Bruno Colson

This interview was conducted for the "Expert" section of Omalius magazine #26 (September 2022).

Your exhibition is called "The glory of the "Walloons". What does it refer to?

It refers to a rather forgotten period in our history, that of the Austrian Netherlands. Between 1725 and 1795, young Belgians joined the multinational army of the Habsburgs, alongside Austrians, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians... The Habsburgs of Austria were the legitimate rulers, by family inheritance, of our regions, including the Duchy of Luxembourg but excluding the Principality of Liège which was autonomous within the Holy Roman Empire. It is difficult to put a figure on the total number of Belgians who served in the Habsburg army. But for more than 70 years, they provided between 9,000 and 17,000 men each year, all of them volunteers. Overall, the 'Austrian period' was rather favourable to the economic growth of our regions. In contrast to the 17th century, they experienced less war and its misfortunes. There was therefore a relative enrichment of the population, particularly thanks to the development of weaving and better agricultural yields.

Why were we talking about 'Walloons' rather than 'Belgians' in the military field?

You will have noticed that 'Walloons' is surrounded by inverted commas to indicate a different usage from today. Of course, there were Flemings and people from Brussels who joined the so-called 'Walloon' regiments. The origin of this name is not clear. It dates back to the time of Charles V. Historians agree, however, that the profession of arms attracted the Walloon population a little more. The Flemish, whose towns had developed considerably since the Middle Ages, lived more from trade and crafts. They therefore had less reason to join the military. But the term 'Walloon regiments' is an example of the designation of a part for the whole, like the term 'Flemish painting'. In the eighteenth century, all the inhabitants of the Netherlands were sometimes referred to as 'Flemings' because the county of Flanders was the best known and richest entity. The word 'Wallonia' did not exist.

How did this era end?

With the wars of the French Revolution. The French invaded our regions in 1792, were repulsed in 1793 but returned in 1794, for twenty years. At the time of the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, François II of Habsburg ceded the Netherlands to the French Republic. Internationally, Belgium is annexed to France. The Austrian army could no longer recruit soldiers in our regions. However, most of the officers of the "Walloon" regiments remained loyal to the Habsburgs and some Belgians even continued to join the Austrian army in secret.

Did any Namurians serve in the Habsburg army?

Of course, they did! The county of Namur was a rather small entity within the Netherlands. But the exhibition at the BUMP honours some Namurian officers. Count Jacques François de Groesbeeck was a grenadier captain in the Ligne-infanterie regiment at the beginning of the Seven Years' War. He was killed at the battle of Görlitz in Silesia on 7 September 1757. Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne wrote a letter of condolence to his family. The document is still kept in the State Archives in Namur. In the exhibition showcases you will also see two figurines representing Louis Auguste Fallon and Louis de Romrée, names still borne today by Namurians.

Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne is a well-known figure. Who was he?

Sometimes nicknamed "the Pink Prince" because of the colours of his livery and his father's infantry regiment, Charles-Joseph de Ligne (1735-1814) was one of the greatest writers of the 18th century, tackling all genres, from plays to novels. A cosmopolitan and highly cultured character, as comfortable in the salons of Versailles as in those of Vienna and St Petersburg, he embodied the "beautiful spirit" of his century at a time when it was dying in the turmoil of the revolutionary era. He left his beautiful castle of Belœil in 1794, when the French troops arrived, to take refuge in Vienna. But before being a writer, he was a fearless officer and distinguished himself during the Seven Years' War. He also wrote reflective works on the military profession: several of these are presented in the exhibition. Like other Belgians, he attained the supreme rank of field marshal in 1808.  

What do we remember of this period?

The Austrians were not as concerned with military glory as the French, Prussians or Russians. That is why they have kept fewer objects from this period. If you look at the uniforms of the Habsburg army, apart from the Hungarian hussars with their national costume, you won't see as many epaulettes, ornaments, colours, embroidery as in the French army, for example. The Austrian infantry wore fairly simple uniforms, as cheap as possible, whitewashed with chalk. Nor were there as many official commissions for 'battle paintings' as in France.

The Belgians were somewhat in line with the Austrians in this respect. They also joined them in terms of autonomy and local freedoms. It is no coincidence that they are federal countries.

You are ending your career at the UNamur, what will you remember?

I will leave happy and very grateful for what I have been able to achieve here.

I was particularly lucky to be able to set up a military history course.  Namur is the only Belgian university to offer such a course, which has been a great success with students. I have always enjoyed teaching and sharing my passion for history with young people. My courses have always been attended by students from at least two different programmes: law, political science, history and philosophy. I have developed a relationship with them that has become somewhat paternal over the years. I feel that I was really given every opportunity to develop intellectually, I couldn't have wished for better.

Express CV

  • Born in September 1957
  • Doctorate in history (Sorbonne, Paris) and political science (UCL)
  • Degree and agrégé in history (UCL) and classical philology (ULg)
  • Dean of the Faculty of Law from 2005 to 2009
  • Professor in constitutional history and political regimes, history of political ideas, history of international relations, war and strategy in the contemporary era at UNamur
  • Namurian of the year 2006 (scientific field)
  • Officer of the Order of Leopold II
  • Author of several remarkable works
  • First Empire Prize of the Napoleon Foundation (Paris) in 2013 for Leipzig, la bataille des Nations
  • Officer of the Walloon Merit awarded by the Walloon Government in 2015 for the expertise provided on the occasion of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo
  • Winner of the 2018 Literary Prize of the Cercle Royal Gaulois (Brussels) for the book Clausewitz

From 5 September to 5 December 2022 | Exhibition - The Glory of the 'Walloons': Belgians in the Habsburg Army, 1756-1815

The exhibition was based on the heritage collections of the Moretus Plantin Library (BUMP), including items from the Éric Speeckaert Fund for the study of the works of Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne and the Pierre Mouriau de Meulenacker Fund. It was enriched by objects and documents from the period lent by the Royal Army Museum, the State Archives and the University of Ghent. This was an opportunity to discover precious books, the equipment of an infantry NCO under Joseph II, swords, water colours and much more on the subject.

Une Omalius 26
This article is taken from Omalius magazine #26 (September 2022).

Read Omalius #26 online