YANKS BEHIND THE LINES
Published October 22, 2020
An article for the prestigious World War One Centennial Commission that details the CRB and how I came to spend 10 years researching and writing about the topic. See the Full Article.
Book Review Blurbs
Miller brings a complex story to vivid life, astutely explaining the political and cultural landscape of Belgium but also the unfolding of the conflict. . . This is a powerful work of history, as informative as it is dramatically gripping. An impressive blend of painstaking historical scholarship and riveting storytelling.
— Kirkus Reviews, “Get It” Recommendation
A valuable and formidable addition to World War I scholarship . . . [Miller] is as fascinated by the account as he wants his readers to be absorbed and moved by it. Through tireless research and sheer literary skill, he accomplishes his task. Supported by notes, sources, and reader aids, this studious effort is worth the time of anyone interested in gripping real-life stories behind weighty historical truths.
— US Review of Books, “Recommends” Review
“Miller emphasizes not the dubious glories of war, but war’s impact on ordinary people, and the amazing feats that people can achieve when they are determined enough. World War I brought unprecedented chaos and carnage, he shows, but it also sparked an outpouring of charity greater than anyone thought possible. This book is a worthy testament to everyone who participated in this admirable endeavor.”
—Foreword Magazine, Clarion Rating 4 out of 5
An important and unique contribution to World War I histories, Jeff Miller’s meticulously researched book fills the void of an often-forgotten aspect of the war—US humanitarian efforts. This is a beautifully written story about one of America’s finest hours.
— Ed Klekowski, editor of World War One Illustrated
It will be a revelation for many Americans to discover Jeff Miller’s excellent account of the ‘piratical state organized for benevolence,’ which helped position the United States as a moral force for good in the world at the outbreak of the 20th century’s first world war. Herbert Hoover’s leadership in the enterprise may come as an even greater surprise, and Miller’s knowledgeable account unveils this forgotten history for us all.
— Margaret Hoover, host of PBS’s Firing Line with Margaret Hoover and great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover
InYanks behind the Lines, Jeffrey B. Miller sheds welcome light on one of the noblest episodes in modern American history: the pioneering humanitarian relief mission, led by Herbert Hoover, that saved millions of Belgian and French civilians from starvation during World War I. Americans should learn this remarkable story, which Miller—a gifted chronicler—tells with acuity and verve.
— George H. Nash, historian and Herbert Hoover biographer
Yanks behind the Lines is a fascinating portrait of America’s First World War. Exploring a vital but little-known chapter of humanitarian intervention, Miller establishes the centrality of saving Belgium and France from famine to the American war experience.
— Branden Little, History Professor at Weber State University
Jeffrey Miller’s Yanks behind the Lines brings to life a little-known but hugely important and absolutely inspiring story: how nearly ten million civilians in German-occupied Belgium during World War I were saved from starvation, thanks to a group of idealistic Americans, led by a young organizational genius named Herbert Hoover. This was the shining moment when the United States first stepped upon the world stage as a generous force for all humanity. A moment worth the retelling––and remembering.
— Dayton Duncan, author and filmmaker
With Yanks behind the Lines, Jeff Miller reminds us of an almost forgotten chapter from the history of World War I. The war not only cost the lives of millions of soldiers. For millions of civilians, it also meant deprivation, hardship, and hunger. In the territories of Belgium and northern France that were occupied by the Germans, American and Belgium relief organizations safeguarded the survival of the civil population. With his fascinating book, Miller raises a permanent monument to this remarkable humanitarian commitment. The book commemorates today the fact that practiced humanity in time of wars and crises can save human lives.
— Jens Thiel, historian, Humboldt-University Berlin
“There is no better expert than Jeffrey B. Miller to portray the brave young Americans who joined the CRB and served the Belgian and French civilians trapped behind German lines during the First World War. He gives us the story of their daily challenging life, the dangers they faced, their inventiveness, and their interactions with the impoverished civilians as well as with the German occupying forces and the local governments. Yanks behind the Lines is the story—and more—of the Americans who launched the first international nongovernmental organization. The Commission for Relief in Belgium, run by the brilliant personality of Herbert Hoover, is a moment in US history to be remembered and to be proud of.”
