WWI memorials in France and Belgium vie again to become UNESCO World Heritage Sites
As war once again ravages the heart of Europe, the countless headstones, cemeteries and memorials of the First World War are a timeless testament to its cruelty. Belgium and France want them to be recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites to make people stop and think.
They bring pause and introspection to almost anyone who visits the sites scattered along the old battle lines of the Great War of 1914-1918 which killed some 10 million soldiers.
At 12, Robin Borremans dreams of becoming a helicopter pilot in the Belgian elite Special Forces. At Tyne Cot Cemetery, where 12,000 Commonwealth soldiers are buried in row after row, his vision of life and death, war and peace becomes clearer.
“It makes you very quiet when you know what happened in this war,” he said, pausing after walking between the rows of dead. “It’s really terribly impressive.” He and his group planned to visit a cemetery for the once-enemy Germans later that day.
It is because of this impact that the two countries want UNESCO to include the region on its famous list of sites alongside the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Acropolis in Greece. A decision on the matter is expected to be made around September 21 at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The area has 139 sites spread across western Belgium and northern France and has been living history almost since the guns finally fell silent in 1918. In nearby Ypres, “every night – every night – every day since the 1920s, there have been a few people blowing horns from the Menin Gate,” where the names of 54,000 soldiers who were never found in the chaos of war are engraved on its walls, said Matthias Diependaele, Minister of Heritage for the Flemish region of northern Belgium.
“It’s the idea of commemorating every life lost in this war,” he said.
But this is not necessarily enough to obtain such recognition, UNESCO has already ruled. Much to the dismay of both nations, he rejected their request in 2018 with the advice of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, marking his findings with comments such as “several questions”, “lack of clarity”, “too narrow and limited” and “gaps. »
Furthermore, it has long been considered that a site like the German Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland should stand alone as a witness to horror and suffering and not a precedent for a long list linked to wars. .
That was five years ago and now Diependaele said, “I believe and count on the fact that the ideas within UNESCO have changed and there is now more of an open context”. And with the year-and-a-half-old Russian invasion of Ukraine, “the world has also changed since then. And maybe we understand much better the need to defend the peace.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, several institutions related to memorials and cemeteries have launched initiatives to support the struggling nation.
As in the First World War, the casualties also number in the tens of thousands, although fortunately the overall figure is still much lower. The feeling of loss, however, remains the same.
“We get so many people coming here and making this connection to Ukraine just because it’s very relevant right now,” said Erin Harris, tour guide at Tyne Cot. “And you see the same situation happening – with these two sides fighting endlessly.”
“And you come here to a place like this and you really see, well, that’s always happening,” Harris said. “And, you know, not much has changed.”