I must admit that, prior to reading Jeff Miller's wonderful account of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), I had never heard of the incredible work of young Americans helping to prevent starvation in occupied Belgium during WWI. Led by Herbert Hoover, the young Yanks overcame all odds, and the belligerent Germans to create a system for importing and distributing tons of donated goods to the hungry citizens of Belgium and Northern France. In this very readable work, Miller assiduously documents the history of the CRB, including personal accounts of the 'delegates' and their travails. Tying the book together with the entries from his grandparents diaries (grandmother was a well-to-do Belgian assisting the CRB, grandfather was a delegate) history is revealed as it always should be: through the eyes of those that lived it. Like Erik Larson and David McCullough, Jeff Miller has written a flowing narrative of a fascinating series of events, and provided hundreds of endnotes to support his work. As we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice marking the end of WWI, this book is a 'must read' to understand the humane side of that horrible conflict.
The famous German brutality of WWII was first practiced in Belgium during WWI. By the time of World War I, Belgium was the most industrialized country in Europe, and the most densely populated. It imported 75% of its food. The Germans kicked off their war by marching through Belgium to get into France and capture Paris. They didn’t expect the Belgians to display nationalistic feeling when they were already divided ethnically, and the Germans were shocked when the Belgians resisted their advance. Their occupation of Belgium became vicious. Men, women, and children were executed for resisting. Belgian industries were dismantled and transported to Germany, leaving massive unemployment in Belgium. Forty million francs per month was demanded as a contribution to the war. Thousands of men were deported for slave labor in Germany. Movement outside of one’s town or village was forbidden without difficult-to-obtain passes. Imports and exports were stopped, which meant starvation. Belgian representatives traveled to London, looking for a way to avert the starvation of the country. Herbert Hoover, a wealthy American industrialist who was helping Americans stranded in Europe by the war, volunteered to lead the effort of getting food to Belgium. He was assisted by mostly young, adventurous men, many Rhodes scholars at Oxford. Neither the British nor the Germans favored the relief effort. Both sides allowed it to continue because Hoover masterfully orchestrated a worldwide PR campaign to highlight the plight of the Belgians and gain universal sympathy that the belligerents couldn’t ignore. When the American relief delegates had to leave Belgium in 1917 upon the US entry into the war, the still-neutral Netherlands and Spain kept the relief going to feed Belgium. Fascinating account of Belgium’s WWI experience, much of which was unknown to me.