— Clotilde Druelle-Korn, PhD, University of Limoges
Miller’s telling of this forgotten WWI tale is well-documented, detailed, and crisply written. His engaging narrative approaches its topic from many perspectives, including the viewpoints of Hoover, the Germans, and those living in Belgium. . . This is a well-told tale, one bound to interest WWI enthusiasts and fans of untold histories.
— BlueInk Review
Published November 11, 2018
Short Promotional Video for Bunge Speech
- BOOK REVIEW — Feathered Quill
- BOOK REVIEW — Indie Reader “Verdict”
- ARTICLE — Denver Post YourHub, “Denverite and Selfless Champion of Children Honored in Upcoming DPL Speech”
- BOOK REVIEW — Britain at War Magazine
- ARTICLE — YourHub, “One of America’s Greatest Humanitarian Efforts – Little Known Today – Has a Colorado Connection”
- ARTICLE — University of Denver, “Meet the humanitarian crusaders behind an ambitious relief effort”
- ARTICLE — Daily Mail, “Behind German lines, battling mass Belgian starvation, and nearly forgotten over a century later”
- RADIO — Gary Bowden Show, Interview
- RADIO — The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler, Interview
- RADIO — The Inquisitr, “Veterans Day Marks 100 Years Since The End Of WWI, View Never-Before-Seen Photos Of A Little-Known Aid Mission”
- TELEVISION — CBS4 Denver, “The End Of World War I Remembered 100 Years Later”
- RADIO — On Point with Alex Pierson, Interview
- RADIO — America’s Work Force Radio, Interview
- BOOK REVIEW — Foreword Clarion Review, 4 of 5 stars
- BOOK REVIEW — Publishers Weekly, BookLife Review
- RADIO — Beyond 50 Radio Show, Interview
- RADIO — BackStory, “WWI Crusaders”
- ARTICLE — Military History Now, “The War Against Famine”
- BOOK EXCERPT — American Heritage, “Belgians Deported to Slave Factories”
- ARTICLE — Veterans News Report, “New Book and Rare Photos for WWI 100th Anniversary”
- BOOK REVIEW — Kirkus Reviews, BEST BOOKS of 2018, Starred Review
- BOOK REVIEW — BlueInk, Starred Review
- Kirkus Reviews — Starred Review (only 760 out of 8,000 annual Kirkus Reviews get a Starred Review)
Miller (Behind the Lines, 2014, etc.) offers the second volume of a tour-de-force history detailing a little-known World War I humanitarian rescue mission, led by a future American president.
During the early years of the First World War, an amazing organization, the Commission for Relief in Belgium, gathered together a group of idealistic young Americans to keep the people in German-occupied Belgium from starving.
Popular historian Miller continues detailing the history of this organization, which was formed and run by none other than Herbert Hoover, who left his own successful business and mining-engineering interests to lead it. He and his intrepid CRB delegates constantly struggled with German military and governmental authorities and with the Belgian relief agency Comité National, but they managed to manipulate, cajole, bluff, and fight their way to providing the most extensive food relief program in modern history. They did so by preserving their absolute political neutrality and winning the respect and support of even the German aggressors.
To succeed, Hoover and his band knew they had to be on the right side of worldwide public opinion: “Hoover’s understanding of this concept, and of the way the world’s news media worked, would serve him and his cause extremely well from the very beginning.”
Miller delivers compelling portraits of young idealists who interrupted their lives to serve the CRB for no pay. He engagingly parallels this tale with the story of La Libre Belgique, a scrappy underground newspaper that continually poked the Germans in the eye; he shows how even though the Germans jailed and executed Belgian patriots associated with the paper, nothing could stop it from getting published.
Miller is an accomplished writer who never gets in the way of his intriguing story, eliminating tiresome footnotes and in-text citations that might have detracted from the gripping historical narrative.
A magnum opus that celebrates the qualities of compassion, honor, and humanitarian virtue.
