Jeffrey B. Miller has been a writer, magazine editor, and book author for more than 40 years.
He wrote “Behind the Lines” (Milbrown Press, 2014), which was a Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014; and “WWI Crusaders” (Milbrown Press, 2018), which has been named a Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2018, was a 2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist and also won top honors in Historical Nonfiction from the Colorado Authors League.
The following is an excerpt from “WWI Crusaders.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
What inspired you to write this book?
My grandfather was a 25-year-old recent graduate of Princeton University when he volunteered to become a “delegate” in the Commission Relief in Belgium (CRB).
The CRB, working with its Belgian counterpart, the Comité National (CN), created the largest food relief program the world had ever seen. They saved from starvation nearly 10 million civilians trapped behind German lines every day during World War I (1914-1918). Britain had agreed to allow the food into German-occupied Belgium ONLY if the CRB would send neutral Americans into Belgium to guarantee the Germans would not take the imported food.
These CRB delegates had to maintain strict neutrality as they watched the Belgians suffer under the harsh German rule.
My grandfather, Milton M. Brown, went into war-torn Belgium to serve the massive humanitarian effort in January 1916. He came out only with all the other American CRB delegates when America entered the war in April 1917. (Neutral Spanish and Dutch CRB delegates took their places, while the Americans still controlled the food relief through the end of the war.)
Also during the war, my grandmother, 23-year-old Belgian Erica Bunge, ran a dairy farm that she and her father (Antwerp merchant, Edouard Bunge) had started to provide milk for the children of Antwerp. Erica also volunteered at a hospital and at a children’s canteen during the day and worked in the underground against the Germans at night.
When my grandparents died in the late 1980s, I inherited all their diaries, correspondence and photos from that time.
Inspired by the stories they had told and the material I read, I began to research the CRB, CN, WWI, WWI Belgium, and 50 CRB delegates. I spent 10 years researching and writing “WWI Crusaders.”
Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?
Favorite nonfiction writers include David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Laura Hillenbrand, and Eric Larson. Favorite fiction writers come from my youth—John Steinbeck, Ken Kesey and John Fowles.
As for characters, both real and imagined, I love those who have overcome incredible challenges to achieve great things (large and small), and/or those who do the right thing, the moral thing, despite negative personal consequences. A classic example is the “Tale of Two Cities” Sydney Carton—“It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known before.”
Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?
It is a perfect teaser to the book that also explains what the book is about and gives a taste of my writing style.
What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?
Interjecting my grandparents’ stories into the larger, historical story of massive food relief. But “WWI Crusaders” is NOT a book about my family—my family is only a thread in the tapestry of this book.
I also loved getting to know so well some of the people I researched and wrote about. As I wrote in my Author’s Note: “I want to be beside first-year Rhodes scholar David Nelson as he walks alone toward the Belgian border not knowing what to expect. I want to hear Hugh Gibson’s impassioned arguments as he tried to stop the execution of Edith Cavell. I want to warn Eugene van Doren that the Germans are coming for him. I want to help Erica Bunge start the dairy farm that will provide milk for Antwerp’s children. And I want to have a beer and intense conversation with war-correspondent-turned-compassionate-relief-worker E. E. Hunt.”
What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?
Overall, it was trying to integrate tens of thousands of pages of material—uncovered during 10 years of research—into a readable, entertaining book for general readers interested in an unknown slice of history.
What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?
The biggest was the fact that a small band of Americans during WWI had helped save from starvation nearly 10 million people. Few Americans today know about this incredible humanitarian effort that became the largest food relief effort the world had ever seen.
What project are you working on next?
I’m attempting to convert my book into an eight-episode limited TV series. The “logline,” which is the elevator pitch you’d give Steven Spielberg if he stepped into your elevator, is: “A civilian band of brothers works with a Belgian “Downton Abbey” in German-occupied Belgium to try and save an entire nation from starvation.”