Necessary Background Info

When I was a teenager, I was close to my maternal grandfather, Milton M. Brown. I was fascinated by the time he spent as a "delegate" in Herbert Hoover's WWI Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). He was one of only 185 American supervisors who ever worked for the CRB. After he died in 1979, I inherited all his diaries, correspondence and photographs from that period (1916-1917).

From 1986 through 1989, I worked full time researching the time period, WWI, the CRB, and numerous delegates. From those efforts, I wrote an 850-page historical novel, Honor Bound. I had a few nibbles -- agents and publishers who asked for the entire manuscript -- but no one offered a contract. In the late 1990s, I made a half-hearted attempt to rewrite the novel, but it didn't go far.

After my second book, Facing Your Fifties: Every Man's Reference to Mid-life Health came out in 2002 (and was included in Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2002), my agent looked at Honor Bound. He suggested the topic would do well -- and fit my writing strengths -- if it was a history book written in novel-like style.

At the end of 2012, as I turned 60 years old, I came to the conclusion that it was time to take up this incredible humanitarian story again and see if I could make it work.

After more than a year of researching and writing, and with the help of a talented book team, I published Behind the Lines: WWI's little-known story of German occupation, Belgian resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation. 1914. It was released in October 2014 in time for the 100-year anniversary of the start of WWI and the CRB.

Since then, I'm happy to report that Behind the Lines has garnered national recognitions and reviews that include a Kirkus Starred Review (only 750 out of 10,000 books annually reviewed by Kirkus are awarded a Starred Review) and inclusion in Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2014. The last sentence of the review states: "An excellent history that should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians." You can read all the reviews at the book's website, which can be reached by clicking here.

Below are my blog posts about re-immersing myself in this important humanitarian topic. The posts start in Dec. 2012 and come up to the present. The posts are laid out with the most recent first. A "List of All My Posts" is on the bottom right of this page. I start each post with a quick snippet of history or an excerpt from Behind the Lines. I used to call this item "A Spot of History," but now it's titled "Don't-Forget-WWI Project."

I hope you find something of interest within this blog.

Post #38: George Washington's Birthday and Book Publishers

Sunday, February 19, 2016

Don’t-Forget-WWI-Project: George Washington’s birthday – To foreigners 100 years ago, it led to an act of defiance against a prison state.
During the harsh German occupation of Belgium during WWI, all acts and events reflecting Belgian patriotism were outlawed. Civilians couldn’t even wear or display the tricolors of their country’s flag.
Baron von Bissing, German Governor-General
 of Belgium who outlawed all displays of patriotism.  


Because nearly 7 million Belgians were being saved from starvation in large part through the efforts of the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), the Belgians spontaneously decided to celebrate their own patriotism by honoring the birth of George Washington.
On Monday, February 22, 1915, all over Belgium, schools closed, people dressed in their Sunday best, and strolled through their towns and villages proudly displaying the colors red, white, and blue in suit button holes, women’s blouses, and hats and coats. The U.S. Legation office in Brussels was overwhelmed by thousands who came to pay their respects.

The Germans were furious, and would take their revenge.
To learn more about one of America’s greatest humanitarian efforts—the CRB—and to read a sample of my first book on the subject, Behind the Lines, go to my book’s website, www.WWIBehindTheLines.com   

My Post: It has been an eventful start to the new year. I have continued to work on my next CRB book, WWI Crusaders. It was going to be the second in a proposed trilogy of the CRB and Belgium. Unfortunately, I’m running out of my own money to do this project, and I also believe it’s important to get a traditional book publisher interested so that I can reach the widest possible audience.
After talking with a few book publishers, I learned that they don’t want book two in my trilogy, nor book three. They were all impressed with Behind the Lines (which covers August to December 1914), but felt that the CRB topic was a “small slice” of World War I that does not warrant a trilogy and cannot, in their opinion, sustain reader interest that long.

While I, of course, disagree, I can also see the handwriting on the wall (and in my bank balance).
So, I’ve now pivoted to what these traditional book publishers want – ONE book for the entire story, which will cover August 1914 through April 1917 when America enters the war and the CRB delegates have to leave Belgium.