BEHIND THE LINES
Published October 2014
- Kirkus’ Best Books of 2014 & Kirkus Starred Review
- Finalist, history, 2014 Foreword Reviews’ Indie Book of the Year, March 2015
- Finalist, general nonfiction, 67th annual Colorado Authors League Writing Awards, May 2015
- Starred Review, Blue Ink Reviews, June 2015
- Positive Reviews from Publishers Weekly, Foreword magazine, Denver Post
1. KIRKUS REVIEWS, Starred Review — Released Sept. 18, 2014; published in Nov. 15, 2014 print issue
2. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, Booklife — Released Nov. 21, 2014.
3. FOREWORD MAGAZINE Review — Released Oct. 30, 2014; published in Nov. 15, 2014 print issue
4. SUNDAY DENVER POST Article — Published Oct. 12, 2014
5. WESTWORD Review — Published online Oct. 22, 2014 in Denver’s alternative weekly newspaper
6. RESEARCH TEACHER: History and Current Affairs — Published online January 31, 2015 by Nick Siekierski, a PhD student at Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland.
7. STARRED REVIEW, Blue Ink Reviews — June 2015
8. Review by history teacher Dr. Steven Freiberger — Sept. 20, 2015
1. KIRKUS REVIEWS, Starred Review (only 760 out 8,000 annual Kirkus Reviews get a Starred Review)
Published in Nov. 15, 2014 print issue
“The first book of a planned trilogy chronicling American-led relief efforts in Belgium during World War I.
“Just in time for the Great War’s centennial, this valuable narrative reprises a dramatic chapter of world history that rarely takes center stage in history books, as it’s often overshadowed by subsequent wars. Specifically, Miller (Facing Your Fifties, 2002, etc.) focuses on the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a multinational humanitarian organization that saved 9 million Belgian and French civilians from starvation under German occupation. Led by future U.S. president Herbert Hoover, then 40 years old and living in London, the CRB was the first mission of its kind, establishing precedents that shaped current policies regarding universal human rights and international humanitarian intervention. Miller shows how Hoover navigated German and Allied opposition, co-opted competing humanitarian groups, and improvised a distribution network that deployed young Americans as neutral “delegates” across Belgium’s provinces. Miller’s grandfather, Milton M. Brown, was one of these delegates, and he married Erica Bunge, a wealthy Belgian native whose family is integral to the overall story. Their diaries, letters and photos, bequeathed to the author in the 1980s, sparked Miller’s interest in the period, and it’s obvious that this book was a labor of love. The narrative covers only August through December 1914, and readers contemplating 397 pages of text (plus sources, notes and an index) about a mere six months of wartime may fear a tedious journey. But instead, the pages fly by, thanks to Miller’s consistently smooth prose and careful scene-setting. He effectively captures the human drama, with exquisite descriptions of how characters looked (“With his rimless pince-nez, he had the appearance of a scholar or professor and, just like one, he longed for the solitude of the writer’s garret”) and why they behaved as they did. He quickens the pace with short chapters that bounce between Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, London and New York. Readers who only associate World War I and Herbert Hoover with trench warfare and the Great Depression (or the Hoover Dam) will discover meaningful contexts for both in a tale that personalizes extraordinary times. Miller writes that his goal was to write for people “who never read history books”; he accomplishes that splendidly, while also creating a work that scholars will admire.
“An excellent history that should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians.”
2. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, Booklife
Released Nov. 21, 2014
“Part one of a three-part examination of the conditions in Belgium during WWI under the German occupation, Miller’s book covers only the first five months: August to December 1914. His primary focus is the origin of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), led by American businessman—and future president—Herbert Hoover. Miller also examines the beginnings of the Belgian resistance and the experiences of the Bunge family, who were participants in both the resistance and the activities of the Belgian relief. Miller’s excellent research is extensive and strongly supports his thesis that Hoover and the CRB were instrumental in saving the lives of untold numbers of Belgian civilians. The work’s major shortcoming is obvious: it ends abruptly in December 1914. Though it’s an intriguing read, Miller’s well-written and thorough study will be of greatest interest to specialists in WWI and European history.”
3. FOREWORD Magazine Review
Released Oct. 30, 2014; published in Nov. 15, 2014 print issue
This fascinating book tells the little-known story of the Belgian resistance during World War I.
