About The Story & Books — The Commission for Relief in Belgium

Overview Chart: The Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) is one of the great, little-known stories of America and World War I. The chart below gives some highlights.

A Major Theme It changed the way the world waged war (e.g. tanks, poison gas, planes) It changed the way the world saw — and ultimately did — humanitarian aid
Lives Affected 9 million battlefield deaths 9+ million saved from starvation
Never Seen Before Such carnage Such massive, sustained relief (nearly 1 billion in 1914 dollars over four years; nearly 24 billion in 2014 dollars)
U.S. Neutrality It forced the issue on the American public The CRB/Belgium story awakened Americans emotionally to realize neutrality was not an option.
U.S. Role On the sidelines until near the end The CRB established, in the eyes of the world, America as a great humanitarian force when Hoover brought a radical new approach to aid.

What was 1914 like?

Before the war began in August 1914, the world was a much different place than it is today. One hundred years ago there was no commercial radio, no TV, no cell phones, no commercial airplanes, and motorcars were still outnumbered by horses, wagons, and people on foot. Home entertainment was a night of singing, reciting verse, reading, or listening to the gramophone. A night out was to a theatrical play or to the new silent moving pictures. Ragtime was all the rage. The fastest way to get from one place to another was by train. The only way to get to Europe from America was by ship, and the usual trip took 10 days or more one way. The only instant communication was by telegraph or cablegram via underwater cables. People received national and international news only from newspapers, magazines, or word-of-mouth. Most days men wore starched collars and suits; women wore corsets and dresses.

Why did Belgium need food?

On August 4, 1914, Germany invaded the little, neutral country of Belgium because it lay on the easiest route to the ultimate goal, Paris. The small Belgian Army slowed the Germans down just enough to give the French and English time to marshal their forces. Within a few months, the fighting led to the creation of 400 miles of trenches that ran from Switzerland to the North Sea. With the Western Front firmly established, the Germans began their occupation of most of Belgium and a thin strip of northern France.

Before the war, Belgium had been the most industrialized country in Europe and imported more than 75% of all its food. The Germans announced they had no intention of feeding the civilian population of Belgium or northern France.

Mass starvation of nearly 10 million civilians was imminent.

The genesis of relief

Belgian civic leaders gained approval from the Germans to send emissaries out of Belgium to secure food for the civilians. Ending up in London, they and their pleas for help caught the attention of Herbert Hoover, a 40-year-old mining engineer living in London who had been working for months to help the 200,000 American tourists stranded by the war. He developed a plan and an organization to attempt what had never been done before — save an entire nation from starvation while in the middle of a world war.

What was the Commission for Relief in Belgium?

On October 22, 1914, Hoover and a small group of Americans formed the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), which initiated, organized, and supervised the largest food relief the world had ever seen. Nearly 10 million Belgians and northern French, trapped behind the German trenches, were fed and clothed every day for four years during World War I.

The CRB spent nearly $1 billion 1914 dollars (nearly $24 billion in 2018 dollars) as it worked to buy, ship, and deliver the food into German-occupied Belgium via Rotterdam. Every day between 30-50 ships were on the high seas filled with CRB relief supplies. From Rotterdam the food was loaded onto canal barges and brought into Belgium through its extensive canal system. The CRB worked in concert with its counterpart in Belgium, the Comite National de Secours d’Alimentation (CN), which did the actual distribution of the food and clothes with the help of 40,000 workers in Belgium and 15,000 workers in German-occupied northern France.

Who were the humanitarian crusaders?

To guarantee the relief supplies were not requisitioned by the Germans, American CRB “delegates” went into Belgium and northern France to supervise operations. Most of them were young, idealistic Americans who volunteered and were committed to aiding the civilians. They had to swear to be completely neutral and promise not to do anything to hurt the German war effort, even as they watched the Belgians suffer under the brutal German regime.  See the list of CRB Delegates.

Why did I chose this story to tell?

As with many other writers, this story chose me.

My grandparents were actively involved in the humanitarian relief. My grandmother was Erica Bunge, daughter of Antwerp merchant Edouard Bunge. She, her father, and two sisters survived the three-day bombardment of Antwerp and then the brutal German occupation. To aid relief efforts, Erica and her father began a dairy farm on their estate outside of Antwerp that ultimately gave 1 million liters of milk to the city’s children cantines.

My grandfather, Milton M. Brown, was a young Princeton grad who served in Belgium as a CRB delegate from January 1916 until April 1917. He was put in charge of  the clothing program that was part of the relief effort. Milton and Erica fell in love during the war and after the war, in 1919, they married. After they died, I inherited all their diaries, correspondence, and photographs from that time.

My grandmother is in all three of my books and my grandfather is in my two most recent books, but they are not books about my family. My grandparents are only two threads in the tapestry of my books. I have taken years to research not only the time period, Belgium, and the war, but also nearly 50 CRB delegates. Besides my three books, I also hope to interest Hollywood in an eight episode TV limited series to tell this incredibly exciting and dramatic story.

Why Three Books?

To begin with, there are no nonfiction books for the general reader that put the CRB story into the full context of what was happening in Belgium. Additionally, most CRB-related books focus on the 30,000-foot level — highlighting the great movers and shakers who solved the diplomatic problems of such unprecedented relief on such a massive scale.

After years of research and a desire to write about the boots-on-the ground people, I realized that the chaotic, complex beginning of the CRB, CN, and Belgium’s passive resistance to the German regime demanded its own book. From that realization came Behind the Lines, which covered August 1914 to December 1914.

After Behind the Lines, I decided readers needed to have the full story told in one complete volume. It would cover August 1914 to May 1917 when the last Americans had to leave Belgium because of America’s April entry into the war.

I started three years of research and writing to do so. The result was the 762-page WWI Crusaders, the first book for general readers that tells the interlacing stories of German brutality, Belgian resistance, and the American humanitarian crusaders of the CRB in full detail.

I knew, however, that the substantial size of WWI Crusaders would be daunting to some general readers.

With that thought in mind, I decided to write a 300-page intriguing summary. It would be the distillation of 10 years of research and my two other books. I took a year to do so and produced Yanks Behind the Lines.

Happily, I was able to gain the interest of international book publisher Rowman & Littlefield. The company publishes about 1,500 books a year and has offices in New York City, London, Toronto, and Boulder Colorado (where my editor is located). Yanks Behind the Lines is supposed to be published on October 22, 2020 (depending on what happens with the coronavirus). The book is  listed at the Rowman & Littlefield website as well as on Amazon.

I consider all three books to be creative nonfiction, with the word “creative” referring to presentation, not historical accuracy (which I’ve worked hard to ensure). As the godfather of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, has said, creative nonfiction is simply “a true story well told.” I have tried to fashion my books in the style of popular non-academic historians Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, David McCullough, and Adam Hochschild (author of King Leopold’s Ghost, one of the finest nonfiction books I’ve ever read).