Remembrance and nature on the paths of the Great War

The forest of Verdun is not the only historical site that also became natural heritage. Lots of other interesting places are found all along the frontline: the Delville wood near Albert, the wood of Beaumont-Hamel, the National Forest of Vauclair, not far from the Chemin des Dames, the park and forest of Vimy, Thiaucourt, Montfaucon in Argonne, Hartmannsvillerkopf in Alsace….

The Fort of Hollogne, photo IML.
The Fort of Hollogne, photo IML.

The situation is slightly different in Belgium where the decision was made not to create cordoned areas. In Wallonia, the fortified positions of Liège and Namur, which surrendered in August 1914, are among the few memorial sites of the Great War. Like in Verdun, they sometimes shelter bats. Luc Malchair is a naturalist, owner of the site www.fortiff.be and member of the organisation maintaining the fort of Hollogne-aux-Pierres: “Unfortunately, populations of bats are not as large as in Verdun”. Actually, it takes more than just a shelter to attract wildlife: the quality of its surrounding is important too. And Hollogne is beset by roads, highways and runways of the neighbouring airport of Bierset… “When the airport hadn’t reached its present traffic density, this 0.9 hectare of land was a sheltering place for many species like the Natterjack toad or lizards… But with 100 tons of kerosene burnt every night, the biodiversity is collapsing, even here. It’s still a bit of a safe haven, but in no way could you call it a refuge habitat for wildlife (à verifier, je ne suis pas certain de comprendre le français). There will be no extension of what is left. This being said, we are very happy to host the common Kestrel every year and a brood of barn owls… Nature is still holding on!” The Walloon forts of the Great War do however shelter interesting species such as groups of drone flies (order of diptera) and butterflies like the European peacock or the Herald (Scoliopterix libatrix).

In Flanders, the fortresses of the Antwerp belt seem better off. The winter inventories have counted up to 5,000 bats for the 16 forts, approximately half of the population hibernating in Flanders. Some ten different species can be found in these fortresses, the most common being Daubenton’s bat (40%), Whiskered bat and Brandt’s bat (25%) and Natterer’s bat (17%).


Besides the forts, other areas of wartime heritage play an ecological role. In the Westhoek for example, land is mostly urbanised or dedicated to agriculture. But the areas preserved for memory purposes are often unsuspected islands of biodiversity. Polygon wood, Hill 60, the provincial domain of Palingbeek or the Mount Kemmel leave us awestruck by the torments these places had to endure as well by their capacity to overcome them. 

Piet Chielens, photo IML
Piet Chielens, photo IML

Piet Chielens, coordinator of “In Flanders Fields Museum” explains: “At the foot of Mount Kemmel, you can see trees with 3 to 5 trunks: they are probably offspring of trees levelled during the war. We have made a call for students to do a thesis on how nature evolved on the battlefields of the region, but so far, no one has seized the opportunity”.

For Piet Chielens, what is at stake today, is the preservation of the Great War landscapes : “Near the Ypres salient, you can still get an idea of what the frontline was like between the first gas attack and the 3d battle of Ypres : 5 or 6 meadows remain, that were never deeply ploughed. They are of high archaeological interest. These sloping meadows remained untouched because they were of little value for the farmers. The local authorities should get involved in the preservation of half a circle open around the city, by forbidding any construction and any change in the status of these fields”.

This wish could have been speed up with the project of inclusion of the landscapes and memorial sites of the Great War in the UNESCO World Heritage list. This project, where Belgium and 13 French Department were associated was led by the non-profit organisation “Paysages et Sites de la Mémoire de la Grande Guerre” (Heritage Landscapes and Memorials of the Great War). They hoped to see French and Belgian sites included in the UNESCO list by 2014. Unfortunately, this project was abandoned. The association only defends today the classification of funeral and memorial sites in the Great War. Preserving some of these war landscapes yet remains an important issue. “This war has disrupted the social relations and completely changed the way we see the world, says Piet Chielens: care for human rights arose after the First World War, and the European Union, by far the most exciting project of the last fifty years, has seen the light because of the two wars - and we the second occurred mainly because the first one had been ended in the wrong way. We have to preserve these landscapes because they are the last witnesses and guardians of thoughts and ideas of this time.”

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