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In “Yanks Behind the Lines,” the author sheds light on a little-known WWI humanitarian effort

Jeffrey B. Miller's grandparents were part of the massive project that kept millions in Belgium from starving. Their story sent him on a mission to research and write about an undertaking that defined American aid.

[From the Author’s Note]

I think of history in fluid terms. To me, capturing one moment in time is like capturing one moment in the bend of a river. What does the bend really look like? It all depends on your perspective. The pebble on the submerged riverbed sees it differently than the reeds on the right bank, the trees on the left, the bird gliding overhead, the fish battling upstream, or the bit of driftwood floating by.

When I was a teenager, I first heard the story of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) in tantalizing bits and pieces from my maternal grandparents, CRB delegate Milton M. Brown and Belgian dairy owner Erica Bunge. The interest that they inspired in me led to sporadic research and a long-winded, unpublished novel, Honor Bound. After turning to a career in nonfiction that’s spanned forty years, I’ve spent the past ten years focusing full-time on collecting, cataloging, reading, and assimilating the documents, letters, journals, and photos of close to fifty CRB-related people. I have also studied and read about War World I and German-occupied Belgium, and I’ve written two nonfiction Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year (2014 and 2018) on the subject.

Jeffrey B. Miller has been a Denver-based writer, magazine editor, and independent historian for more than 40 years. He started six magazines (city, regional and national), was editor in chief of five in-flight magazines, spent 13 years as a freelance travel writer, and five years as the director of communications for AAA Colorado. He has authored “Stapleton International Airport: The First Fifty Years” (Pruett Publishing, 1983); co-authored with Dr. Gordon Ehlers “Facing Your Fifties: Every Man’s Reference to Mid-life Health” (M. Evans & Co., 2002); and authored the most recent “Yanks behind the Lines” (Rowman & Littlefield, Oct. 22, 2020).

This book, Yanks behind the Lines, is the culmination and the distillation of all my work into one concise history for readers interested in learning more about one of America’s finest hours in humanitarian aid. The focus is on the CRB and its Belgian counterpart, the Comité National (CN), within the context of German-occupied Belgium. I have touched only lightly on events outside the occupation because I did not want to soften my focus and I knew that numerous great books have already covered those subjects better than I could.

It is also important to note that the CRB and the CN were products of their time—

women were never considered for executive positions within either organization, and only one woman, Charlotte Kellogg, was officially recognized as a CRB delegate (see chapter 6). The early 1900s was a tumultuous period of seismic upheavals in social, political, generational, ethnic, and gender norms. Even a woman’s basic right to vote had not yet been secured, with success years away. The story of the CRB, CN, and German-occupied Belgium—as told by much of the historical record of letters, journals, documents, reports, and books—reflects that time and the supposedly secondary role women played in food relief. This single book cannot do full justice to the tremendous contributions of women on both sides of the Atlantic, although it does attempt to show numerous tips of the huge icebergs that lay below.

With those caveats in mind, I hope you enjoy Yanks behind the Lines, my tribute to the men and women of Belgium and the CRB during World War I. This book contains my vision of who those people were and what they did. It is my vision. It is my perspective of the bend in the river.

[The Preface] 

This is the true story of one of America’s finest hours in humanitarian relief, a story that is unknown to most Americans. It is a tale that started more than one hundred years ago but still reverberates through our twenty-first-century world. 

Today, whenever there are civilians anywhere in the world in harm’s way—from a natural disaster to an armed conflict—the nearly universal response has been: “America will help.” That was not the case before World War I (1914–1918). Prior to that horrific conflict—and long before US aid programs such as the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the Food for Peace program—America was better known as a nation of shopkeepers more interested in the bottom line than in saving strangers in need.

History

What helped alter that view was an American-led food relief program during World War I that began the redefinition of how the world saw America and how America perceived its role in the world. The program was founded and run by the nongovernmental Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and its Belgian counterpart, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (commonly known as the Comité National, or CN). Working together, they saved from starvation nearly ten million Belgian and northern French civilians trapped behind German lines during the four years of World War I, making it the largest food relief program the world had ever seen.

