been carried off as souvenirs by the troops during the interval between the discovery of the mosaic and its removal...”
When the mosaic was first uncovered the pheasants it depicted were conspicuous for the glass tiles used in their plumage. But they, too, were destroyed or souvenired along, it seems, with a precious stone — a ruby perhaps —that formed the eye of one of the birds.
While Woods was enamoured of the mosaic, it was a related find, under the inscription, that captivated him.
“Under this inscription were discovered the bones of the Saint, lying feet to east and arms closed on chest. These, almost 1400 years old, crumbled at the touch. The right forearm had been broken, and set beautifully, which was evidenced by the extra bulging bone growth around the fracture ... Such bones as would bear very careful handling were reverently placed in a casket, but this had to be done when the high wind of the afternoon had died down.”
The word quickly spread through the ranks that the bones were those of St George of Cappadocia, England’s patron saint. Consequently the body was of immediate interest to British command, not least the head of the Egypt Expeditionary Force, General Edmund Allenby, who wanted it shipped immediately to London.
According to one version of events held in the war memorial archives, a telegram was dispatched to military authorities saying that the bones of St George had been found.
A prompt reply advised: “No one of that name on our strength; forward his identity disc.”
Woods made much of the delicate operation to remove the bones.
But in a note to the war memorial in 1941, the year it opened in Canberra, John Nimmo — a medical student and volunteer Trooper in the 5th Light Horse Regiment — wrote: “When the mosaic was uncovered, portion of a stone sarcophagus was found and also portions of a skeleton, including bones of the limbs and the spine. These bones were also taken as souvenirs.”
IN MY BOOK with Mike Bowers, Armageddon — Two Men on an Anzac Trail (Miegunyah Press, 2011), I argued that Australia had effectively looted the Shellal Mosaic and it was high time that we publicly acknowledged as much.
A spokesman for Warren Snowden, the minister for veterans affairs, said the remnants of the mosaic were removed in the belief that it might be destroyed in future military action. “The Australians who dug up the Shellal Mosaic knew its precise value.”
Indeed they did, which is why so many of them stole pieces of it — and even the bones of the purported saint who helped lay it. Close to a century after its discovery it is clear the mosaic wasn’t removed to protect it from the marauding Turks at all. They had, after all, vanished from the area. The priority was quite obviously to protect it from the looting Australian light horsemen.
As Nimmo observed: “Portions of the mosaic were souvenired by thoughtless persons at this stage, and it was only after the timely intervention of ... Maitland Woods, that resulted in its removal and arrival in Cairo.”
Woods was certainly, initially at least, of the view that the bones belonged to the famous St George. But he re-evaluated this upon realising that England’s saint died 269 years before the basilica at Shellal was built. Neither is there evidence that the bones belonged to the priest even though the skeleton was assumed by most, at the time, to belong to the “Saint” George referred to in the inscription.
During the excavation Woods wrote that “I don’t mind what happens” to the pavement. “But I do want (1) the wonderful Greek inscription in black and white marble mosaic ... ; (2) the relics of the Saint (George of Shellal) and I want to place the inscription and the Relics in Brisbane Cathedral under the Alter there where they will be a fitting witness to the bravery of our Anzacs in Palestine . . .”
But the British had other ideas. They didn’t care about the bones of the saint once it was established they did not belong to George of Cappadocia. But they did want the exotic Shellal Mosaic, which they earmarked for display in the British Museum alongside many of their own looted antiquities — most notably the Elgin Marbles, which the British stole from the Acropolis and shipped home between 1801 to 1812.
And they used all their imperial authority to stand over the Australian Army in an attempt to take it.
At one point the Australian military authorities even told the British that they were willing to engage in a “war” if that’s what it took to keep the mosaic for Australia.
MUCH OF PALESTINE became Israel in 1947. Over the years various Palestinian representatives, in Australia and in the West Bank, have discreetly expressed interest in having the mosaic returned. But not surprisingly it pales in priority to achieving statehood.
Other Arab nations have also periodically informally prodded Australia about the propriety of keeping the mosaic, although I understand that no formal request has been made to have it returned. Some Arab diplomats have, however, suggested that at some point Australia should make a “diplomatic gesture”, perhaps by constructing a replica of the mosaic in, say, Ramallah, in acknowledgement of Australia’s ongoing possession of the Palestinian antiquity.
A spokesman for the Australian War Memorial said: “The available records held by the Memorial contain no documentation of an official request from the Palestinian Authority or any other Arab Government to return the mosaic.
“The Australian War Memorial understands and appreciates the cultural and historical significance of the Shellal Mosaic. The Mosaic has been formally recognised as a major heritage element of the Memorial’s heritage listed building and has remained ‘in situ’ since the Memorial opened in 1941.”
