published : 2023-09-05

Belgium and France Seek UNESCO Recognition for WWI Memorials

Decision to be Made by the United Nations in September

A photo of the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, taken with a Nikon D850

War has once again brought devastation to Europe, but amidst the chaos, the haunting memorials of World War I stand as timeless reminders of its cruelty.

Belgium and France are determined to have these memorials recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, ensuring that they command the attention and contemplation they deserve.

These sites, scattered along the former battle lines of the Great War that claimed the lives of approximately 10 million soldiers, evoke pause and introspection in all who visit.

At the Tyne Cot cemetery, where row upon row of Commonwealth soldiers lie at rest, young Robin Borremans dreams of becoming a helicopter pilot in Belgium's elite Special Forces.

As he walks amidst the fallen, he ponders the profound questions of life and death, war and peace.

For him, and countless others, the impact of these memorials is truly humbling.

Belgium and France hope to secure UNESCO's recognition for these sites, placing them alongside renowned wonders such as the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and the Acropolis.

The United Nations, specifically UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, is set to decide on this issue during its upcoming meeting in Saudi Arabia on September 21.

A close-up shot of the rows of headstones at Tyne Cot cemetery, captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Spanning Western Belgium and Northern France, the area encompasses 139 sites that have borne witness to history since the guns fell silent in 1918.

For example, in Ypres, the Menin Gate has witnessed the solemn act of someone blowing a horn every evening, paying homage to the 54,000 soldiers whose names are engraved on its walls, never to be found.

The Belgian region of Flanders' heritage minister, Matthias Diependaele, explains that this is a way of commemorating each individual life lost during the war.

However, achieving UNESCO recognition is no easy task.

Back in 2018, UNESCO rejected the joint request of Belgium and France, citing concerns raised by the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Critiques such as 'several questions,' 'lack of clarity,' 'too narrow and limited,' and 'shortcomings' dampened the nations' hopes.

At that time, it was believed that sites like Auschwitz should stand alone as a witness to the horrors of war, rather than setting a precedent for an extensive list of war-related sites.

Nevertheless, Diependaele believes that the ideas within UNESCO have since evolved, embracing a more open context.

An overhead view of a memorial site in Northern France, photographed with a Sony A7 III

With the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, the importance of defending peace is now better understood, providing further impetus for recognition.

In fact, several institutions associated with these memorials and cemeteries have already initiated efforts in support of Ukraine.

Just like the casualties counted in the tens of thousands during World War I, Ukraine currently bears the burden of loss, serving as a poignant reminder of the continuity of conflict.

People visiting these memorials draw connections with the ongoing situation in Ukraine, witnessing the perpetuation of endless fighting between two sides.

These solemn sites stand as echoes of an unchanging reality.

As we await the decision of the United Nations, there is a profound hope that UNESCO will finally grant the coveted recognition to the WWI memorials.

Let us remember the sacrifices made by those who fought and perished in the name of peace.