I’m reshaping the 150 pages I’ve already written and have built a one-book outline.
Through most of December, I spent a great deal of time preparing a book proposal, which turned out to be 75 pages. (Fifty of those pages are the first 50 pages of WWI Crusaders.)  I did all that because the American Historical Association held its annual conference in Denver in early January. As part of the AHA conference there was an exhibit hall where more than 30 book publishers displayed their newest titles.

I, of course, saw this as a great opportunity to approach publishers about WWI Crusaders—hence my book proposal.
I also prepared a one-page book proposal summary for those who weren’t sure of their interest. Following is that one page:  

One of America’s Greatest Humanitarian
Efforts—Unknown Today

Narrative Nonfiction Book Proposal—Summary

Working
Title:              WWI Crusaders: The little-known story of German occupation, Belgian
                        resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation, by
                        Jeffrey B. Miller

The Story:      During WWI (1914-1918), a small band of neutral Americans in the Commission
                        for Relief in Belgium (CRB) worked with the Belgian Comité National de Secours et
                        d’Alimentation (CN) to create the largest food relief the world had ever seen, saving
                       nearly 10 million civilians trapped behind German lines. It’s a story few have heard.

The Book:      In the narrative nonfiction tradition of books by Laura Hillenbrand, Erik Larson, and David McCullough, WWI Crusaders tells this humanitarian story through multiple American CRB volunteers, individual Belgians, and the editors of the underground newspaper, La Libre Belgique—all within the context of the brutal German occupation. This is not a treatise or dissertation, it is an accurate re-creation of events as they happened so that general readers will feel the spirit and suspense of the time.   

Marketing:    A significant base of buyers/readers includes members of WWI organizations, war-history enthusiasts, and libraries. Working with the publisher, the author plans to reach that base and expand it by implementing a targeted PR/marketing plan to attract general readers who have bought bestselling narrative nonfiction such as Dead Wake, The Boys in the Boat, and the perennial bestseller, The Guns of August. 

Jeff Miller’s
Credentials:   * Kirkus Best Books of 2014; Kirkus Starred Review: “An excellent history that
                             should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians.” Behind the Lines;      
                        * History Finalist, Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year Awards, 2014 (eight
                             other finalists were from university presses) (Behind the Lines);
                        * Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2002 (co-authored men’s health book);
                        * Forty years as a professional writer, magazine editor, and book author;
                        * More than eight fulltime years researching, writing, and public speaking about this
                             little-known humanitarian story. 

Available
On Request:  The complete book proposal, which includes the book’s first fifty pages,
                        descriptive outline, targeted PR/marketing plan to stand alone or complement a
                        publisher’s efforts, an overview infographic, author’s resume, and reference letter.  

More Info:     Jeffrey B. Miller: 1265 South Columbine St., Denver, CO 80210; cell: 303-503-
                        1739; email, jbmwriter@aol.com; website, www.WWIBehindTheLines.com      

That’s it for my one-page book proposal summary. I’ll keep you posted on if any traditional book publisher is interested in helping me tell this great American humanitarian story.

End of Post. 

Post #37: Slave Raids and My Grandfather

Don’t-Forget-WWI-Project: While many people know about the horrors of World War I’s trench warfare on the Western Front 100 years ago, most people do NOT know about the horrors endured by Belgian and Northern French civilians trapped behind German lines.

Some Belgian children waiting for the CRB/CN food.
At the start of the war, when the Germans occupied most of Belgium and a thin slice of Northern France, they refused to feed any civilians. The non-governmental American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and its Belgian partner the Comite National took on the task of trying to feed and clothe nearly 10 million people trapped behind German lines.
After Herculean efforts that included getting the Allies and the Germans to agree to the program and dealing with periodic hurdles thrown up by both sides, the CRB and CN had a system in place for buying, shipping, preparing and distributing tens of thousands of tons of food per month. The civilians were staying alive, at least until the next crisis showed itself.  

