Surveys of Church Bells at the time of the First World War

– Ewa Manikowska

Church bells, today underestimated and hardly present in the everyday life, should be considered as an important and symbolic elements of a pan European cultural heritage.

From the time of the Middle Ages they determined the life, space, and time of the basic communities: villages, small towns, and city districts. Endowed with a sacral authority, they marked both the annual and daily cycles, commemorated important events, or announced emergencies, such as fires or sieges. The power and authority of these heavy bronze objects, suspended high in church towers and hardly visible from the ground, was based not only on their material qualities. Bells through the medium of sound permeated a community and bound it together, they also delimited its territorial boundaries and brought order to its life. They were a widely shared patrimony, which shaped the identity of everyone who heard them and knew how to decipher their message. Even the simplest village bells, not usually of the greatest artistic and musical quality, were endowed with such a power. Often cast by itinerant artisans from discarded metal brought by local inhabitants, these bells were treated with the highest respect and played the same role in celebrating the same festivities as those made for the major cathedrals. Bells not only defined the local order but also inscribed the community into a larger religious, state, or national framework. They were rung to mark national feasts and to make important public announcements: each city, country and state had its own paramount, most valued, and symbolic bells. Thus, with their own, easily comprehensible language church bells communicated significant events, marked time, and provided focus on communal and national identity.

Bells were used throughout Europe – in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran rites – however it is in the cultural landscape of Eastern Europe that they resounded the loudest. Here, the ringing of Roman Catholic bells interfered with the Russian Orthodox ones.

In Orthodoxy, the use of bells was considered spiritual: they referred to as ‘singing icons’ and blessed with a ritual similar to that of Baptism. They were also played on a different way: always by tolling (and not – by swinging), in a complex rhythmical (and not melodic) way, accentuating with a different ringing the various liturgies and its parts. Moreover, in the predominant rural societies of Eastern Europe bells often constituted the only determinant of collective identity well into the 20th century.

The removing of bells had a profound social, religious and cultural impact. From the early modern era, it was used as a strong political weapon: they were demonstratively smashed by the Calvinist and Jacobinist iconoclast. At the time of the French Revolution, the silence that reigned in the city of Paris after the 1795 municipality decree ordering the taking down of all bells and their melting into cannons should be considered not only as the most significant and far reaching act of iconoclasm, but also the as the most effective way of imposing the new de-Christianised social order. Similarly, at the time of the Stalinist terror bells became one of the strongest opponents in the successful imposing of the new social order. They were taken down even from the oldest Russian monasteries and churches and melted down along with the destruction of the temples, the persecution of monks, and the ban on religious practices.

The removal and destruction of bells is a phenomenon as old as the instruments themselves. It occurred during social and political upheavals, also at the time of wars, when bells were taken down and melted as a source of weapon material. In particular, large-scale requisitions of the kind were pursued at the time of World War I. Despite the fact that the Regulations respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, annexed to the 1907 Hague Convention, prohibited the use of bells for war purposes, bells were massively removed from the towers of churches on both sides of the Eastern front. Bells were taken down by all the belligerent parties on all fronts, however, it is the bell landscape of Eastern Europe, which became the most affected by the war requisitions.

At the time of both wars, numerous towns and villages remained silent for months and even years. Numerous parish communities, often incurring large risk, buried underground the bells trying to save them both from confiscations and from bombings. Others provided the bells with inscriptions testifying to the looting and to the damage done to the community. They also tried to replace the empty tower bells with provisional ‘instruments’, like ones made out of weapons.

Paradoxically, it was at the time of the wartime requisitions that bells became an important element of academic inquiry and interest. Already during the time of the First World War the measurement, visual and written documentation, redrawing of inscriptions and ornaments, and even music documentation of the bells had become a standard practice.

The opportunity to analyse closely the objects, which placed high on the towers were hardly accessible for inquiry, was indeed unique and very tempting. The research premises were however often intuitive, as campanology was not yet established as a separate research field. The surveys were either organized and official (like in the case of survey projects pursued by the German and Austrian armies during both world conflicts), either they were spontaneous and based on the initiative of the communities and local civic societies.