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The statistics are still staggering, especially given that it took place during a precomputer age devoid of technological advances such as commercial aviation, radio, or TV. More than 2,300 ship cargoes and thousands of canal barges carried more than five million metric tons of food and clothes into German-occupied territory, where 55,000 Belgians and northern French distributed it to millions of civilians every day. The operation spent nearly $1 billion in 1914 dollars (approximately $25 billion in 2020 dollars) but boasted an overhead of less than one half of 1 percent (less than fifty cents out of every $100). And the nearly ten million civilian lives saved are a sad but eloquent counterpoint to the more than nine million soldiers killed in the Great War.

It was an unparalleled feat that had never been attempted and was thought to be impossible—private citizens of a neutral country feeding an entire nation caught in the middle of a world war. The challenges were immense, from logistical obstacles and international intrigues to internal conflicts between the CRB and CN. The humanitarian aid was necessary because after Germany’s August 4, 1914, invasion of Belgium to get to its real goal, France, the Germans refused to feed civilians within Belgium and a thin strip of northern France that they occupied. Prior to the war, Belgium had been the most industrialized country in Europe and had imported more than 75 percent of its daily food. Mass starvation would begin by winter if nothing was done.

News of the impending catastrophe reached London just as a highly successful American mining engineer was wrapping up months of volunteer leadership of a group he had founded to assist the more than one hundred thousand American tourists stranded in Europe by the outbreak of war. He had turned forty on August 10 and was contemplating what to do next in his life. He was a wealthy man, but as one associate said, “He didn’t want to become just richer. He wanted sincerely . . . to do public service and help people.”

By late September 1914, the American was approached to help the Belgians. With little thought for his mining operations, he agreed to tackle the impossible task of feeding an entire nation. On October 22, 1914, he and a small group of Americans formed the CRB. His name was Herbert C. Hoover, and his roles in the CRB and later as America’s “food czar” and head of the governmental American Relief Administration (ARA) were, in large part, why he was later propelled into the White House as the country’s thirty-first president.

Back in 1914, one of Hoover’s first challenges was the British refusal to allow food through its blockade unless neutral American supervisors, or CRB “delegates,” were inside Belgium to guarantee the food went only to civilians. Hoover needed US volunteers immediately but knew it would take weeks, if not months, to get them from America. Where could he find them in Britain? 

He found some of the first CRB delegates at Oxford University. The school term was ending, and numerous American students (most of them Rhodes Scholars) were about to start six weeks of winter break. On Friday, December 4, 1914, the first ten Oxford students reported to the CRB office in London. They would leave the next day for neutral Rotterdam and then cross the border into war-ravaged Belgium.

Hoover took a moment from his other CRB tasks—buying tons of food, finding ships to haul it, getting all international parties to agree on conditions, securing financing for the millions he was spending every month—to speak with the young Americans.

“When this war is over,” he told them solemnly, “the thing that will stand out will not be the number of dead and wounded, but the record of those efforts which went to save life.”

In total, approximately 185 men and one woman (Charlotte Kellogg, wife of CRB director Vernon Kellogg) officially served as delegates in Belgium or northern France from October 1914 until May 1917, when the last Americans had to leave German occupied territories because of America’s April entry into the war.

The majority of those delegates were idealistic university students in their twenties who embodied a spirit of giving and self-sacrifice. They dropped everything in their own lives to travel thousands of miles, enter the prison that was German-occupied Belgium, tackle a job that had never been done before, and rein in their personal feelings regarding the German occupation—all to help total strangers. 

Many of them did so unreservedly, with no expectation of anything in return. They did what they did simply because it was the right thing, the moral thing, to do. And in the end, the result of their labors—and the work of thousands of Belgians and northern French—was the world’s largest food relief program that would set the gold standard for future humanitarian efforts.

As a result of this massive aid program, Hoover was loved worldwide and became known to many as the Great Humanitarian. And the tremendous impact the CRB had on the world would help begin the metamorphosis of the United States from a nation of self-serving shopkeepers to a world leader in humanitarian aid. 

