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 CRB?
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.
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 Behind The Lines and they are both in WWI Crusaders, but these two books 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 two books, I also hope to write a full-length movie screenplay about this incredibly exciting and dramatic story.
Why Two 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.
After the critical success of Behind the Lines, I decided readers needed to have the full story told in one complete volume. I started three years of research and writing to do so.
The result of all my work is 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. I consider both of my books to be creative nonfiction, with the word creative referring to presentation, not historical accuracy (which I’ve strived 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 both books in the style of popular historians Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, and David McCullough.
Behind the Lines — published in 2014 — The book focuses on the first five critical months, August to December 1914. I’m proud to report that Behind the Lines has received national recognitions and reviews, most notably a Kirkus Starred Review (only about 760 out of 10,000 books annually reviewed by Kirkus are given a Starred Review), and inclusion in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014. The Kirkus Starred Review ended by stating: “An excellent history that should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians.” (I’m still waiting for the catapult!) To see all the reviews and recognitions, click here.
WWI Crusaders — available in August 2018 — The book covers August 1914, when the war began, to May 1917, when the last U.S. delegates left Belgium because of America’s April entry into the war. The events of a century past come alive in real time as WWI Crusaders follows the lives of a handful of young CRB delegates, two U.S. diplomats, a 22-year-old Belgian woman, and those responsible for producing an underground newspaper. A substantial epilogue wraps up all major stories and people through the end of the war and beyond.
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.|