The year 2014 marks the centennial anniversary of World War I, and the publishing industry has unleashed a plethora of historical and commemorative books to pay homage to this momentous and solemn occasion. Jeffrey B. Miller has self-published a book about a rarely covered topic, Behind the Lines: WWI’s Little Known Story of German Occupation, Belgian Resistance, and the Band of Yanks Who Helped Save Millions from Starvation. It chronicles the little-known story of the Commission for the Relief in Belgium (CRB).
Miller’s style is more anecdotal and journalistic than that of a historian or an academic. He begins the story in August of 1914, with the Germans claiming they need only march through the strategically placed Belgium so they can take France. This ends up not being the case, and parts of Belgium are destroyed and/or occupied along the way. Within two months, because of the military occupation and control of transportation, along with the attitude of the Germans toward their captors, food became scarce, and people—some seven million Belgians and two million French—began to starve.
This tragic story is the focus of Miller’s four-hundred-page work that features dozens of international characters. Although the book is filled with a wealth of information, it is never quite clear who the main characters of the story are. There is a familial element: Erica Bunge, Miller’s grandmother who was an active spy for the Allied forces in the war; Herbert Hoover, who was a mining magnate at the time and founded the CRB (his pre-presidential era); the Rhodes scholars who served as Belgian delegates for the CRB on their school break; and the local Belgian heroes such as Abbé de Moor and Émile Francqui. They all play a part in the story, but some more so than others.
Miller mentions in his preface that this is the first book of a three-part series. Perhaps with the foundation he has constructed here, he will find it easier to build a clear vision so readers can fully appreciate all the work and research that went into this fascinating story about the Commission for the Relief in Belgium. Writers like Miller bring to life the people, the heroes we do not know, and this alone is reason enough to look forward to his next book.
— Foreword Magazine, Monica Carter
4. SUNDAY DENVER POST
Published Oct. 12, 2014
Denver author tells a little-known tale from the Great War
By William Porter
Some history writers start with a germ of an idea that springs into their head, others with a newspaper headline, television footage or a chance comment heard in passing.
For Denver author Jeffrey Miller, it began with a batch of letters inherited from his grandfather. The correspondence, which also included diaries, recounted the work of Milton Brown, Miller’s granddad, with the Commission for Relief in Belgium. The commission was a group of American volunteers who worked in German-occupied Belgium to provide relief through food and provisions to millions of Belgians who might otherwise have starved to death after the Great War began in August 1914.
Miller, fascinated with this largely forgotten slice of history, has published “Behind the Lines” (Millbrown Press), a fascinating look at the first five months of the relief campaign. Other volumes will track the volunteers’ efforts through April 1917, when the United States entered the war and American workers were forced to leave Belgium.
“The really big takeaway is that it’s one of the greatest things America has ever done and nobody knows about it,” says Miller, a longtime magazine journalist. “And that’s sad.”
The Commission for Relief in Belgium was founded on Oct. 22, 1914, so the centennial is upon us. It was led by future U.S. President Herbert Hoover, then 40 and living in London. “The irony was that Hoover is now vilified because the Great Depression began on his watch, but he was an absolute hero in getting aid to the citizens of Belgium during the German occupation,” Miller says. Hoover’s work would be echoed three decades later by the Marshall Plan, which brought aid to a devastated post-World War II Europe.
Hoover’s plan placed American “delegates” in Belgium to help coordinate relief efforts, and Miller’s grandfather was one of them.
The volunteer efforts were tough going, even though the Americans were still “neutrals.” German authorities ruled with an iron hand. One curfew order, forbidding anyone to leave their houses at night, ended with this directive: “Potatoes can only be dug with the Commandant’s consent and under military supervision. The German troops have orders to carry out these directions strictly, by sentinels and patrols, who are authorized to fire on anyone departing from these directions.”
Miller says he developed a profound personal connection with his granddad as he delved into the trove he inherited 30 years ago. “This was a man who I had only known as an 80-year-old grandfather, and I got to know him as an idealistic young man in his 20s,” he says.
Miller first turned out an 800-page historical novel, only to have his agent tell him that, while he was a fine writer of history, he wasn’t a novelist. “So I had to face that, which was tough,” he says.
