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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

The Commission for Relief in Belgium, Part II

CRB poster requesting clothing donations, 1917-19. By that time, the CRB was aiding northern France as well as Belgium, both areas under military occupation (courtesy National Archives, College Park, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

In Lonely Are the Brave, my novel due out in April, a war hero warmly recalls parading through Brussels in December 1918 to celebrate the city's liberation from four years of German occupation.


Belgians had a soft spot for Americans too. The Commission for Relief in Belgium, which fed the country throughout the war, placed American delegates in major towns and cities, mostly collegians on leave of absence.


CRB delegates were essentially glorified accountants who pored over cargo manifests and inventory sheets while having to fight their way through red tape and withstand hazing by German soldiers convinced they were spies. Berlin tolerated the CRB as a means to keep Belgium placid and for public-relations value. But in Belgium, that tolerance wore thin.


The CRB never violated its neutrality pledge, but that didn't matter. CRB vehicles drew cheers from Belgians, which annoyed the occupiers, as did the Americans' casual confidence. As one delegate wrote, "The German stalks about Belgium as if he owned the country and the American as if he did not care who owned it."


I can just see those twenty-somethings excited by the power to act for a humanitarian project the like of which history had never seen—and bearing witness to a military occupation the outside world knew only by rumor.


As far as I know, the CRB story has never been told in fiction—I'm working on that now—but I've also got a book coming out in a couple months. It'll be a while!



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The Commission for Relief in Belgium

Herbert Hoover as a young mining engineer, Western Australia, 1898, photographer unknown (courtesy State Library of Western Australia, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

In Lonely Are the Brave, my novel due out in April, a war hero warmly recalls his most meaningful moment of service, parading through Brussels in December 1918 to celebrate the city's liberation from four years of German occupation.


Why the Belgians chose an American regiment that had spent mere weeks fighting on their soil rather than French or British units that had fought for years, speaks to political loyalties. I suspect that Herbert Hoover's gift had much to do with the decision.


In autumn 1914, after German forces had overrun nearly all Belgium and the British had blockaded the North Sea, Belgium was sealed off from the outside world. Famine threatened.


Hoover, a wealthy mining engineer who happened to be in London, vowed to act--and by telling Britain and German leaders that public opinion would blame them if Belgium starved, he convinced them to let him attempt to feed a nation under military occupation. His Commission for Relief in Belgium, paid for by private charity and administered in-country by young Americans as neutral citizens, captured imaginations around the world.


The CRB saw seven million Belgians through the war and, in 1916, added three million French people in German-occupied territory to the program. To feed them all, day in, day out, the CRB brought in millions of tons of wheat, corn, dried peas and beans, powdered milk, and other basics. These were rations, calories for survival, bare sustenance.


But to Belgium, the Americans' presence brought another precious commodity: hope of liberation.


More to come.

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The Young Women in White

Schneck, 1917, Acme Litho. Co. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Building on last week's post about the Seattle parade, here's more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


In the parade, the white horses, white flower petals, and young women in white dresses all played to symbolism of feminine purity. Why?


Not for the first time in history, but in a context particular to the First World War, belligerents sought to persuade their able-bodied male citizens that they must fight to save womanhood. The idea pervaded recruitment propaganda in Britain and the United States, likely because neither country had been invaded, and so had no self-evident reason to defend itself.


When Congress declared war in April 1917, American recruiters had to rouse a nation comfortably at peace. To do so, they evoked wartime events that had not budged neutrality one inch when they happened but were now recast to prompt every man to do his duty or risk being called less than a man. A key reference point was the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.


While the invasion was taking place, the press failed to convey its true horror and went for the sensational. Though the invaders executed thousands of Belgian civilians, committing arson and pillage, alleged rapes and mutilations of nuns, women, and young girls were what made headlines. Even as American newspapers exploited these lurid stories for the shock value, most reserved judgment, doubting that the disciplined German Army could have permitted such outrages.


Then, in May 1915, a German submarine sank the liner Lusitania, killing almost 1200 people, including 128 Americans. In what amounted to a publicist's perfect storm, a week later, the British government published an official account of the Belgian invasion atrocities, mentioning the firing squads, burning, and looting but playing up accusations of rapes and mutilation, which rested on hearsay evidence from unsworn witnesses.


That lapse went largely unnoticed, and the report electrified American opinion. If the Germans could sink the Lusitania, mightn't they have committed sexual atrocities in Belgium? Isolationists could argue that was still none of America's business, but the perceived outrages wouldn't go away. For instance, The New York Tribune, a pro-Allied paper, printed a drawing of a widowed Belgium comforting a weeping Miss Columbia. The caption suggests attitudes common to the time: "At Least They Only Drown Your Women."


Come 1917, then, American recruiters had no trouble tapping into beliefs about German atrocities and, tacitly or explicitly, using them to goad to action any man who called himself a man. The poster above, promoted by the Hollywood film industry, employs blatant sexual imagery, with a half-clad Miss Columbia--in white, of course.


But the propagandists were just getting started.


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