In the small French town of Erquelinnes, a farmer is driving his tractor through the peaceful green fields. But suddenly, he finds that he can go no further. In front of him, sticking up from the earth, is a large, old stone, blocking his vehicle from passing. Without thinking, he hefts the obstacle out of the way – unwittingly launching a dispute of epic proportions.
Amazing as it sounds, this seemingly insignificant action actually led to chaos on an international scale. But how? After all, the nondescript stone has little value in its own right. Why, then, were the authorities in both Belgium and France suddenly on edge? And what was the eventual outcome of this bizarre series of events?
At one point, commentators even speculated that a long-defunct commission would need to be recalled in order to solve the dispute. So, how exactly did a simple stone cause such confusion? Amazingly, the answer lies in a treaty signed almost 200 years ago and an innocuous action that nearly dismantled centuries of peace.
A sleepy town home to some 9,500 people, Erquelinnes certainly doesn’t look like the setting for an international dispute. Located some 150 miles from the French capital of Paris, it sits on the border with Belgium in the country’s northeastern corner. Nestled within rolling hills and farmland, it seems the sort of place that would offer a peaceful, bucolic way of life.
In fact, the most dramatic things to happen in Erquelinnes’ history occurred more than 200 years ago, during the War of the First Coalition. Beginning in 1792, this conflict saw a number of European powers join forces to fight against France. Two years later, on the border with Belgium, a great battle broke out.
Known today as the Battle of Erquelinnes, the fighting eventually resulted in an Austrian and Dutch victory, delivering a blow to France. But throughout this terrible campaign, historians believe, between 3,000 and 5,400 people lost their lives. Now, though, this town on the Belgian border is taking center stage in another conflict – although experts hope that the results won’t be quite so bloody.
So, how exactly did the simple act of moving a stone cause such drama to unfold? Was the artifact a gravestone, perhaps, marking the final resting place of some beloved and fallen soldier? After all, disturbing such a monument could be seen as sacrilegious by some – and even an act of war.
Or was the stone in question another type of historic relic, revered for generations as a reminder of something long lost? If so, might the farmer have caused offense by moving it away from its established location? Certainly, conflicts have escalated over similar incidents in the past, and the courts are full of aggrieved complainants trying to return objects to their rightful place.
The truth, as it turns out, is perhaps even more fascinating than a gravestone or missing artifact. According to an April 2021 article in the French newspaper La Voix du Nord, the saga all started with a trio of local history aficionados. Their names: Jean-Paul Maieu, Jean-Pierre Chopin and Philippe Fayt.
That month, the three men had set out to survey the land surrounding Bousignies-sur-Roc, a French village some seven miles from Erquelinnes. Their mission, it seems, was to take stock of a series of historic stones, placed along the France-Belgium border in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. But one of these objects, they soon found, wasn’t in its rightful place.
In fact, after consulting their maps, the trio realized that the stone had moved some seven and a half feet away from its recorded location. Why was that such a big deal, you might ask? Well, back in 1819 the object was among several used to mark out the border between the disputed territories of Belgium and France.
The following year, this border was enshrined in law thanks to the Treaty of Kortrijk. So, when one stone was shifted several feet into Belgium, technically extending French territory beyond its legal limits, the action was politically loaded, to say the least. In fact, it broke a protocol that had been in place for 200 years.
So, what happened? Well, according to Aurélie Welonek, the mayor of Bousignies-sur-Roc, it was quite the endeavor. Speaking to La Voix du Nord, she said, “I think a tractor must have been used to move the bollard, which weighs over 150 kilograms [23.6 stone]. But it is a certainty, its location no longer corresponds to the data we have.”
It seems, then, that a simple farmer could well have been responsible for altering the border between Belgium and France. But reports differ as to what his intentions may have been. According to some, he wished to extend the area of his land, while others claim that the border stone was simply in the way of his tractor’s path.
Whatever the farmer’s intentions, though, the result ended up being something he never could have expected. Speaking to the French television network TF1 in May 2021, Erquelinnes mayor David Lavaux said, “He made Belgium bigger and France smaller, it’s not a good idea.” According to the BBC, the official also pointed out that incidents such as this can cause terrible trouble between neighboring landowners, even without national politics thrown in.
Lavaux went on, “I was happy, my town was bigger. But the mayor of Bousignies-sur-Roc didn’t agree.” At the moment, though, the incident isn’t being taken too seriously – but it all hinges on how the farmer reacts when informed of his geographical faux pas. Apparently, the authorities will ask him to return the stone. And if he refuses, all hell could break loose.
According to Lavaux, such a refusal would force the authorities to convene a meeting of a special border commission for the first time since the 1930s. Currently, though, experts are unclear on exactly what form this intervention might take. In an email to Vice-affiliated website Motherboard, historian Marnix Beyen attempted to explain the situation.
Beyen wrote, “As far as I know, these kinds of ‘border disputes’ between Belgium and France have barely taken place between 1820 and today, and I do not know why the [border] commission met in 1930… I do guess that if they would have to meet again, they would handle the matter in a rather neutral and friendly way.”
According to Beyen, the fact that the farmer extended Belgian territory into France, rather than vice versa, has also helped the situation. He wrote, “Probably this kind of incident would have aroused more consternation if the border were moved the other way (at least in the 19th century), because fear of French annexation has been an important feature of Belgian political and cultural life.”
Fortunately, Beyen isn’t the only one who expects a cordial solution to this unexpected dispute. Speaking to La Voix du Nord, Welonek joked, “We should be able to avoid a new border war.” But will the farmer cede his newly-acquired territory in order to keep the peace? Or will an international incident spawn out of the most unlikely beginnings?