Tougher by far was a diagnosis of stage 4 throat cancer in 2009. He beat it, but it took two years out of his writing and derailed him emotionally, at least when it came to pushing the book through. Then came a morning working out at home — on a NordicTrack machine of all things — and he had a eureka moment, realizing a path to finishing the book. “I raced upstairs and told my wife, ‘It’s back.’ ”
Miller had made a few trips to Belgium to get a feel for the landscape, including a 1990s trip with his mother, a native of Belgium, who served as a tour guide to another time and place. Also along was his father, a World War II veteran who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
The layers of history went deep. Miller worked hard at his research, keeping records in a way that would make an old-school Harvard researcher proud: 1,200 index cards tracking history — nuances and all — of CRB movement.
Kirkus Reviews recently awarded the book a starred review, lauding Miller as a popular historian to watch. This puts him in the running for a $50,000 Kirkus Prize, to be announced Oct. 23. “It’s heady stuff,” Miller says. “I’m a trained journalist but not a trained scholar,” he says. “I consider this book sort of one big magazine article with tons of subheads.”
Miller, 61, grew up in New Jersey. He arrived here via his thumb. “In 1970, Simon & Garfunkel (said) go look for America,” he recalls. “I hitchhiked around the country and came to Colorado, where I discovered I could have a summer without humidity.”
Today he lives in the south Bonnie Brae neighborhood with Susan Burdick, his wife of 31 years. Previous books include “Stapleton International Airport: The First Fifty Years” (1983) and “Facing Your Fifties: Every Man’s Reference to Mid-life Health (2002). While Miller rents a 50-square-foot office space near the intersection of South Colorado Boulevard and East Kentucky Avenue, he also enjoys writing at his home at his roll-top desk, a burly model from the 1800s. “It’s like sitting down with a piece of history,” he says.
Miller hopes readers can find inspiration in his book. “As we struggle now with who we are, we can look back 100 years and see our better selves,” he says.
Published Oct. 22, 2014
Jeffrey B. Miller Tackles Epic Tale of Forgotten WWI Heroes and Belgian Relief
By Alan Prendergast
Jeff Miller’s grandfather never talked much about how he happened to meet Jeff’s grandmother while he was assisting civilian relief efforts in German-occupied Belgium during the Great War. That reticence stirred Miller’s writerly curiosity about the little-known exploits of the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium, which went to ingenious and extraordinary lengths to prevent the starvation of millions trapped behind enemy lines during the long, bloody conflict.
Thirty years ago Miller inherited many of his grandfather’s CRB papers and his grandmother’s diary, which offered fresh insights into that grim struggle. That led to a sprawling historical novel, a project that Miller eventually shelved, and now to something even more ambitious: a three-volume nonfiction account detailing the biggest relief effort the world had ever seen. The first volume, Behind the Lines (Millbrown Press), is showing up in bookstores this month, which coincides with the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the CRB on October 22, 1914.
Miller, a veteran magazine editor and author of a history of Stapleton International Airport, decided to self-publish his trilogy in order to get the first volume out this fall, in time for the anniversary. But this is no amateur effort; it’s already received a Star Review from Kirkus and is finding a place amid the tide of World War I studies coming out now. The impressive research and generally crisp writing transforms what could have been an arid study into a dramatic and at times inspiring narrative.
Miller weaves back and forth between the grand sweep of the invasion of Belgium and up-close, anecdotal material and observations concerning his grandmother’s family and others in the path of the Kaiser’s troops. Reports of atrocities helped to spur international relief efforts, particularly after it became apparent that the occupying, pillaging army was making no provisions to feed the civilian population.
But getting tens of thousands of tons of flour and other supplies through the war zone required some intricate maneuvering — much of it engineered by young mining tycoon Herbert Hoover. Readers who know of Hoover mainly for his hapless presidency at the onset of the Great Depression may be surprised by his central role as the brash but canny negotiator here, persuading the belligerents to let the relief shipments through. (As it turned out, the German high command saw distinct advantages in letting the Americans feed the Belgians and eventually a hunk of northern France as well, while the Allies were more hesitant, hoping that starvation might provoke more insurrections.) But Hoover is hardly the only hero in Miller’s sprawling story, which also includes a group of American Rhodes scholars from Oxford who join the campaign.
