Spotlight: India’s Monuments Men

(Images via Google Images)

It all started with a giggle. An odd moment during World War II. Major Eustace D’Souza of the 1/5th Maratha Light Infantry was checking on sentries when he came across one of them giggling. The source of the mirth, he found out, was down at the basement of the Castello di Montegufoni in Tuscany, where the battalion had set up headquarters. Venus, the Roman goddess of fertility, having risen from the waters and making her way to the shore on a sea shell, stood before a surprised D’Souza and the red-faced soldier “in all her undraped glory”. They were looking at The Birth of Venus, one of the masterpieces of Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. A flutter followed, the commanding officer was informed and wires buzzed.

Today, The Birth Of Venus hangs in Hall 10 of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence among other works of the master like Primavera that were rescued during the war. These paintings were part of the 261 artworks that were recovered from the Montegufoni Castle in July 1944. Neither D’Souza, who was later conferred the Param Vishisht Seva Medal and retired as a Major General in 1975, nor his giggling junior, however, finds a mention in the many works that document this operation.

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Among the heroes hailed for having played a role in “saving Italy’s treasures” are Scottish writer Eric Linklater, who took the credit for finding the paintings and for informing Frederick Hartt, one of the officers of the famous Monuments Men. Robert M. Edsel, author of The Monuments Men (which was recently adapted into a film of the same name by actor-director George Clooney), chronicled the events that followed after the arrival of Hartt in his 2013 book Saving Italy: The Race To Rescue A Nation’s Treasures From The Nazis. As history remains the story of whoever narrates it, the role of the Indian battalion seems to have been conveniently brushed under the well-documented memories of white men.

The Art of Adventure, the memoir written by Linklater that is considered the official history of the operation, is the go-to guide for most authors who have documented the incident. The book mentions how Linklater, a major in the Royal Engineers who was writing the official history of the British Eighth Army, had hitched a ride with BBC war correspondent Wynford Vaughan Thomas to “try and get as close to the retreating Germans”.

They arrived at the Montegufoni castle, a 16th-century property owned by the Sitwell family, to interview the CO of the Maratha battalion, Colonel D.W.H. Leeming, who was apparently catching some sleep to shake off the aftermath of having been through the long and tiring Battle of Monte Cassino. While waiting for the officer to wake up, Linklater recalls hearing a stray shell or two coming from the German line, which meant they were only about 2,000 yards away from the enemy. The two men, however, decided to take a stroll around the palatial property.

Along one of the many dark corridors of the castle, they came across a few paintings leaning against the wall. Given the casual way they were kept, with their painted surface exposed, Linklater and his friend thought they were “very good copies” of the original works. They then entered a hall full of paintings, “some in wooden cases, others in brown paper, or simply removed from their frames and leaning against the walls”. They discovered that they were all originals of Renaissance masters like Uccello, Giotto and Botticelli. Professor Cesare Fasola, the librarian of the Uffizi Gallery, explained to them that the paintings were moved from the gallery and the Pitti Palace to save it from being bombarded.

Present day Montegufoni Castle
Present day Montegufoni Castle

This is where Italian journalist Ilaria Dagnini Brey starts her version of events from. Brey, author of the 2009 book The Venus Fixers, hails Hartt as the real hero. The arrival of the “tall, bespectacled American art historian… who spoke fluent Italian” was a delight to Fasola, who was finding it hard to communicate with Linklater as they could not find a common language to converse in. Brey goes on to explain Hartt’s one-month stay at Montegufoni and how all the artworks, along with others recovered from Bolzano and Austria, were transported back to Florence on July 21, 1945.

Edsel, too, covers much of the same ground in his book. Hartt is the hero in both the books, which mention the Maratha Battalion only in passing. The disparity in this well-accepted version, however, arises from an article titled War Was Tricky In A Guide-Book Land written by Thomas and published in the March 4, 1950 issue of now dysfunctional Everybody’s Weekly. Thomas, who says he arrived at the castle accompanied by Linklater and Capt. Unni Nayer, “the extremely efficient public relations officer of the division”, praises Leeming profusely. “I give the colonel full marks. Here he was, in the middle of a hard battle, invited to take his mind off a Tiger tank which had been reported approaching his lines, to deal with a mass of paintings and altar pieces that were, after all, not listed as military stores,” he writes. The colonel dealt with the art “like a war veteran”, assigning the “sturdy Mahrattas” to guard the masterpieces.

Thomas also mentions the promise that D’Souza later claimed was made to the battalion for their contribution in the operation. “I hope that when the Uffizi is completely reopened, there will be a Mahratta room for the display of the Primavera,” he writes. In a letter he wrote to Linklater’s eldest son Magnus Linklater, former Scotland editor of The Times, in 2004, D’Souza affirms the same and states that Linklater had gifted the battalion the Sitwell family’s visitors book as a token of appreciation for their efforts. In his letter, D’Souza, then in his 80s, also mentions his book titled A Saga Of Service: The History of the 1st Battalion The Mahratta Light Infantry: 1768 to 1993, the official regimental history of the battalion, which contains his version of the events.

