As the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War this summer, members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) met recently in Belgium to discuss how to protect the valuable underwater cultural heritage of the historic conflict. The organization will soon extend a 2001 convention in order to safeguard thousands more sites, including many World War I shipwrecks that are now threatened by salvage operations, looting and other brands of destruction.
The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, introduced in 2001, aimed to help member nations better protect shipwrecks, submerged ruins and other valuable, increasingly fragile, parts of their underwater heritage. The organization estimates that there are more than 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks scattered over the globe, including more than 12,500 sailing ships and war vessels lost at sea between 1824 and 1962 alone. With improved technology, these wrecks are becoming more accessible all the time, making them vulnerable to treasure hunters, commercial salvage operations and other types of looting.
The 2001 convention originally applied only to sites sunk more than 100 years ago. Now, as reported by BBC News, experts from 36 nations met last week in Bruges, Belgium to hear how the convention will soon be extended to protect thousands more sites. These include hundreds of ships sunk during the naval engagements fought during World War I, many of which are popular locations for recreational divers and for salvage companies looking to dismantle the wrecks. According to UNESCO’s Ulrike Guerin, protection under the convention “prevents the pillaging, which is happening on a very large scale, it prevents the commercial exploitation, the scrap metal recovery, and it will have regulations on the incidental impacts, such as the problem of trawlers going over World War I sites.”
Though the naval losses on both sides during the Great War did not match the carnage in the trenches, engagements at sea had a significant impact on the conflict. Britain mobilized an estimated 11,000 vessels; of those, some 1,100 were sunk, and more than 74,000 sailors and 15,300 merchant marines were killed. On the German side, hundreds of warships were sunk, and almost 35,000 men lost. Among the additional civilian death toll were the 1,198 people killed when a German submarine sank the Lusitania off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915, in an incident that would indirectly lead to the United States’ entry into the global conflict.
The locations of ships sunk during such large-scale clashes as the Battle of Jutland and Gallipoli are well known, and are attractive destinations for divers and commercial salvage operations alike. In recent years, more and more ships have been dismembered for salvage as the price of metals like copper, brass and aluminum has increased. In 2011, Dutch salvage vessels picked over the remains of three British Royal Navy cruisers (the HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy) that were sunk by a German submarine off the Netherlands in 1914. At the time, naval veterans’ associations from seven nations (Britain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Belgium) accused the salvage crews of desecrating the graves of 1,500 sailors lost when the ships went down. Now, the Netherlands is one of the nations said to be close to signing the convention, eliminating the threat of similar dismemberments in future.
Still, the increased number of protected sites will put a strain on resources for member nations. As Dr. Innes McCartney, leader of six research expeditions to wrecked ships from the Battle of Jutland, tells the BBC: “There are war graves in the English Channel that in the past few weeks have been subject to salvage, within sight of land. This issue is ongoing. If you want to stop it, it’s a matter of resource. Mouth is one thing but money is what makes the difference.” McCartney and his team want to build a global inventory of ships lost during the war and investigate their erosion, and also call for increased education about the history of such ships. Twice as many merchant ships were sunk in World War I than in World War II, he says, a fact of which most of the public is unaware. According to McCartney, “One of the challenges is to show people what is there and that it is very much part of their cultural history and legacy.”
As part of the World War I centenary this weekend, UNESCO asked all ships at sea to use commemorative signaling on Saturday, June 28 by lowering their flags or ensigns to half-mast. This, as well as a sound signal from all ships in port, was to serve as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, a remembrance of those killed in the war and a reminder of the need to protect its heritage–on land and underwater.