or: The Phantom Crown.

The Belgian Army in Mexico

Mexican Adventure: Crisp Pages: The Belgian Army in Mexico

Lt. Col. Alfred Baron Van der Smissen
When Maximilian and Charlotte accepted the posts of Emperor and Empress of Mexico the governments of Austria and Belgium officially were neutral in the ongoing conflict between the monarchists and republicans. However, they certainly worried about the young couple and both countries allowed the formation of volunteer units to go to Mexico to aid the Imperial couple.

King Leopold I of the Belgians authorized the formation of the Belgian Foreign Legion which consisted of two battalions of grenadiers and riflemen, in all about 1,600 men. The unit was to be commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Baron Van der Smissen who had gained considerable experience with the French army fighting guerilla rebels in Algeria, North Africa.

They were quite a sight when they arrived in their tall hats and braided jackets and called themselves, "Les Gardes de l'Imperatrice". Most of them were very young, late teens to early 20's, and had never heard a shot fired in anger in their lives. The Empress reviewed them at the National Palace and always took a special interest in them.

However, there was more opposition than they had been led to believe and not long after arriving the French rushed them foward and threw them into combat. Marshal Bazaine had been fighting to suppress the Juaristas in Oaxaca and was in dire need of additional troops.

The Belgians left Mexico City in late March 1865 and went to the state of Michoacan to reinforce the 81st French regiment. When word came that the republican General Corona Regules was advancing on Morelia, the state capital, with 3,000 men Van der Smissen was ordered to dispatch 300 of his Belgian troops to the village of Tacambaro to face the threat.

Belgian infantry, officers and enlisted men
Major Emile Tigdal was placed in command and the Belgians entrenched around the village and prepared for the onslaught of a battle-hardened enemy that outnumbered them 30 to 1. They were surrounded and attacked on April 11.

Despite their youth and inexperience the Belgians fought like lions and made three counter-attacks with the bayonet after repelling Juarista thrusts but further weakening themselves each time. They took a heavy toll on the enemy but lost many men of their own until only 190 remained. They fell back to Tacambaro and barricaded themselves in the church as the republicans swarmed around them to finish the job. They fought with desperate heroism but when the Juaristas set fire to the church they had no choice but to surrender.

Unfortunately for them, the Juarista General Arteaga arrived just then to take command and ordered all of the Belgian prisoners to be stood up against the wall of the church and shot.

Several weeks later Colonel Van der Smissen led his remaining Belgian troops along with 600 French zouaves and a few thousand Mexican Imperial troops from Morelia to retake Tacambaro and avenge the slaughter of his countrymen. The operation was a success but Empress Carlota was outraged at not only the defeat but the massacre of her countrymen and gave an old fashioned chewing out to the French commander in Michoacan for sending such a small force of her countrymen on a suicidal mission.

The public back in Belgium was equally outraged and blamed French Marshal Bazaine, accusing him of using their countrymen as canon fodder to spare his own troops.

Belgian Empress Carlota regiment on the march
As 1866 rolled on the Mexican Imperial forces faced a worsening position on the northern border. On July 8 Mexican Imperial forces suffered a terrible loss at the battle of Santa Gertrudis and not long after General Mejia was forced to abandon Matamoros. The situation became so bad, with the French on the way out, the treasury sucked dry and the Juaristas gaining momentum that a northern post garrisoned by the Belgian Legion mutinied and other imperial troops had to be rushed in to suppress it.

By the end of the year the Belgian Legion was disbanded and most of the troops went home rather than join the Mexican Imperial Army, unfortunate but understandable given how they had been treated and the fact that the French had broken their word and were leaving Maximilian and their beloved Carlota high and dry as it were.

Some were determined to fight to the last and none moreso than Colonel Van der Smissen himself who made a daring proposal to Emperor Maximilian. With the Republican Army of the North under General Escobedo advancing south and vowing to take Mexico City and destroy the empire the Belgian colonel proposed forming a special corps to advance north and meet them face to face.

In the vanguard would be an Austro-Belgian brigade under his command, some French Foreign Legion battalions would be included as would some select Mexican troops under Colonel Miguel Lopez (described as very reliable) and with the famous Indian General Tomas Mejia as chief of staff.

Van der Smissen promised a triumph delux and insisted that the men and guns captured in this offensive could be pressed into service in the imperial army to offset the loss of the French and rally all Mexican conservatives to the side of the empire. Maximilian liked the idea, but it was more of a heroic day dream than a workable plan and nothing came of it.

The Austrians would likely have objected to being commanded by a Belgian colonel, the French were not likely to provide any battalions and as the world would ultimately find out Colonel Miguel Lopez was possibly the least reliable officer in the Mexican Imperial Army. However, it shows just how much courage and zeal the Belgian troops had who came to Mexico to protect "their Carlota".

Less than half of the boys who joined the legion for service in Mexico survived to return to Belgium, though a few did remain to fight on until the bitter end. When Empress Carlota died in Belgium in 1927 a corporal's guard, the only survivors left, of her beloved guard carried her coffin to her final resting place. Their tour of duty in the ill-fated Mexican Empire had certainly shown them the extreme highs and lows of military service; grand pageantry, parades and dances, defeat, massacre, victory, triumph and hardship.

Empress Carlota rightly put the blame for the debacle at Tacambaro on the French for sending such a small group of raw volunteers to face such a massive column of veteran soldiers. However, given their lack of experience and being new to the country, the brave boys from Belgium fought like lions, took a heavy toll on the republicans and fought to the last.

They won other battles and though the mutiny of some members may be an unpleasant memory it must be remembered in connection with just how much these soldiers had suffered since coming to Mexico to defend their beloved princess. It is a shame that they are mostly remembered for their one shocking defeat, but considering that they were green youths being thrown into battle for the first time against hardened veterans and given that they were outnumbered 10 to 1, anyone would have to agree that they showed absolutely marvelous courage, tenacity and did themselves proud.

The shameful massacre of the Belgian prisoners, though not often mentioned in the history books, should remain yet another black mark on the republican cause of Benito Juarez.


Occasionally updated by Tim Peterson