In late 1916, a major crisis did appear, and one that would not only threaten many civilians but jeopardize the entire relief effort as well.
The Germans decided to deport Belgian workers to Germany where the Belgians would take over jobs so that Germans workers could join the fighting. These “slave raids” were carried out all across Belgium, from the biggest of cities to the smallest hamlets.

The scenes at countless train stations were horrifying similar, as lines of men from teenagers to those in their late 50s were first reviewed, then commanded to go either left or right. Left in most cases meant freedom, while right meant being herded and shoved into cattle cars for a journey of unknown duration and destination. (Shades of WWII’s Holocaust only 25 years later!)
The Germans defended their actions by saying they were simply giving work to the unemployed. The CRB, CN, the Allies, and the rest of the world felt otherwise. Brand Whitlock, the U.S.  Minister to the Legation in Belgium, summed up how many felt when he said it was “one of the foulest [deeds] that history ever records.”

The deportations, and the reactions to them, would become a major part of the story of Belgium and the CRB during World War I. They are also an important part of my next CRB/Belgium book, which I’m working on right now. To learn more about this great American humanitarian program, and to read a sample of my first CRB/Belgium book, Behind the Lines, go to www.WWIBehindTheLines.com 

 My Post: I currently have written about 150 pages of my second CRB/Belgium book, tentatively titled WWI Crusaders. While I am not completely happy with all the pages, I am glad that the book is off to a relatively good start. Most important, I’m now getting a better handle on where the book is going (beyond just the simple outline I had done earlier).

I know that one of the critical parts to the new book will be the deportations mentioned above. I’ve already amassed a tremendous amount of research material about them. Most are heartrending primary accounts of what happened. Some of these are from Belgians and others are from CRB delegates who were only observers.
One of the CRB delegate accounts is from my grandfather, Milton M. Brown. It has been a fascinating experience to read his impassioned prose about the event. While he spent every day in Belgium trying hard to act completely neutral (a lynchpin of the relief work), his true feelings came out in the deportation account he wrote:

“Even to us who had no personal interest in the scene, no private grief to result from what was happening about us there came a stinging hate, an almost irrepressible impulse to revolt against this relic of barbarism in a modern world, this savage treatment of an innocent people. And I know that at that crossroads on that misty, dreary day, I learned more of hatred for the Germans than I had ever felt before.” He was 26 years old.
I also have all his diaries and correspondence from that time. Because I was only a teenager/young adult when I knew him in his late 70s/early 80s, it has been an interesting process reconciling in my mind those two different people I’ve come to know.  

Milton only became a CRB delegate in January 1916, so he was not in Behind the Lines, which covered only 1914. I’m happy to report that I can finally write about him in this second book. I’m looking forward to that.
While I could not write about my grandfather in Behind the Lines, I was able to write about my grandmother, Erica Bunge. She was a 22-year-old Belgian woman.

For those who might worry that my books are about my family, I should say that my family is merely a thread in the tapestry of each book. I have researched more than 50 individuals—most of them CRB delegates—so that their stories well out number my family tales.
Anyone who wants to read a sample of Behind the Lines can find one at the book’s website, www.WWIBehindTheLines.com

End of Post.

Post #36: The Bloody Somme, the 1916 Belgian Harvest, and an NEH Rejection

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Don’t-Forget-WWI-Project: Many know that in August 1916 World War One’s bloody Battle of the Somme had just started. It would last until November and have a mind-bogglilng 1.5 million causalities.

But most don’t know that at the same time the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), and its Belgian partner, the Comite National, were fighting their own epic battle to provide
Belgians outside a Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) store
in German-occupied Brussels.
food to nearly 10 million Belgian and Northern French trapped behind German lines.

One example: In July and early August 1916 there was a major fight to determine who was going to get the coming harvest from Northern France—the German army or the civilians of Northern France. Hoover fought both the Allied governments and the German government over the issue. After repeated requests for a decision from the German government in Berlin, an answer came back—take it up with the German military authorities.

