It was my love of history that first led me to want to write. When I’m writing historical fiction, it is important to maintain that the fiction connects with the reader.
The historical facts give depth to the characters, settings and context that many with a love of that particular period or era can also connect with.
Not only do we delve into facts for what I hope is interest but also for realism.
In part two of The Windmill, the story steps back to the beginning of World War Two. Here our main female heroine, Florence, is happily working as an archivist and conservationist at the British Museum.
As the clouds of war gather in 1939, she is tasked to prepare artefacts for safe keeping. In the book as in real life, the preparation of many cultural items of historical importance to be moved from their natural surroundings was tasked by the Government. After a vist from the War Office Florence will later travel to Amsterdam to continue her work in the Rijksmuseum.
How true was this? This is where working around facts in fiction creates a story!
By 1939 the British Museum had actively evacuated thousands of antiquities and works of art to different locations around the country. Fearful of air raids on the capital they sent valuable pieces of cultural heritage to be stored in stately homes, underground stations such as Aldwych and various other places.
There is a very interesting blog by the British Museum explaining this, called The Suicide Exhibition.
This was just as well, as in May 1941 the British Museum was badly damaged by fire after a blitz air raid.
Within The Windmill, a selection of artefacts have been sent to New York at the beginning of the Second World War. Lost and dust covered, they are located by one of our characters, Jack, in July 1975.
Professor Flackman (Metropolitan Museum, New York) explains to Jack in an excerpt from The Windmill…
Professor Flackman patted him on the back and both men started to walk in the direction of the office.
‘I wondered if you managed to find out any information regards the boxes?’ Enquired Jack.
‘Oh yes,’ the Professor said. ‘Granted, not much, but apparently the artefacts were sent over to us by the British Museum early on in 1940, due to fears of expected bombing raids by the Nazis.
Rather a fortunate decision, as in May 1941 an incendiary raid destroyed galleries and parts of the museum. They were lucky not to receive more damage, as London was severely bombed in the Second World War. We’re all aware of the Blitz.’
‘So, they have been here all this time? I wonder why they did not get sent back?’Jack asked.
‘Well, you yourself said it didn’t look like anyone had been down to the sub-storage level in years, so it must be an oversight and they have been forgotten about. They were only minor artefacts. Did you find anything in the last one you opened?’
‘No, nothing of importance; just a docket written by hand, requesting the return of a loaned item.’
The Ministry of War and the Government were right to be concerned.
By April 1942, in retribution for an increase in effective bombing by the RAF over Germany, the German Foreign Office was reported to have stated they would target English cities for their cultural value. Chosen from a German guide book, Baedeker, owing to the detailed maps illustrated inside the book helping to identify targets for bombing.
Initially five cities were chosen; Bath, Exeter, Canterbury, Norwich and York. The targeting of these and other cities of culture by the Luftwaffe continued for a further two years.
Cultural heritage was deemed to be of great importance and is evident in these documents by the British Council, incorporated by Royal Charter, with H M The King ( George VI )himself as the Patron.
The documents discussed how newly liberated sites, monuments, museums and objects of cultural and heritage, were to be protected. The instruction was that European country’s culture was to be respected by allied forces and where possible restitution of any artefacts gained by foreign occupancy was to be affected.
In a letter to the Minister of Economic Warfare, in July 1944, the Government referred to a warning that was given on 5th January 1943, to all Allied Governments declaring that they should do their utmost to defeat the methods of dispossession, practiced by Axis Governments.
What the Allied Governments had feared was already happening.
The National Archives documents also reveal, The British Council, received a notification from the Luxemburg Government saying they entrusted a Professor Leo Van Puyvelde, to assist other experts in the defence of their interests in the matter of the protection and restitution of objects d’art and monuments of cultural value. It also noted that Professor Van Puyvelde had already been in contact with the British and American authorities in connection with these matters.
In The Windmill, Florence was only too aware of the importance of looking after all cultural heritage and art. It was her job, and one that she knew she needed to do.
Dialogue from The Windmill, Major Blackthorn (ex War Office) speaking to Ginny about Florence.
‘No. It was important she continued her work. The paintings and artefacts needed to be protected; all museums were warned of the destruction and theft that could occur in conflict. We were aware she had been preparing many items in the British Museum to be moved out of London, sent to New York to the Metropolitan Museum for protection.’ He delayed, taking a sip of water.
‘We also wanted Florence for another purpose.’
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