The letter, which was reproduced as part of an article written by Magnus in the Scottish Review a year later, explains the sequence of events in greater detail than the book. It claims that Linklater and co arrived with Capt Nayer after the battalion had buzzed wires to inform them of the artworks found. “This incident brought more attention to the battalion than all the battles fought,” wrote D’Souza in the book.

“Officers present serving with the 1st Bn 5th Mahratta L.I. on 30th July 1944, upon which day this book, the property of the late Sir George Sitwell, was presented as a trophy to the Bn by Major Eric Linklater R.E-Castle of Montegufoni, Florence,” are the words inscribed on the first page of the visitor’s book that is now kept at the battalion’s mess in Hyderabad.

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It does not take much to find out whether Linklater kept his promise, as there is no room named after the battalion at Uffizi. What is even more unfortunate is the fact that the contribution of the Marathas were completely ignored in the later retellings of the incident. Edsel told THE WEEK in an email that his knowledge of the role of the Marathas is limited to what he got from the writings of Linklater and Hartt, who documented the events post his arrival at the castle in his book Florentine Treasures Under Fire.

“In trying to reconstruct who did what to whom 70 years ago, especially during an epic war that claimed the lives of some 65 million souls, it is entirely possible that the contributions of some might not have been documented,” he agreed. “But I am satisfied that my account is accurate to the best of anyone’s ability to reconstruct the events as a result of relying on three firsthand witnesses and their near simultaneous accounts rather than recollections of events decades later.”

That is exactly where the Indians lagged behind. Other than D’Souza’s out-of-print book, we have absolutely nothing to fall back upon to prove our claims. Col. Vivek Chadha, the official historian of 1 Maratha Light Infantry, who is currently posted at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, recalls the many retellings of this incident he had heard from D’Souza, who was his senior during his service with the battalion. “This was one of his favourite stories and anyone who knows Lt D’Souza will tell you how sharp his memory was. His memory of these incidents were crystal clear,” says Chadha.

Chadha recalls one time they had visited the mess together. “We were both sitting in the rear seat of a car and entering the mess, at the entrance of which there was an arch with all the battle honours of the battalion inscribed on it,” says Chadha. “As soon as we passed it, D’Souza turned to me and told me that one of the battle honours were spelt wrongly. And, this is when he was 86 or 87. So that is the kind of sharp mind he had even at that stage.”

D’Souza’s memory is legendary. When he passed away last year at 92, his daughter Lalitha D’Souza wrote on how he enthusiastically ran a family newsletter till he turned 90. “Most of us welcomed the monthly newsletter; some dreaded its arrival in the inbox,” writes Lalitha. “His memory was phenomenal! No detail was omitted. These newsletters helped us keep abreast not only of family news but news from Bombay, the world, the Maratha Regiment, neighbours, friends of his and indeed friends of ours, people we had lost touch with. At the end there were the ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’: a grandchild’s battle with pimples, promotions, job changes, his pulse and blood pressure (always perfect!), and a list of those who had not acknowledged his last dispatch.”

monuments men

In his letter to Magnus, D’Souza also asserts that his version of events “has never ever been challenged by even those ex-British officers who were present there”. One wonders then why D’Souza never took it up on himself to clear this confusion over who did what. “What was it that we can ultimately have done? This was one thing D’Souza would often lament,” says Chadha. “Military history is given no importance in our country. So many great contributions of the Indian Army have been washed away because we do not have a culture of documenting or writing events down systematically like the Americans and the British.”

As for what really happened, no one knows. D’Souza was the last of the officers who were part of the battalion then. Chadha, however, has a theory based on assumptions. “Even Linklater and Thomas in their respective versions mention that they could hear shells while approaching the castle,” he says. “So that cements the fact that the battalion was the first to reach the spot.”

According to Chadha, there could be two reasons why Linklater and co went to the castle. “First is that they went to the 8th division and were directed towards the farthest battalion,” he says. “However, the more plausible option seems to be that they went there on being called to check out the paintings. Otherwise, it is too much of a chance that they end up in this castle and bump on these paintings that people who were already in the castle hadn’t seen for so long.”

Chadha says the battalion would have seen them and, because they were not fully aware of the background of these paintings, sent for experts. “Also, the battalion wouldn’t have been presented with the visitors book of the castle as a trophy if they hadn’t done anything worthwhile,” he says. “The battalion, however, found a vague mention in Hartt’s work, in which he writes, ‘the traditional discipline of the Indians insured that no damage was done to the collections’.”

A retelling of this episode sheds light on the issue of poor documenting of military history in our country. “It is a paradox,” says Chadha. “We tend to exaggerate and celebrate our mythological stories, but when it comes to our contemporary military history, our archiving is dismal.”

Irrespective of whether credit was given where it was due, the fact of the matter was that a rich cultural tradition was saved by soldiers who put their lives on the line. Many people from all over the world now flock to the galleries of Florence, which, according to Edsel, house “only about 10 per cent of the great art treasures of the western world”. So, as Magnus puts it in his article, the story of the 261 artworks that found their way back to where they belonged “finds its proper ending elsewhere: in the galleries of the Uffizi, and the wistful smile on the face of the Primavera.”

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