The requisition of bells by the German and Austrian armies provided the assistance of a professional surveyor, who was responsible for the taking of such documentation and for the identification of the most precious ones, which were supposed to be preserved. On the other side of the battlefront, both catholic and orthodox bells were confiscated, in a complete chaos, regardless of their artistic quality and – needless to say – without any kind of documentation. The parsons and local communities were not informed of the place of their storage and in some cases they were able to tag the whereabouts of the bell with paint or on an attached piece of paper.

One of the most interesting and wide-reaching projects of the kind was pursued in the years 1915–1918 in Russia by a network of Polish voluntary societies in the extremely difficult reality of the war and revolutionary chaos. Accordingly, in 1915, when the Russian army was withdrawing from its Western dominions, it pursued a massive and chaotic evacuation of bells from the territories of today central and north-eastern Poland, Lithuania and part of Belarus. The catholic and orthodox bells were confiscated by the retreating Russian army in a situation of complete chaos, and without regard to their artistic quality. They were stored in large groups, piled on top of one another, in provisional storehouses (usually open-air) arranged near the stations of the train lines crossing the vast areas leading from the Western outskirts of the Empire to Caucasus and Siberia.

The surveys were aimed at registering all the Polish bells, determining their whereabouts (parish of origin), and obtaining legal confirmation from the Russian military guardians of the storage places. For the Polish surveyors, the bells were an essential element of national heritage. They surveyors looked very superficially at the technical and musical properties of the bells, focusing instead at their artistic style and historic inscriptions. The bells were analysed not as instruments, but rather as symbolic works of art reflecting the glories of Polish national history and as a binding element of national identity. Thus, in the survey instructions greatest importance was paid to the oldest bells (medieval, renaissance and baroque) and to the exact transcription and facsimile reproduction of the inscriptions and the decorative elements. Moreover, the oldest and most precious historic bells from the main churches and cathedrals were as important as the most humble and simple village ones. The survey documentation as well as the provenance inscriptions painted on the bells played a fundamental role in the identification of their whereabouts.

The surveys of Polish bells on both sides of the battlefront were interconnected as the members of the civic societies active in Russia consulted their methods with Karol Badecki (1886–1953), a Polish archivist, who was the leader of the registration of bells in the region of Galicia. The documentation gathered by Badecki and by the Polish societies in Russia is very similar – filled with life-size over-drawings of inscriptions and decorative plaques, detailed information on the size, dating, provenance, and the commissioner. Unsurprisingly, Badecki’s documentation is more elaborated and it comprises also photographs and gesso moulds taken from the most precious exemplars. The Polish surveyors in Russia rarely could restore to the techniques used on the other side of the front. The expensive medium of photography, the time-consuming technique of mould, and even that of papier-mâché were thus seldom applied. Thy used the simplest methods and materials – over-drawings with a coloured pencil on often recycled paper or moulds made of bread. The latter ones were just a kind of aid-de-memoire, but the over-drawings were carefully organized and archived together with the inventory cards according to the geopolitical key: into the administrative units of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and by the parish of provenance. The survey documentation on this side of the front was produced not only as a scholarly material but as a legal document, which could be (and subsequently was) used as a proof for future revindication claims. Printed inventory cards in a handy A5 format comprising information on the whereabouts, the place of storage, and a stamp with the signature of the responsible Russian authority served accordingly as both a scientific and a legal archive.

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Primary sources & literature

  • Museum of Ethnography and Artistic Crafts in Lviv (Karol Badecki’s surveys, including over-drawings and bell casts)
  • The Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences (surveys of the Polish civic societies in Moscow and St Petersburg: inventory cards and over-drawings)
  • National Museum in Warsaw and Archive of the Moscow Russian Federation (surveys of the bell-fields in Kursk: photographs)


  • K. Badecki, Średniowieczne ludwisarstwo lwowskie, Lwów 1921
  • P. Jamski (ed.) Ratownictwo Dzwonów 1915-1921. Inwentaryzacja dzwonów pochodzących z dawnych ziem Rzeczypospolitej ewakuowanych przez władze rosyjskie, Warszawa 2016