The spokesman said the “mosaic passed to the Australian Government in accordance with British War Office regulations of the time”.
“The Australian War Memorial well understands the cultural significance of the Shellal Mosaic and the implications of more recent conventions for the protection of cultural property.”
Several war memorial officials and former officials have, meanwhile, confided that some who have served on the memorial’s board over the years have been distinctly uncomfortable with Australia’s questionable appropriation of the mosaic.
“There is a strong sense today that it would have been a good thing if the mosaic was never taken,” one former official said this year. “Some at the memorial consider it to be an embarrassment.”
WHILE THE AUSTRALIANS and the New Zealanders were at the vanguard of the successful push against the Turks (Beersheba fell with the “charge” on October 31, 1917, Jerusalem by Christmas and, a year later, Damascus in Syria) behind the scenes our military leaders were in heated dispute with the British about the mosaic, which was being stored in crates in Cairo. In December 1917 the British had demanded that the mosaic be sent temporarily to Britain while its final destination was determined.
The Australians knew if it went to London they would never get it back. And so they bought time through obfuscation.
On February 25, 1918, the acting commandant of the Australian Imperial Force in London, Brigadier General Tom Griffiths, wrote to the Secretary of Britain’s War Office that in view of the “special circumstances” relating to the Australians’ discovery of the mosaic “I trust you will see your way clear to have the mosaic sent direct from Egypt to the Minister of Defence, Melbourne.
“An additional reason for submitting this request is that we are advised from Egypt that up to the present no war trophies have been collected or allotted to the Australian troops in Egypt.”
In March 1918 the British again demanded from Griffiths the shipment of the mosaic to England, with the implied threat: “I am . . . to remind you that it is open to considerable doubt whether this mosaic can be regarded as a trophy of war as it was not captured from the enemy, and it is possible that it may ultimately be decided that the mosaic is to be restored to Palestine.”
The Australian War Memorial’s extensive archive holds material indicating several prominent military officials made prescient suggestions about the time the mosaic was discovered that it could become a contentious treasure.
Australia’s official historian of World War I, Charles W. Bean, resolved while still at Gallipoli that Australia would open a memorial to the Australian men who had fought and died in WWI. It would comprise archives, military records and collectible items such as war trophies, and artefacts. From 1916, when the regiments and battalions returned to Suez before the continuation of the next phases of the war in the Middle East and Europe, commanding officers and the men in the ranks were mindful of adding to the collection.
Captain John Treloar was advising Griffiths on delicate matters relating to the mosaic. Treloar was organising the Australian War Records Section that was to form the basis of the war memorial’s archive. He became the institution’s first director when it was situated in Melbourne.
In 1917, Treloar and Bean decided the AIF should inject some moral relativity into the fight, if necessary, by raising Britain’s alleged theft of the Elgin Marbles.
And so on March 19, 1918, Griffiths responded indignantly to the War Office saying there was “every reason to look upon the Mosaic as a trophy of war”.
“ ... it is difficult to see how a relic of this sort ... can be denied to the Museums of Australia when the Elgin Marbles, taken from a centre of world-wide pilgrimage such as Athens, are amongst the most prized possessions of Great Britain.’’
The argument continued. In May 1918, the British, again writing to Australian authorities, said: “His Majesty’s Government have taken exception to the acts of looting committed by the enemy in the preset war, but if valuable relics of artistic and archaeological interest are to be conveyed away from the theatres of war as trophies by British troops, it is open to question whether His Majesty’s Government will not be laying itself open to similar charges.”
The same month Treloar noted that in a meeting with the British War Trophies Committee “the war Office was trying to prevent Australian [sic] laying herself open to the charge of not having been above looting”.
In late 1918, amid the euphoria of the war’s end, it was finally agreed that the mosaic would be shipped to Australia. It left Egypt on the Wiltshire on Boxing Day 1918, arriving in Australia early the next year to be displayed in Melbourne and Sydney, still in its packing cases.
Many Australian families are still in possession of tiles from the mosaic. In the past six months I have come across two families descended from light horsemen who have found tesserae, clearly marked as coming from the Shellal Mosaic, in their antecedents’ possessions.
About the time the war memorial opened in 1941 its acting director, Tasman Heyes, began trying to locate mosaic tiles that had been pilfered and acquired by other institutions — including churches — to add to those in his institution’s collection that were being secured for display on the wall.
Representations were made to St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane, where Maitland Woods had wanted the body of George and the special inscription to be secured.
