Unesco World Heritage Listing Welcomed

Monday, November 27, 2023

Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery, Authuile


The New Zealand War Graves Trust has welcomed the decision by Unesco to list World War I graves and memorials on the Western Front in Belgium and northern France as a World Heritage site.

The World Heritage listing is a collective designation for 139 sites which are cemeteries and memorials. They include 51 Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) sites, among them Tyne Cot cemetery, the Menin Gate memorial where the Last Post is still played each night, and Thiepval Memorial listing more than 70,000 names of the fallen. German cemeteries of their war dead are included in the World Heritage listing.

In the Unesco list there are 36 cemeteries and memorials where New Zealand casualties are buried or commemorated.

The chair of the New Zealand War Graves Trust, Commander Brett Fotheringham said: “The New Zealand War Graves Trust is delighted to recognise the historic decision made by Unesco to inscribe 139 funerary and memory sites of the First World War with World Heritage Status and conveys its deep appreciation to the states of France and Belgium for promoting this initiative and for their century-long commitment to and care for these sites of global significance.

“The large number of Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites included in this designation is testament also to the foundational work in designing, developing and managing these sites by the Imperial War Graves Commission (since 1960 the CWGC) and the excellent stewardship that continues today.

“Within 36 of the 51 listed CWGC cemeteries and memorials 3,322 New Zealanders who died in the Great War are commemorated.  These sites are listed below and the public may search for these at www.nzwargraves.org.nz under ‘Cemetery Search’ to see the full list of the New Zealanders therein commemorated.”

It was only in January 2023 that the World Heritage Committee of Unesco decided to lift its moratorium on evaluating of sites of memory associated with recent conflicts and broaden the scope of the World Heritage definition to include them. "Recent" refers to conflicts since the turn of the twentieth century.

Unesco defines Sites of Memory as places in which an event occurred that a nation and its people, or certain communities wish to memorialise. They are either already accessible, or made accessible to the public, and these sites become places of reconciliation, contemplation and peaceful reflection. “The inclusion of Sites of Memory on the World Heritage List makes them part of our shared global heritage, and recognises the part they play in the peace process.”

Unesco emphasised to possible applicants its purpose, according to its charter, is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion.

Following the Unesco decision, a joint application for World Heritage listing for the World War I sites was made by the Belgian and Flanders heritage organisations, the French Ministry of Culture and the French Association for Landscapes and Memorial Sites of the Great War.

Their application noted that the World War I graves sites and memorials, from the simple headstone to the large national monuments, all bear witness to an entirely new relationship to the death of the soldier in combat.

“For the first time, civilians from many lands and all social classes were mobilised or recruited on a massive scale. The human losses in the war were unprecedented, due to the industrial and total nature of the First World War. This transformed the burial protocols, but with individual identity recognised by all for the first time there was a truly universal human response to the inhumanity of war.”

The application noted that “even faced with the immense cataclysm which unfolded for more than four years, the combatants tried to bury all the dead, whatever their status: even during fighting; French or Commonwealth soldiers were buried in their own cemeteries by the Germans. The respect was a way of responding to the inhumanity of the conflict. This is the first time in the history of humanity that we observe this attitude.”

They compared the American Civil War where only the Union dead were buried and honoured with a headstone.

Appealing to Unesco, the application said “This new commemoration of the dead is seen on an unprecedented scale in the cemeteries, with huge numbers of individual graves in repeated lines. Their uniformity reflects, above all other considerations, that all are equal in the face of death, while respecting individual beliefs. The inscription of names on the memorials responds to the desire to keep alive the memory of the dead, including those whose bodies have not been found or identified. The memorials are the natural complements of these cemeteries.”

The international Committee On Monuments and Sites (COMOS) was asked by Unesco for its opinion some years earlier and recommended against the war sites being given World Heritage status. Apparently not wanting to glorify war, the committee stated, “It seems difficult for COMOS to commemorate this human enterprise which gave millions of dead soldiers a grave and a headstone without a developed and substantial explanation of what this war was about and the reasons that so many people perished. The definition of the benefit appears equally somewhat confused and this lack of clarity affected the selection of the components.”

A fitting answer, used as an epigraph in the French/Belgian application, was the well-known reaction of King George V in 1922, visiting the war graves sites created by the war graves commission established in 1917 (later renamed the CWGC). In the last speech of his three-day tour of the World War I battles sites, given at Terlincthun British Cemetery near Boulogne (a cemetery with 3677 graves, among them 37 New Zealanders), he referred to the graves and famously stated:

'”In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon the Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”

In its detailed report of the king's visit, the CWGC website notes that the king's speech and its stirring lines were written by the commission's literary advisor at the time, Rudyard Kipling.

In September 2023, the meeting of the Unesco World Heritage Committee admitted the World War I sites of memory, deeming that they satisfied the Unesco threshold of Outstanding Universal Value.

* Not all the cemeteries and memorials from World War One are listed in the Unesco World Heritage site. The New Zealand embassy in France, marking Anzac Day, noted: “New Zealand suffered heavily in the First World War. One-tenth of the population served.  Out of a population of less than one million people, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force suffered  59,483 casualties of whom 18,166 died.  Of these, fighting on the Western Front in France and Belgium claimed 12,483 lives.”




Australian National Memorial Villers-Bretonneux Memorial 108
Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery 13
Bedford House Cemetery 19
Berks Cemetery Extension 82
Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing 5
Buff's Road Cemetery 1
Buttes New British Cemetery 96
Buttes New British Cemetery (NZ) Memorial 378
Canadian Cemetery No. 2 4
Canadian National Vimy Memorial 5
Dud Corner Cemetery, Loos Memorial 8
Etaples Military Cemetery 272
Faubourg D'Amiens Cemetery 27
Arras Memorial 18
Arras Flying Services Memorial 9
French National Necropolis of Faubourg Pavé 1
Le Quesnoy communal Cemetery extension 49
Lijssenthoek military cemetery 307
Louverval Military Cemetery 2
Cambrai Memorial 3
Menin Gate Memorial 115
Mud Corner Cemetery 53
Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery 19
Polygon Wood Cemetery 58
Pozières British Cemetery 8
Pozières Memorial 2
Prowse Point Military Cemetery 42
Delville Wood Cemetery 14
Strand Military Cemetery 93
Thiepval Memorial 29
Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery 1
Tyne Cot Cemetery 208
Tyne Cot Memorial 1178
V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial 13
Wimereux communal cemetery 81
Woods Cemetery 1
TOTAL 3322