The chief drawback of the book — call it a pet peeve — is Miller’s tendency to fall into the little-did-they-know trope. Example: “In those last days of August with little end in sight, Hoover undoubtedly had no idea that within two short months he would be called upon to do so much more.” And, speaking of the Oxford volunteers, “a select group of them had no idea that by early December they would be far from the hallowed halls of learning…” — you get the idea, right, even if they don’t? Unless they are psychic, nobody has any idea of something that hasn’t happened yet, and this kind of clumsy foreshadowing is best left to old radio serials.
But aside from that occasional lapse, Behind the Lines offers much to ponder about the collision of young idealists with the brutal realities of modern warfare. It’s a boots-on-the-ground account of the first world war and the politics of relief efforts that really hasn’t been told before, and that’s saying something.
6. RESEARCH TEACHER: History and Current Affairs — Published online January 31, 2015 by Nick Siekierski, a PhD student at Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland.
Last October marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (C.R.B.), arguably the most unique and influential humanitarian organization in history.
In Behind the Lines: “WWI’s little-known story of German occupation, Belgian resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation. Beginnings, 1914.” author Jeffrey B. Miller tells the story of the first, trying months of World War I, from the perspective of suffering but defiant Belgians facing a German invasion, and the dozens of idealistic Americans whose can-do spirit (and wide-ranging business and diplomatic experience), created a privately funded relief enterprise that aided millions of Belgians trapped in German-occupied territory.
The C.R.B. faced many challenges over the course of nearly five years in operation, but was ultimately successful in providing nearly $1 billion in food relief to over nine million people during the war (including two million French citizens in northern France, behind German lines, starting in April 1915), averaging 100,000 tons of food per month. Though America’s entry into the war in 1917 forced American personnel to withdraw from Belgium, Dutch and Spanish officials took their place. The example set by the operations of the C.R.B. was unprecedented in history and created a new conception of global humanitarianism. It created the framework of organization that would be used immediately after the war as America expanded its relief efforts to much of Europe.
Mr. Miller, a writer, editor and author by trade, was inspired to write this book (the first in planned trilogy) by the diaries and photographs of his grandfather, Milton M. Brown and his grandmother, Erica Bunge Brown. Brown, a C.R.B. “delegate” tasked with establishing relief operations in one of Belgium’s many provinces, met Erica Bunge, one of three daughters of a prominent Belgian merchant and a volunteer relief worker, during their World War I adventure.
The book covers the period from August to December 1914, while the second book will cover January 1915 through spring 1916, and the third, summer 1916 through April 1917 (when U.S. entry into the war forced Americans to leave Belgium).
The book isn’t an academic history of the period, but a narrative meant to appeal to a broad audience interested in a good story. Having worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for a number of years, knowing the broad outline of Herbert Hoover’s humanitarian work, the plethora of details and personal accounts of the many people involved in this tale made me appreciate their tremendous accomplishments that much more. Reading Hugh Gibson’s reaction to seeing the burned remains of the city of Louvain, the descriptions of the suffering witnessed by Erica Bunge in the besieged city of Antwerp and numerous other anecdotes, was a grim reminder of the beginnings of modern warfare and the heavy toll exacted on civilian populations.
Mr. Miller put a tremendous amount of effort into reviewing numerous archival collections and books scattered around America, simultaneously amassing a wealth of knowledge on the time period that can only be rivaled by specialists who’ve made it their life’s work. Behind the Lines was self-published by Mr. Miller, so the time and resources spent to research and write it were all a labor of love and a tribute to the work done by his grandparents and their friends and colleagues a century ago.
As an aspiring historian writing about American Relief Administration’s aid to Poland after World War I (a successor effort to the C.R.B.), Mr. Miller’s book has served as a valuable foundation to understanding the origins of America’s great humanitarian crusade in Europe. I eagerly await the coming two volumes of the story.
7. STARRED REVIEW, Blue Ink Reviews, June 2015 — A company that gives professional reviews of independently published books.
One of the historian’s jobs is to take all the shards—all the accounts, statistics, stories, and documents of a particular time—and make them click into place like a pattern in a kaleidoscope. Jeffrey B. Miller does this admirably in Behind the Lines.