So Hoover went to Charlesville, France (headquarters of the German military forces) on August 1 to force a decision. The arguments on each side were intense, with no resolution in sight. To break the stalemate, Hoover and his deputy, Vernon Kellogg, went to Berlin with representatives of the military government to have it out once and for all. The tide was turned in the CRB’s favor when Hoover came face-to-face with the general who had ordered the execution of English nurse, Edith Cavell. Hoover’s personal appeal to the emotionally conflicted general is one of the great moments in CRB history.

This scene will be an important part of my Volume II in my CRB trilogy. To learn more about this great American humanitarian program, and to read a sample of my first book in the trilogy, Behind the Lines, go to www.WWIBehindTheLines.com 

My Post: Admittedly, it has once again been a long time since I wrote a post. My only excuse is that I’ve been working so hard on researching that I haven’t had time for much else. My wife and my dog complain that I’ve forgotten them!

Every day I immerse myself in1915 wartime Europe and America. Friends who have seen the history books, official reports, and reams of correspondence that I’m reading say they appear to be incredibly dry and boring. To me, they are fantastically illuminating snapshots into life-and-death scenes that few people know about today. They reveal so much to those who take the time to let them speak fully.

Even the lists of statistics about tonnages, and bushels, and calories all tell their own unique stories. From these numbers on yellowed pages comes visions of young children and new mothers and out-of-work men and elderly grandparents—all standing in lines waiting for the food that will sustain them for another day. It is a time of great desperation and of tremendous courage.

The hardest part to me of researching and writing is the filtering. What will go into my books and what will have to wait patiently for others to use some other day?

Because of the sheer quantity of material I’ve been trying to absorb, I’ve had to develop an extensive filtering system to help me remember what I’ve read and to make crucial decisions about inclusion or exclusion. This system includes four major components:

1.     Index cards. Yep, old-fashioned 3x5 index cards identifying the material I’ve reviewed. Currently I have more than 2,000 such cards.

2.     Cast of Characters excel spread sheets. I have more than 100 pages that identify all the various people involved in this complicated story. Each person has a row that includes a column for a photo (whenever possible), their age in 1915, their educational background, how they got to the CRB or CN or to Belgium, and stories about them from all the various sources.

3.     Great Quotes document. In all my reading, I continually come across great quotes that I don’t want to forget. I began typing them up and putting them into categories years ago. I currently have more than 60 categories and more than 800 pages of single-spaced typed quotes! Yes, it’s a bit overboard, but it’s a tremendous resource that I believe will make my books that much better.

4.     Monthly Narrative excel spread sheets. I have a row for each month of the year from 1914 through 1917, and each row has three columns: one for world stories; one for Belgium stories; and one for CRB/CN stories. I enter shorthand notes into each of these that reference all the great stories that I’ve discovered from my research.

So, when I sit down to read any material—whether it be a book, a document, or a letter—I first create a two-character ID for the item. Then I read it and take notes by hand. I then type up the notes. I then take those typed notes and enter them, where relevant, into the four components listed above.

It is laborious and time consuming, but when I finally sit down to start writing, all the work will pay off handsomely (I hope!).

I began a short sketch or two in June and wrote more in July. Now, as the third week of August comes upon me, I find that I have about 50 pages. Nothing completed, or in order, but it’s a good start that I hope to shape into a dynamite book.

And, finally, I have to say that I was knocked for a mighty loop a few weeks ago. At the end of July I found out I was NOT accepted into the NEH Public Scholar program for 2016/2017. I knew I had a slim chance at best, but I was ever hopeful that my topic – American’s largest private humanitarian relief effort that’s unknown to most – would make the cut. Sadly, it did not.

It took me a long week and weekend to get over the news. I will be interested to read the judges' written assessment of my project that I should be receiving in a few weeks.

As for Book Two: I’ve started the process of picking myself up and getting back into the project. It certainly helps that I had already started some writing. And I've decided to re-phrase an old adage that most people know: The best revenge is writing a best seller! (as opposed to living well). My goal will be to write such a great, page-turning, NY Times best seller that the NEH administrators will say, "Wow, we were really wrong in our assessment of Jeff Miller and his CRB/Belgium project!"  

Thanks to all those friends and family who send kind condolences on the NEH situation. And a special thanks to Professor Branden Little and George Nash who wrote reference letters for me.  

