A scientific conference on underwater cultural heritage of the First World War will take place in Bruges (Belgium) from 26 to 28 June. The conference, organized by UNESCO with the support of the Government of Flanders, will be followed by commemorative events. These initiatives aim to highlight the historical and scientific importance of this particular heritage.
A comprehensive inventory of ships sunk during the First World War remains to be drawn although major battles were fought at sea during the conflict, in which the belligerents also engaged in submarine warfare for the first time in history. More than 10,000 shipwrecks from that time lie at the bottom of the ocean. It is known for example, that close to 250 British ships and 850 auxiliary vessels were sunk during the conflict with their crews, representing the loss of nearly 74,000 Royal Navy seamen and 15,000 merchant navy sailors. Hundreds of ships and nearly 200 submarines were lost on the German side.
Although it is an invaluable historical source, underwater cultural heritage of World War I has so far been the subject of little research. It is at risk, threatened by corrosion, commercial exploitation, and plunder, its preservation is at risk.
This vulnerable heritage is about to come under the scope of UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. The Convention designates “all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or completely, periodically or continuously under water for at least 100 years” as underwater cultural heritage.
The two day scientific conference, will bring together experts of underwater heritage from around the world. It will be an opportunity to take stock of World War I underwater heritage, examine threats to its safeguarding and tackle the challenges of conserving large scale metal wrecks.
The Conference will be followed by a commemorative event on 27 June at 9:45 p.m. featuring a sound and light projection on Burg Square in Bruges, which will focus on the underwater heritage of World War I.
For 28 June—the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that triggered the First World War—UNESCO is calling on all vessels at sea to lower their flags in memory of the victims of war and show support for the preservation of the wrecks of World War I. Ships, whether at sea or in ports, are also invited to sound their horns at 7:00 p.m.
UNESCO invites all divers—professional or amateur—to take part in a Dive for Peace Day, also to be held on 28 June, during which they will seek to discover underwater sites of the First World War. This initiative has received the support of diving organizations worldwide, including the Nautical Archaeology Society (UK) and the World Underwater Federation (CMAS).
Furthermore, next autumn, UNESCO will provide schools with a short film, a booklet, and a guide to enable teachers to engage their students in an educational project around the underwater heritage of 1914-1918. This material will be available in English and French.
Adopted in 2001, the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage aims to such heritage comparable protection to that given to cultural heritage on land. Forty-eight States have ratified the Convention to date, undertaking to preserve underwater heritage, ban the commercial exploitation and looting of sites, and combat illicit trafficking in looted objects. Another goal of the Convention is to promote the exchange of information about this heritage and raise awareness to its importance. The Convention does not, however, arbitrate disputes between different stakeholders concerning ownership of underwater heritage.
Media Contact: Agnès Bardon, UNESCO Press Service, +33 (0) 1 45 68 17 64, a.bardon(at)unesco.org
Accreditations: January Debisschop, UNESCO Office in Brussels +(32) 229 089 60, j.debisschop(at)unesco.org