A member of the war memorial board, having made inquiries about acquiring the pieces at St John’s, wrote to Heyes: “I am very sorry to have to tell you there seems little hope of our securing a portion of the Shellal Mosaic which the people of St John’s Cathedral possess. I wrote to my friend Bishop Dixon, urging that they should hand the portion over to us — if they could not give it to the nation straight out — they at least lend it for a time. He has written advising me that he is afraid he cannot help in any way as the pieces they have: ‘are embedded in the construction of the sanctuary wall’.”
The memorial has always understood this only too well; the same carefully considered tactic meant that the mosaic could never be easily removed from it should a future Palestinian state ask for its return.
As a spokesman for the memorial pointed out: “Because of its extreme fragility, any attempts to interfere with the Mosaic or try to detach it from its current location will likely lead to its permanent damage.”
British suggestions Australia had looted the mosaic clearly played on influential minds at the time. Not least that of Bean, who thought it worthwhile considering whether to further excavate the Shellal site. In 1922 Treloar said that Australia, having taken the mosaic, had a “certain obligation” to excavate.
Bean wrote to Treloar: “ ... if good results are expected from this work we should shoulder a little expense in connect [sic] with it. Our position otherwise would be that of a looter, who cleared off with some work of art in his pocket concerning the real historical or artistic value of which he has no further concern”.
Australia did no more digging at Shellal.
When he thought Britain was going to “take the whole thing” in 1917, Rev Woods shrewdly took the precaution of gathering several baskets of tesserae that erosion had washed down Khirbet Shellal. These he had an artist in Cairo fashion into an exact replica of the memorial stone that had covered the bones of George. He later gave the replica to a friend, Colonel John Arnott (a light horse commander and heir to Arnott’s biscuits). Arnott confirmed to the war memorial in 1941 that the replica inscription formed a “portion of the stone steps in the garden of my house at Coolah Creek, Coolah, NSW”.
In 1941 Heyes contacted Arnott with a view to procuring tiles from his steps to add to the mosaic that was being re-assembled on the wall in Canberra. It appears this did not happen.
Meanwhile Heyes and others informally enlisted the help of returned soldiers’ organisations to help gather souvenired tiles from the ageing light horsemen. But this proved fruitless, as illustrated by a comparison between the mosaic today and the 1917 drawing of it by Briggs.
In 2010, the war memorial began extensive renovations to the Hall of Valour in which the Shellal treasure was displayed in pride of place. The new hall opened last year. A large partition now stands where the bench seat was previously located directly in front of the mosaic. To view the mosaic now you must stand in a claustrophobic space, perhaps a metre wide, between the partition and glass behind which it is housed.
This is either an extraordinarily clumsy interior design mishap or a deliberate attempt to hide the mosaic.
Mike Bowers/The Global Mail
Mike Bowers/The Global Mail
Mike Bowers/The Global Mail
Asked if the partition had been erected to deliberately obscure the mosaic, a spokesman for the memorial said: “The Shellal mosaic has been in its existing location for more than 70 years, ever since the memorial opened in 1941. When the Hall of Valour was redeveloped to display the expanded Victoria Cross collection the partition was included to differentiate the display of the mosaic from the Hall of Valour. The memorial is very pleased that the mosaic remains on display to the public, providing people an opportunity to see this important object.”
But what became of George of Shellal?
By most accounts the portion of his skeleton that escaped the hot-fingered light horsemen disappeared somewhere en-route between Shellal and Cairo, never to be seen again.
But it seems George did actually make it to Australia — though not, as Rev Woods had hoped, to his beloved St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane.
While it is not clearly documented in the war memorial archives it seems that Woods left the bones of St George of Shellal for “safe keeping” with his good mate, Rev Herbert Rose. Rose was the vicar at St Anne’s Anglican Church in Sydney’s Strathfield for 45 years from 1885. His son died at Gallipoli.
Rose secreted the bones under the alter at St Anne’s. They remained there in a box until they were reinterred in the St Anne’s sanctuary on Advent Sunday, November 30, 1986.
The Shellal Mosaic and skeleton constitute perhaps the oldest non-indigenous spiritual or religious relics in Australia.
Mike Bowers/The Global Mail
Mike Bowers/The Global Mail
Mike Bowers/The Global Mail
Mike Bowers/The Global Mail
George still rests there today, as a modest bronze plaque in the church attests. The parish has always treated him with appropriate reverence and dignity. This is the least George probably deserves given the way his bones were handled when they were first discovered.
It’s a long way from Shellal to Strathfield and Canberra.
But perhaps now, almost a century after the glittering mosaic and the saint were uncovered, Anzac-mad Australia might like to ponder when a trophy of war is indeed a trophy.
And when it is theft.