Im War Memorial in Canberra – dem zentralen Kriegerdenkmal Australiens – ist das sogenannte Shellal-Mosaic noch immer Bestandteil der Dauerausstellung. Das antike Mosaik wurde 1917 in der Region Gaza von australischen und neuseeländischen Truppen entdeckt, ausgegraben und nach Australien verschifft. Paul Daley thematisiert in seinem Artikel die kontroverse Debatte um das Schicksal des Mosaiks seit 1918 bis heute.
kommentiert von Sebastian Willert
nach: The Guardian, International Edition, 24. März 2018, online abrufbar.
In defending the theft of the Shellal mosaic from Palestine, Australian officials played the Elgin Marbles card
As the first world war’s endgame was unfolding across the European western front and Middle East a century ago, Australia and Britain were tangled in their own acrimonious fight over which had the right to the most prized battlefield loot.
British and Australian officers freighted their correspondence with moral accusation, claim and counter-claim, over one of the war’s great battlefield treasures – the »Shellal mosaic«, which Australian soldiers took from Palestine as a supposed trophy of war at the second battle of Gaza in 1917.
Australia even played what might be called the Elgin Marbles card – claiming that, if Britain insisted on its right to such a priceless treasure so questionably acquired from Greece, Australia’s claim to the stunning Byzantine mosaic should also go unchallenged.
For context on this row over the mosaic (since 1941 set immovably into an internal wall of Canberra’s Australian War Memorial) it helps to understand the feverish, competitive spirit of collection that imbued the First Australian Imperial Force while it fought at Gallipoli, the western front and the Middle East.
Charles Bean, the 1st imperial force’s historian, conceived of the war museum that became the memorial while witnessing the slaughter of Australian troops in France in 1916. Its genesis was the London-based Australian Records Section, established in May 1917.
Britain, meanwhile, established the Imperial War Museum in 1917. Bean wanted to ensure the battlefield artefacts Australians had begun collecting were not given to Britain, even though Australia and Canada had indicated this could be the case.
By September 1917 the Australian Records Section was feverishly collecting battlefield trophies; Bean liked to call them »relics«, consistent with the reverential language of »spirit«, »sacrifice« and »the fallen« he afforded his soldiers.
Australian officer John Treloar, head of the records section, oversaw the collection of relics.
Treloar asked soldiers to ensure they recorded the stories behind their trophies because »a good description transforms a piece of salvage into an interesting relic«.
Such trophies would eventually include the flying boot of German air ace Baron von Richthofen (the Red Baron), killed when Australians shot him down near Corbie, France in 1918. (The collection also, incidentally, boasts a posthumous photograph of von Richthofen’s face, replete with wounds.)
In his remarkable 1991 history of the Australian War Memorial, Here is their spirit, Michael McKernan writes how, by early 1918, Australia had collected 1,157 trophies in France and 324 in Britain but »impressive as this sounds it is a measure of the section’s determination and the AIF’s cooperation that by February, 1919, there were 25,000 trophies in the collection, excluding captured guns, machine guns and trench mortars«, of which there were also hundreds.
In late 1918 the British inspector of trophies wrote to Sid Gullett, an Australian officer involved in battlefield collections, saying »your energetic people [in France] have swept the whole place clean«.
Perhaps if a single photograph encapsulates the enthusiasm of the Australians’ battlefield trophying it would be of private John »Barney« Hines – known to the Germans as »the dirty digger« – of the Australian 45th battalion. Taken after the battle of Polygon Wood in late 1917 it depicts Hines in a German cap and surrounded by loot.
Hines became the stuff of Australian legend: he had more than a healthy disrespect for authority; it was said he’d killed more of the enemy in some battles than any other infantryman in Australian uniform, and that the Kaiser was so outraged by this photograph that he put a price on his head.
Today Hines would have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had a dislocated semi-hermitic and vagrant post-war life.
Treloar, meanwhile, said of the Australian soldiers that »every man went into action with a pocketful of museum labels«.
Which brings us to the Shellal mosaic, considerable portions of which were pilfered by the Australians after they discovered it at Besor Springs near Gaza in April 1917. Pieces of the mosaic have been found in a church in Brisbane and set into a step in a rural New South Wales farmhouse. In 1941, when the War Memorial was under construction, an appeal was sent out to ageing members of the light horse regiments to return the tiles they’d souvenired. There were few, if any, volunteers.
In December 1917 Britain demanded the mosaic be sent temporarily to England from Egypt where it was held. But the Australians knew if they did so they’d never get it back.
On February 25 1918, the acting commandant of the AIF in London, Tom Griffiths, wrote to the Secretary of Britain’s War Office that in view of »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 … 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 Britain again demanded the mosaic, 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.«
In 1917, Treloar and Bean had already apparently decided the AIF should raise, if necessary, the Elgin Marbles held in continuing questionable circumstances, by the British Museum.
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.«
In May 1918, the British wrote:
»His Majesty’s Government have taken exception to the acts of looting committed by the enemy … 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.«
On 16 February 1918 Bean went public with his disquiet, writing of how a »difficulty had arisen about the disposal of the trophies of the first Australian troops, which, unless swift steps are taken to rectify it, will wreck the whole scheme for the collection of Australian trophies and cause extreme indignation among all Australian troops«.
Australian troops »from generals to privates display the greatest enthusiasm in bringing out from battle more and more interesting exhibits for the people at home”, he wrote.
»A difficulty has already arisen over the very finest trophy captured by the Australians … the ancient mosaic pavement that was carefully preserved and guarded by the Light Horse.«
In late 1918, amid the euphoria of the war’s end, it was agreed 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.
The truth is, of course, that the Shellal mosaic ultimately belongs to the Palestinians, who lost so much beyond antiquities at war’s end. Some Arab nations have informally needled Australia about the propriety of keeping the mosaic.
Some former senior War Memorial officials have privately expressed discomfort at the memorial’s display of the mosaic that, in recent years, has been partly obscured from view by an imposing partition.
Which hardly seems like the way to show off to the world a prized supposed war trophy over which Australia took on the motherland.