Today’s blog is a guest post by Michael Whitworth, Head of Commercial Operations, on Remembrance Day – In Memory of Thomas Eric Peet
The Manchester Museum became involved in the First World War through its staff and its activities.
As far as possible, the Museum sought to maintain a normal service through the war, but it also took its duty to the war effort very seriously. In June 1915 local school buildings were taken over as hospitals which resulted in schools sharing buildings. Two schools were forced to share a building, which meant that each could only teach for half a day. The local Education Department asked the Museum for help. The Keeper of the Museum (now known as the Director) and the Education Authority drew up a scheme under which pupils would receive instruction in Natural History and Egyptology in the Museum’s buildings. During the course of the war between 900 and 1000 pupils were educated in the Museum. By 1914 over a third of Museum staff had enlisted and was serving in the Army by 1915.
One of Manchester Museum’s most noted wartime figures was the Egyptologist Thomas Eric Peet. He was born in 1882 in Liverpool to middle class parents, Thomas and Salome Peet. He was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School, at Crosby near Liverpool and at Queen’s College, Oxford.
From 1909 onwards he conducted excavations in Egypt for the Egypt Exploration Fund (now known as the Egyptian Exploration Society). From 1909 to 1913, Peet was working on the dig at Abydos with Swiss Archaeologist Edouard Neville where he was instrumental in pushing for more scientific methodology to be used. From 1913 to 1928 he was a Lecturer in Egyptology at Manchester University.
By 1915, as it became obvious that the War was escalating and would not be “…over by Christmas…’’, Peet, against the advice of friends and colleagues, made the decision to enlist as he saw it as his patriotic duty. He was commissioned in October 1915 into the 14th Battalion of the King`s Liverpool Regiment – an infantry regiment from his home town.
However, in an unprecedented move the Egyptian Exploration Fund considered him so important to their work that they agreed to pay him a retaining fee on top of his Army salary to ensure his return to Egyptology after the War
By 1917 he was serving on the Salonica Front with the British Expeditionary Force with a unit of the Army Service Corps. This mountainous region overlapped the border between Greece and Bulgaria, situated within the boundaries of Alexander the Great’s ancient kingdom of Macedonia. Here, a combined British, Serbian, Greek and French force faced Bulgarian, German, Austrian and Turkish troops in a front that was made up of trenches and mountain top strongpoints. It was soon discovered by the troops digging in here that the area was rich in archaeology! Edmund Barrett a rifle bomber in the 12th Lancashire Fusiliers noted that “… you could hardly turn a shovel of earth without a piece of old pot coming out… ” At first the soldiers on the ground dumped them into sandbags with other rubble, though the more enterprising would pocket items they felt of value to sell to local traders or their officers later. It wasn`t long, before a number of men and officers with pre-war archaeological experience, realised the importance of what was being found and alerted the Force Head Quarters.
In the recent film The Monuments Men (2014), a task force is assembled to rescue art masterpieces from the Nazis and return them to their owners. Far from being an invention of Hollywood, it transpires there is some basis in history for this story and staff from Manchester Museum, including Eric Peet and Arthur Randall Jackson, were monuments men during the First World War.
Realising the importance of protecting these potentially valuable finds as much to placate a sometimes hostile Greek Government as for the furthering of historical knowledge both the British and the French forces decided to set up specialist archaeology units whose job it was to locate, catalogue and save these artefacts. The British unit was initially under Lieutenant Commander Ernest Gardner a leading archaeologist who established B.S.F H.Q Museum as the unit became known. Manpower was provided by the Royal Engineers who also ran a Museum to hold finds, while field teams were formed to retrieve and record finds. These were commanded by officers with archaeology backgrounds recruited from units in theatre. Peet with his huge experience was originally recruited as a field section commander, however in 1917 Gardner was recalled to London and Peet took over command of the Unit. One of its major finds was a battlefield site found by the 7th Royal Berkshire Regiment while digging trenches in the Birdcage Line when Private Reg Bailey literally put his pick through an ancient oil lamp before turning over “… bones with ancient armour and helmets…” amongst the finds field team involved discovered the finest example of a 5th Century BC Greek helmet ever discovered. At the end of the War, General Milne the British Commander negotiated with the Greek government its transfer to the British Museum where the collection resides to this day, a lasting reminder of Peet and the work of this unique wartime unit.
Peet himself remained a highly patriotic soldier who believed the War must be won and he would do his duty in that cause, but this was not without pangs of sadness for friends lost on both sides. Archaeology before the War had been well populated with German academics and many were close colleagues at the University and on sites such as Abydos. Many, like Peet, had decided it was their patriotic duty to enlist and so had returned to join the German Army and Peet found himself on opposite sides possibly trying to kill men who had been friends before the War.
A letter home still in procession of his family reveals his dilemma when the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology recorded the death of man named Erman an Egyptologist killed while serving with the German Army and the anger this raised amongst two officers sharing his trench who thought it wrong to show regret for the death of a German soldier. Peet while understanding this hate from men who had lost friends and brothers to the Germans could not at the same time bring himself to hate an old colleague “… both asked me how my paper could … print obituaries of slain Germans with … expressions of regret for their deaths. I had no answer.”
“To Whom Should I Speak Today?” Poem written by T. Eric Peet (Images from: slideshare.net)
Demobbed in 1919, he returned to the University, declining a post with the Egyptian Exploration Fund and in 1920-1 was involved on the Amarna excavations in Egypt. This would be his last major excavation as he began to concentrate on academic research. He became a noted expert and author on Egyptian Military Campaigns, and in 1933 he was appointed Reader in Egyptology at the University of Oxford. He died in February 1934 aged 52 leaving a wife and daughter only weeks after taking up his new post. The Queen’s College, Oxford houses the University’s Egyptology library, and it is named the ‘Peet Library’ in his honour.
Head of Commercial Operations
With grateful acknowledgment to Clare Lewis at UCL and to the Peet family for excerpts from letters and images.
Clare Lewis (2014) Peet, the JEA and the First World War – Journal of Egyptian Exploration Society
Alan Wakefield (2013) Archaeology Behind The Lines – “Mosquito” The Journal Of The Salonica Campaign Society
Manchester Museum Annual Report 1915