Miller’s history primarily concerns the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), the privately run organization that kept a whole nation from starving during WWI. At the beginning of the war, the Germans marched into neutral Belgium, leveling cities and requisitioning supplies. No new food could reach the country because the allies had blocked the seaways, and the Germans did not feel it was their duty to feed the Belgians.
Herbert Hoover (15 years before becoming a U.S. president) and a group diplomats and American citizens stepped up, forming the CRB. Miller outlines the enormous financial, diplomatic, and organizational hurdles the group had to overcome in order to transport tons of food to famine-threatened Belgium and places this relief effort within the disparate contexts of a war-ravaged country, a nascent Belgium resistance, feuding men of power, and the young idealists (Rhodes Scholars) who made sure that the supplies reached their intended recipients.
Miller discloses the details with a master’s touch for synecdoche. For instance, on a gray day just after a bombardment, a Belgium nurse finds a yellow canary and cradles it in her hands, thinking of “all the young soldiers she had tended….” In addition to his metaphoric distillations, he also provides a shrewd analysis of the leaders connected with the CRB. Particularly, he reveals Herbert Hoover’s autocratic and manipulative tendencies as well as his humanitarian ones.
Miller’s deft account of the CRB and its milieu unfortunately ends in early 1915, although the commission continued on well after the Armistice of 1918. Miller, however, hints of a second book in his final pages, so readers may look forward to a continuation of this intriguing story.
8. Review by Dr. Steven Freiberger — Published online on Sept. 20, 2015
The centennial anniversary of World War I produced numerous evaluations of the conflict that brought horrific technology to the battlefield and left Europe totally reconfigured and created the ground work for World War II, and the disintegration of the Middle East today. Among the many new books that appeared in 2014 most dealt with the economic, political, and diplomatic components that drove Europe to war in August, 1914, its conduct, and its final conclusion. Few have explored the humanitarian aspects of the war, but this growing genre has produced a number of important works among them is Jeffrey B. Miller’s BEHIND THE LINES, a well-researched and thoughtful narrative designed to acquaint his audience with the Americans who went to Belgium after it was occupied by the Germans and contributed to the effort to save untold millions from starvation.
Miller examines the role of the Commission on Relief in Belgium (CRB) that was established in October, 1914 to import food and ensure its distribution for those in need throughout occupied Belgium. Before the war Belgium was the most highly industrialized and densely populated country in Europe, with a ratio of 652 people per square mile, while in England it was 374 people per square mile. It was a country that was dependent upon food imports for its survival and because of its industrialized base was able to export enough products to more than offset the cost of its food imports. Once the war commenced German wanton acts of destruction and the British naval blockade left Belgium in dire straits. Among the many individuals that Miller discusses who tried to alleviate the growing threat of starvation was the American mining engineer, Herbert Hoover, a man saddled with the great depression of 1929 as his epitaph. Miller presents a much different picture of Hoover as he discusses a person driven to alleviate hunger by developing the organizational structure that would feed over nine million people in Belgium during the war. Hoover’s use of newspapers to pressure allied governments was ingenious as newspapers never seemed to run out of Belgian stories, and Hoover never seemed to run out of stories to supply them! Hoover would develop the CRB and deploy American college students, then studying at Oxford throughout Belgium to assist in the development of a mechanism to acquire, ship, and distribute foodstuffs where they were needed. The CRB eventually secured over $1 billion to purchase food and developed a global logistical system to feed millions. Many of the delegates as they were called risked their lives in the process and Miller’s narrative reflects their historical importance as many thought they were signing up for a six week donation of their time during winter break in December, 1914, but in reality their stint was much longer and impactful than they realized when they left London for Rotterdam.
The impact of the CRB on the world was profound as Dr. Brandon Little argues in the book’s Forward. First, it demonstrated that humanitarian countermeasures could be developed in a time of total war. Second, it awakened hope among the suffering people. Third, the success of the Americans in delivering aid reinforced the belief by Americans in their own exceptionalism. Fourth, the CRB became the conceptual seed for the creation of other international humanitarian agencies. Lastly, the CRB provided a novel approach to an overwhelming wartime problem.
