As America takes the opportunity to honor her military veterans throughout history, we’ve come upon a great milestone. Veterans Day 2018 marks a full century since the end of World War I. World War I remains one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, with casualties reaching almost 40 million. While the destruction and hardship faced by both the soldiers on the frontline and the civilians across Europe whose lives were changed forever deservedly receive the majority of the attention, there were also signs of humanity and generosity in the face of such violence and hardship.
One of those lesser-known stories is that of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, an American-led humanitarian effort in both Belgium and northern France, a region that faced some of the deadliest carnage during the war. With the help of some young and idealistic Americans, almost 10 million people, facing the prospect of starvation behind German lines, were saved. Starting from nothing, the CRB initiated, organized, and supervised a food relief plan so large that it had never been seen before in the world.
The story of the CRB and the brave souls behind hit will be told with the release of WWI Crusaders, which is available starting today. The book includes some never-before-seen photographs from the relief effort, showing not only the destruction caused by the war but the survival of humanity in a place that had seen so much pain.
Take a look at some of the powerful, previously-unseen images discussed in the book, pictures of those who committed themselves to helping others and photos of those who were saved by this heretofore unseen relief effort, with captions provided by the author of WWI Crusaders, historian Jeffrey B. Miller.
Belgians stand outside one of the shops of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) where one-off items brought in by the relief program were sold to those who could afford them. Prices were set so that each item brought a small profit that was used to provide food for those who could not afford anything (Public domain; War Bread, E. E. Hunt, Henry Holt & Co., 1916).
Each CRB food relief ship was outfitted with large signs on both sides to alert German U-boats that it was not an enemy vessel. Even with the promised protection from the German government, the CRB were not immune from attack. Numerous vessels were sent to the bottom with their electric CRB signs blazing and their large banners prominently displayed (Public domain; A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium, Hugh Gibson, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1917).
Belgian children were the most affected by the war and the relief program did them the most good. They were usually fed in the schools they attended and were provided with at least one meal a day that consisted of a hearty vegetable soup, one thick slice of bread, and one glass of milk if available (Public domain; Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Archives, West Branch, Iowa).
While the story of the CRB is not told as frequently as others, many are acquainted with the chairman of the movement: future United States President Herbert Hoover.
When the First World War broke out, Herbert Hoover was living abroad in London as a mining engineer and financier. He soon found himself surrounded by American tourists scrambling among the chaos to get back to the U.S. He organized the American Committee responsible for financing the journey home for some 120,000 people.
Hoover’s efforts and abilities to organize and mobilize did not go unnoticed. Specifically, he caught the attention of Walter Hines Page, then the U.S. Ambassador the the United Kingdom. Page and other prominent people sought Hoover’s help with another key mission: shortly after being invaded by Germany, Belgium began undergoing a food shortage. The tiny, mostly urban nation was only able to grow a fraction of its food needed to survive, and the meager harvest was already being taken by the German army.
But the seemingly simple solution of simply buying and importing enough food was made difficult by the economic blockade Great Britain had imposed on Germany and its occupied territories.
At the start of the war, Herbert C. Hoover was a 40-year-old mining engineer who was a no-nonsense, ambitious, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done kind of American. He would go on to organize and build the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), which would become the largest food and relief drive the world had ever seen. During four years of war, nearly 10 million Belgians and northern French would be saved from starvation by the efforts of the CRB and its Belgian counterpart, the Comité National (Public domain; Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Archives, West Branch, Iowa).
The ancient university town of Louvain in ruins after the Germans ransacked it on August 25–30, 1914. In the darkened and terrified city, the soldiers broke into the university library and set it ablaze, using gas and other accelerants to do so; they then stopped any who tried to put the fire out. By some account it took nine to ten hours for all 300,000 books to burn. (Public domain; multiple sources).
The October 1914 flight from Antwerp before the three-day bombardment that would pound the city into surrender. In the upper right corner is the Scheldt River a pontoon bridge that was the only way out of Antwerp at the time. When the proclamation was posted that the Germans would begin bombarding Antwerp soon, the city turned from relative calm in a heartbeat. “Hundreds, thousands of terrified fugitives filled the streets,” wrote Antwerp merchant Edouard Bunge. (Public domain; The Track of the War, R. Scotland Liddell, Simpkin, Marshall, 1915.)
The book’s description on Amazon promises an interesting read for history buffs and book lovers of every stripe.
“The true story of young, untested American volunteers who entered German-occupied Belgium to attempt what had never been done before — save an entire nation from starvation that was trapped in the middle of a world war. One of America’s greatest humanitarian efforts is little-known today. WWI Crusaders brings the past to life by telling the personal stories behind the facts in an as-it’s-happening style.”
WWI Crusaders is actually Miller’s second history book about the CRB. His previous work, Behind The Lines, was published in 2014.
“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…the pages fly by, thanks to Miller’s consistently smooth prose and careful scene-setting. He effectively captures the human drama… 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,” reads the endorsement from Kirkus Reviews.
Despite incredible challenges, Hoover, Francqui, and their organizations (the CRB and CN) were able to successfully feed and clothe the Belgians and northern French throughout the war. A young girl eating a slice of bread aptly represented the entire relief program. It was a photo that became highly publicized around the world (Public domain; E. E. Hunt, War Bread, Henry Holt and Company, 1916).
Belgians wait patiently outside a Brussels soup kitchen for their daily ration of bread and soup. Those who could afford to pay did so, while those who could not were still provided for. An extensive ration card system was established to make sure the system was fair to all (Public domain; War Bread, E. E. Hunt, Henry Holt & Co., 1916).
By September 1914, Belgians throughout the country had no choice but to join the soup-kitchen lines as the country quickly consumed its dwindling supplies. As the war progressed, more and more people moved from those who could pay something for food to those who could pay nothing. This put tremendous stain on a very delicately balanced system of relief (Public domain; In Occupied Belgium, Robert Withington, The Cornhill Co., 1921).