We are in the city of Oudenaarde, just north of the historic city square and the late-Gothic city hall. The place - an open space between two small parks - has received the name Tacámbaro. The parking lot in the middle shows a white statue of a mourning lady, which is a second hint to a piece of forgotten Belgian history.
"She is looking to the south-west, towards Mexico, and symbolises the grief of Belgian women that were left behind by their partners who had gone to Mexico and whose fate was uncertain", explain Stijn Lybeert and Hilde Avet of the city of Oudenaarde, who act as my guides.
Charlotte is the link
The Mexican story is seeing its 150th anniversary in April. The key figure in the whole story is Charlotte, the daughter of King Leopold I of the Belgians. She is married to Maximilian von Habsburg who decides to travel to Mexico to defend his empire over there as Mexicans are revolting against the European rule.
Belgium wants to send body guards to protect the Belgian Empress, but wants to keep its neutral position on the other hand. The result is a Belgian compromise: it is decided to launch an appeal to volunteers who can serve in a Belgian Legion. In this way, Belgian is not sending an army and keeping a neutral stand, while at the other hand, it is actually sending troops to protect Empress Charlotte.
Belgian Legion dragged into the war
It is decided that the volunteers - a legion including some 1,500 troops - will be involved in a mission focusing on guarding and protecting Charlotte and her husband. However, due to rising pressure from other European troops, such as France, the Belgian Legion eventually took part in military action.
Local forces taking part in a guerrilla proved much too strong as the Belgians were defeated. Some died, other were made prisoners but released later. Not all of them returned though. Flemish or Dutch family names can still be heard in the Tacámbaro region (some 300 km from Mexico City). "The Belgians were not well equipped and badly prepared."
"Dark side of Belgian history"
The Belgian 'trip' to Mexico was not something to be proud of, most Belgians found at the time. There had been considerable resistance against the idea in the first place. Belgian troops had been deployed in the battle, which was against what had been agreed, and the young Belgian state had actually installed a kind of occupation force for a while.
The decision to make a statue just to remember the battle was therefore a controversial one - as was the place where it should come. After Schaarbeek had been scrapped as a possible location, Oudenaarde was chosen because it was there that the volunteers had assembled, received their (short) training and departed (photo below).
This was because Oudenaarde had local barracks available that were no state barracks, as this was not an official military mission. However, only 16 members of the Legion were local Oudenaarde residents.
Oudenaarde finally accepted and the white statue of the lady has been there ever since. It was a bit embarrassing, local residents found, especially in occupied Belgium during the Great War. "You can say it is a dark side of Belgian history", the guides explain.
"We were received in style"
The Mexicans had a swift victory and never really held it against Belgium. In fact, an initiative was started between Tacámbaro and Oudenaarde. The Mexican city will install a big square named after the East-Flemish city.
A Belgian delegation including the Oudenaarde Mayor visited Tacámbaro recently. A manifesto was signed to cooperate in the area of tourism, education and culture, although this still has to be worked out, explains us Oudenaarde Burgomaster Marnic De Meulemeester on the phone. "We were received like kings there. They had made a big effort after waiting so long for the visit."
A Mexican delegation made it to Oudenaarde last weekend. "After 150 years, we've finally come to terms with this piece of Belgian history once and for all", explains guide Stijn.