End of Post.

Post #35: Poison Gas vs. Food Relief

Friday, April 15, 2016

Don’t-Forget-WWI Project: One hundred and one years ago, from April 22 until May 25, the Second Battle of Ypres reminded the world of the horrors of trench warfare. The 35 days of fighting saw the first use of poison gas on the Western Front. The Germans released chlorine gas on April 22
French soldiers with improvised gas makes. Source: Greatwarproject.org
from thousands of 90-pound cylinders and watched as the deadly mist floated on the wind across No Man’s Land and into the Allied trenches. Altogether, the fighting for control of the Belgian town of Ypres resulted in more than 120,000 casualties from both sides, with little movement of the trench lines.

At the same time, counteracting such death and destruction, the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), and its Belgian counterpart, the Comite National (CN), agreed in April 1915 to provide food for nearly 2 million northern French trapped behind German lines. This brought the total number of people it was feeding every day to nearly 10 million. By the end of the war, the efforts of the CRB and CN had saved millions from starvation and had become the largest food relief the world had ever seen. Few Americans know this incredible story. You can read the first 12 pages of my WWI nonfiction book about the CRB and CN, Behind the Lines,  by clicking here; while anyone interested in buying the book (print or ebook) can do so by clicking here.

My Post: A lot has happened to me and my CRB project since I last wrote a post Dec. 6, 2015. The biggest news is that I’ve applied for the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Program.

The NEH describes the program as “intended to support well-researched books in the humanities that have been conceived and written to reach a broad readership. Books supported through the Public Scholar Program might present a narrative history, tell the stories of important individuals, analyze significant texts, provide a synthesis of ideas, revive interest in a neglected subject, or examine the latest thinking on a topic. Most importantly, they should present significant humanities topics in a way that is accessible to general readers.”

To my way of thinking, this program was written for me and what I’m trying to do with my CRB trilogy.

Best of all, it can provide up to $4,200 a month for up to a year. A princely sum for this starving author.

When I attended the annual conference of the American Historical Association in Atlanta in January, the NEH made a presentation about multiple programs, including the Public Scholar program. I was fortunate enough to meet with one of the NEH administrators of the Public Scholar program who was very helpful in guiding my approach to my application.

He did say, however, that the competition is fierce. Last year—the first year of the program—the NEH had anticipated 200 applications. They received 500. From those, only 36 were accepted in the program. I bet they’ll receive twice as many applications for this year’s competition.

I did get my application in by the February deadline and also secured two references from two kind and generous colleagues—Professor Branden Little (who teaches at Weber State University and wrote the foreword to Behind the Lines), and Dr. George H. Nash, the preeminent biographer of Herbert Hoover. Thank you to both!

Now it’s a waiting game—a long waiting game. The NEH will announce the 2016/2017 recipients in August. The program begins in September.

In the meantime, I am continuing my research on the CRB, Comite National, Belgium, and World War One. I hope to begin writing Book Two in June.

End of Post.  

Post #34: Rhodes scholars Head into German-occupied Belgium

Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015

Don’t-Forget-WWI Project: During World War One, exactly 101 years ago today, on Sunday, Dec. 6, 1914, 10 young American students on Christmas break from Oxford University were in Rotterdam preparing for the adventure of a lifetime.
1914: Belgians in a food relief line.

They had been chosen to be the first 10 official “delegates” in the CRB (Commission for Relief in Belgium), which would ultimately become the largest food and relief drive the world had ever seen. These early twenty-somethings (eight of whom were Rhodes scholars) were about to go into German-occupied Belgium to help organize and supervise the delivery and distribution of food to 7 million near-starving Belgians.

With all communications cut between Belgium and the outside world, no one knew what to expect. One of the ten, Emile Hollmann, wrote, “We had visions of sitting on the top of box cars or sleeping on the decks of small canal barges in their long journeys from Rotterdam into Belgium. . .We expected to see German savages prowling around ready at the slightest provocation to scalp women and children and perhaps provoke a quarrel with us for the same purpose!”