The personal stories of those who made the CRB possible has not been widely circulated, but now after carefully mining the available historical record, including those of his grandparents who were CRB workers, Miller has provided a vivid account of those involved. What emerges is proof that the United States became deeply involved in World War I long before Congress declared war against Germany in April, 1917. Miller provides evidence that the US became involved almost at the outset of the fighting and he concentrates on the unsung heroes like E.E. Hunt, an American freelance journalist who witnessed the carnage of the war and joined the CRB and greatly facilitated its work in the city of Antwerp which was bombarded hourly by the Germans before it finally succumbed. Others that Miller explores in depth include the work of the autocratic Herbert Hoover who believed that to efficiently meet its tasks the CRB needed to be centrally organized and directed. Miller spends a great deal of time examining the bureaucratic infighting among the French Belgian, and American relief agencies and the different personalities involved as they tried to meet the needs of the Belgian people. David T. Nelson, an American Rhodes scholar was the first delegate that joined the CRB who walked into Belgium with only the clothes on his back. Erica Bunge and her banking family are explored in detail as is the work of Eugene van Doren, a Belgian businessman, and Abbe Vincent de Moor, a Catholic priest who published an underground newspaper in Brussels and spied for the British secret service. Miller integrates the lives of many other participants be it CRB delegates, French businessman who wanted to assist in the process, politicians, military leaders in providing a unique insight into what it took to offset the German occupation and feed millions.
Miller provides an excellent description of the plight of civilians during the German bombardment of Antwerp. He details the disappointment in the lack of British and French aid and the inability of the Belgium military to stem the tide of the German shelling. Interestingly, once the occupation of Belgium is complete, the British government was split over whether to provide aid to Belgium. The military opposed it, with men like Winston Churchill, Lord Kitchener, and Secretary of the Exchequer David Lloyd George arguing that it was Germany’s responsibility to feed the people as the occupying power and fearing that any aid would be seized by the German military. They argued further that “Belgian starvation would create such havoc that the German s would have to pull troops from the western front to maintain order.” (337) Others like Prime Minister Herbert Asquith reluctantly favored aid. The Germans would argue that it was the British blockade that was responsible for the starvation problem and they were willing to cooperate with the allies if and when aid was provided. Other interesting aspects of the book included Hoover’s use of publicity in the United States and England to gain support for his efforts as newspapers and other propaganda tools were employed as a constant conduit to the world of the plight of Belgium. Miller reiterates the problem faced in disbursing relief in that if it was not provided quickly enough the Belgian people might revolt forcing the Germans to crack down even further and worsening an already desperate situation. Miller contrasts the major cities involved in the relief effort. He compares life in Antwerp, which was severely damaged by German bombardment, and Brussels, that allowed the Germans to take over peacefully to avoid being destroyed. Miller also describes life in Rotterdam which was the main transshipment port for aid arriving from England and the United States. The lives of people in these cities were vastly different and for its people their quality of life was based on decisions made by politicians who had little leeway in making choices. Lastly, Miller’s brief biographies of the major historical figures and their actions, as well as his thorough descriptions of the work of the American “Rhodes Scholar and non-Rhodes Scholar delegates” to the CRB are insightful and informative and allow the reader to truly understand the conditions under which they worked and the successes they achieved.
The book is well written but does present a challenge at times to the reader. The edition that I read had pagination issues that for a time made it difficult to read the book. In addition, at times Miller becomes overly engrossed in the bureaucratic infighting that seems to be a constant issue. Periodically, the author gets bogged down in his description of the minutiae that each relief committee is engaged in. Lastly, I would suggest that a more comprehensive citation system be used for those who are interested in the sources that were consulted to assist the reader. However, these shortcomings do not in any way take away from the work that Miller has done in publicizing the American effort to assist the Belgian people during World War I. Miller believes that he has only scratched the surface of his subject and plans two more volumes that the reader can look forward to as the author continues his exploration of the humanitarian role as the war enters 1915.
Dr. Steven Freiberger has been an educator for more than 40 years and is the former department chair of history at Middlesex School. Honors include New Jersey Humanitarian Teach of the Year (1994), and Organization of American Historians Teacher of the Year (1998). He’s an avid reader and writes reviews that he posts on his blog, Doc’s Books, at http://docs-books.com/