Last October marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (C.R.B.), arguably the most unique and influential humanitarian organization in history.
In Behind the Lines: “WWI’s little-known story of German occupation, Belgian resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation. Beginnings, 1914.” author Jeffrey B. Miller tells the story of the first, trying months of World War I, from the perspective of suffering but defiant Belgians facing a German invasion, and the dozens of idealistic Americans whose can-do spirit (and wide-ranging business and diplomatic experience), created a privately funded relief enterprise that aided millions of Belgians trapped in German-occupied territory.
The C.R.B. faced many challenges over the course of nearly five years in operation, but was ultimately successful in providing nearly $1 billion in food relief to over nine million people during the war (including two million French citizens in northern France, behind German lines, starting in April 1915), averaging 100,000 tons of food per month. Though America’s entry into the war in 1917 forced American personnel to withdraw from Belgium, Dutch and Spanish officials took their place. The example set by the operations of the C.R.B. was unprecedented in history and created a new conception of global humanitarianism. It created the framework of organization that would be used immediately after the war as America expanded its relief efforts to much of Europe.
Mr. Miller, a writer, editor and author by trade, was inspired to write this book (the first in planned trilogy) by the diaries and photographs of his grandfather, Milton M. Brown and his grandmother, Erica Bunge Brown. Brown, a C.R.B. “delegate” tasked with establishing relief operations in one of Belgium’s many provinces, met Erica Bunge, one of three daughters of a prominent Belgian merchant and a volunteer relief worker, during their World War I adventure.
The book covers the period from August to December 1914, while the second book will cover January 1915 through spring 1916, and the third, summer 1916 through April 1917 (when U.S. entry into the war forced Americans to leave Belgium).
The book isn’t an academic history of the period, but a narrative meant to appeal to a broad audience interested in a good story. Having worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for a number of years, knowing the broad outline of Herbert Hoover’s humanitarian work, the plethora of details and personal accounts of the many people involved in this tale made me appreciate their tremendous accomplishments that much more. Reading Hugh Gibson’s reaction to seeing the burned remains of the city of Louvain, the descriptions of the suffering witnessed by Erica Bunge in the besieged city of Antwerp and numerous other anecdotes, was a grim reminder of the beginnings of modern warfare and the heavy toll exacted on civilian populations.
Mr. Miller put a tremendous amount of effort into reviewing numerous archival collections and books scattered around America, simultaneously amassing a wealth of knowledge on the time period that can only be rivaled by specialists who’ve made it their life’s work. Behind the Lines was self-published by Mr. Miller, so the time and resources spent to research and write it were all a labor of love and a tribute to the work done by his grandparents and their friends and colleagues a century ago.
As an aspiring historian writing about American Relief Administration’s aid to Poland after World War I (a successor effort to the C.R.B.), Mr. Miller’s book has served as a valuable foundation to understanding the origins of America’s great humanitarian crusade in Europe. I eagerly await the coming two volumes of the story.
Purchase the book here: Behind the Lines by Jeffrey B. Miller
Jeffrey B. Miller’s website: http://wwibehindthelines.com