Today, Hoover’s presidential fall from grace has been well-documented, while his initial rise to glory during the most horrific war the world had ever witnessed has been all but forgotten. Also neglected have been the individual stories of the young CRB delegates, who did so much to serve humanity while asking nothing in return.

Their stories deserve to be told and remembered. 

[From Chapter 16: The Human Toll] 

Few of the delegates publicly acknowledged the internal, emotional stress the job created within them. E. E. Hunt was one of the few who did so, and as a trained and experienced journalist, he brought a literary bent to his efforts.

“The conditions of war soon grow to seem normal,” he wrote in his book, War Bread, “but there is an emotional and physical strain about them which eats at one’s heart.

“Belgium was like a military prison and an asylum for the insane, rolled into one. Always, just under the surface of life, one felt the tearless, voiceless, tragic resistance of an unconquerable people.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Such emotion, while beautifully expressed, could still indicate a depth of feeling and internalization that could result in a strong and at times disabling effect.

As delegate Kittredge related in his history of the CRB, the stress experienced by many delegates in northern France led to “quite a number [who] had nervous breakdowns after only a month or two in France.” (Kittredge’s expression of “nervous breakdown” was used more to describe a state of mental and physical exhaustion than what is widely used today to indicate mental illness.)

These were young, and in many cases inexperienced, men facing battle-hardened German officers who scorned and mocked them, buttoned-down Belgian businessmen who mistrusted them, and half-starved women and children who looked at them as saviors. Every day the Americans awoke to a place where few spoke English, news of family and friends was rare, and the work was a tedious mixture of bills of lading, stocktaking, endless meetings, and incessant demands for written reports. 

Such mundane days could be suddenly, unexpectedly shattered by desperate Belgians making personal appeals—which the delegates could not help—or witnessing some form of German brutality—which the delegates were powerless to stop. 

Everywhere the Americans looked, there was little that cheered them. In the cities, towns, and villages, the people were muted, subdued in their dress and emotions, and ever watchful for the German soldier, secret policeman, or spy who might be observing a little too closely or listening a little too intently to their innocent conversations. And many times the Belgian weather seemed to match the worst moods—dark, cloudy, cold, and rainy.

“Until late in the spring [of 1915],” Hunt said, “when a special censorship for the Commission members was arranged with the Germans, we received no letters or newspapers from any one outside of Belgium. We had no new books. We knew little about the progress of the war. Home was almost a myth.”

It was a country that in many ways appeared normal from afar, but on closer inspection was revealed to be an emotional prison that wore one down day by day. 

In such a stifling world, Hunt noted, “breathing spells were not many, and we sometimes longed for escape from Belgium as a convict longs to break prison.”

As the months went by, the strain of the work would show itself, especially during the Thursday Brussels meeting of all the delegates when they could finally talk honestly among themselves. Those weekly meetings were important release valves, as were the evenings that were spent together in collegiate camaraderie prior to the meetings.

“When we spent the night in Brussels,” Hunt recalled, “Amos D. Johnson’s house at 12 Galerie de Waterloo roared with our fun and the recitation of each others’ Odysseys: how [Carlton Bowden] and [Frank Gailor] refused to salute the German colonel at Longwy and how the colonel almost died of apoplexy in consequence; how Robinson Smith, translator of Don Quixote, gently but firmly refused a gold watch tendered him by the Provincial Committee of Hainaut, until the Committee had adopted his scheme of bread locaux communaux; how [C. H. Carstairs] was soon to marry a Belgian girl, and how other delegates were suspected of being matrimonially minded . . . how somebody tried to ram a Zeppelin shed, and should have been shot in consequence . . . of one of our fellow-citizens who said to Cardinal Mercier, ‘You’re a Catholic, ain’t you? . . . Well, I’m a Presbyterian myself; but I ain’t got no prejudices’ . . . the competence or incompetence of our respective chauffeurs and automobiles, and the greatness of Hoover.”

Published by Rowman & Littlefield, Oct. 22, 2020.


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