Did Walloons and Flemings battle 15 years before Belgium even existed?

  • Articles in the foreign press often allow us to see ourselves as others see us.
  • The American viewpoint is particularly enlightening.

The prestigious American newspaper The New York Times has taken a recent interest in our little country of Belgium, going as far as to invent a 200-year-old confrontation between Walloons and Flemings that probably did not even exist.


The background to all this is the upcoming bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Waterloo, in 2015. Reenactments said to be even grander than usual are planned, and one of the battle’s crucial locations – the Hougoumont farmstead – has been restored.


There has been some resistance from members of the restoration committee as to the types of memorials that should be raised at the site. Some French-speakers, admirers of Napoléon, have tried to block the construction of a monument honoring British soldiers, arguing that it was more an example of triumphalism than commemoration. The British then responded that it was simply a tribute to the soldiers who died during the conflict, rather than a celebration of their victory. In the end, money won the day, with the UK financing part of the restoration project and thereby ensuring that the monument would be erected.


And then along came the American press article, which indulged in a spot of history rewriting. The journalist in question, John Tagliabue, managed to trace Walloon-Flemish tensions all the way back to 1815, situating the francophones with Napoléon’s troops and the Dutch-speakers on Wellington’s side during the Battle of Waterloo. Goodness, even back then, Belgians were at each other’s throats.


Actually, no. The truth is a little more complex. “There were indeed Belgians in both camps,” explains Liam Hartley from the Society of Guides 1815. “Prior to 1814, Belgium was a French department. It fell under Dutch control when Napoléon abdicated in 1814. There were therefore Belgians on the French side who had enlisted before 1814, but also on Wellington’s side, among the Dutch troops. There were probably more francophones with Napoléon and Dutch-speakers with the Allies, but it wasn’t something that specifically set the two communities against each other.”


It is always amusing to see how Belgium is perceived “across the pond”. Often, little throw-away lines can be very revelatory. In his historical summary, Tagliabue takes care to note that Belgium, of course, did not exist in 1815.” Of course, the United States has only been in existence for 43 more years than our country.


But let’s not take offence, and rather pay heed to the words of Wall Street Journal journalist Joe Queenan (another American): “[...] I’m extremely reticent to make sweeping generalizations about foreign cultures, except when it comes to the Belgians, about whom you can say whatever you want and no one will get offended.”


Self-mockery, my friend. It’s what makes us great.



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