What they found—and much more—is in my nonfiction book, Behind the Lines, which was included on the nationally recognized Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014. (More about my book by clicking here.

Here's an excerpt from page 279 of  Behind the Lines about the Oxford students on Sunday, Dec. 6, 1914, in Rotterdam, Holland:

Getting Their Assignments
It’s probably best that no one recorded when the men finally got back to the hotel, but the next day, even though it was Sunday, they were up early, dressed appropriately, and ready to find out what all this Belgian work was about. They walked the short distance from the hotel to the CRB office, which was on a “tree-bordered Dutch lane lying beside a busy canal where the schools of herring used to run, and where nowadays market carts and fisherwomen, motor-cars, delivery wagons, and peasant farmers in whitewashed wooden shoes clatter leisurely by.” To the east, and nearly within throwing distance, was the city’s major Maas train station.

The building that the CRB occupied was a 100-year-old mansion The house still bore some luxurious paneled walls and painted ceilings that were adorned with allegorical figures. The dining room had been converted into a waiting room but maintained its “massive fireplace, with long vertical Dutch mirrors and wall paintings in the style of 1750, showing quiet landscapes, Ruskin’s ‘fat cattle and ditch-water,’ or violent storms at sea.”

While the house maintained some of its previous accoutrements, it was no longer a quiet, stately mansion; it was the bustling business office of the rapidly growing shipping arm of the CRB. A large staff of Dutch, Belgian, and American clerks were scattered throughout the building, and Dutch and Flemish barge captains and dock laborers were always waiting in line for an audience with someone who could either put them to work or solve a problem they had encountered while employed by the commission. The halls and various offices were filled with a nearly constant cacophony of ringing phones, clattering typewriters, and buzzing conversations.

Overseeing it all was forty-year-old Captain Lucey, who occupied the best office in the building. The large room on the second floor overlooked the Meuse River and the harbor. From his  windows he could see many of the 300 barges that the CRB had already chartered. Some were being loaded by floating elevators, others by hand; others waited for their cargoes while still more were being towed upriver by canal tugs toward Belgium. All were draped with huge canvas flags bearing the protective inscription “Belgian Relief Commission.”

Even though it was Sunday, people were working in the office, and Lucey was there to greet the ten Oxford students. As one CRB delegate described Lucey, he was a “nervous, big, beardless American . . . who left his business . . . to organize and direct a great trans-shipping office in an alien land for an alien people.” The captain spent little time on the preliminaries, getting straight to work on instructing the ten students as to what he knew of Belgian conditions, what he thought they would be doing, and what he felt needed to be done.

Nelson wrote his parents that Lucey “gave us a fairly good idea of what our work would be like, besides telling us in a general way of the situation in Belgium. You will be surprised when you hear of the magnitude of this undertaking, and of the extraordinary difficulties under which it must be carried on.” 

In a confident tone that marked so many Americans of the time, Nelson stated, “The Americans have been hampered so far by lack of men and lack of supplies, but when our men get established throughout the country, and the organization is perfected, we will be able to handle the situation, for we already have some thirty or forty ships on the way to Holland.”

Nelson was so impressed with the operation and with Lucey that he wrote, “One feels prouder of being an American after meeting and talking with him.” The young first-year Rhodes scholar already knew, before he had started doing any relief work, that “our work goes on day and night,
seven days a week.” He even predicted that for the Oxford students this would not be a six-week jaunt, as they had signed up for: “This job is not a three month’s or six month’s job; it is a one or two year’s job, for even if the war should stop today, the Belgians must be fed until they can gather in the next harvest.” And he was already clear on his intentions, even before experiencing one day in occupied Belgium: “I shall very likely stay by this work for six months or longer, if I can arrange matters at Oxford.” He had become a convert to the cause and even ended one of his letters to his parents by stating, “I hope North Dakota, which is prospering because of this war, will be generous in her aid to the Belgians.”

End of Excerpt

My Post: In my last post way back in early October, I wrote about the Antwerp part of our incredible visit to Belgium in September. After a wonderful day exploring Antwerp, and a great day of meeting with local historians Raymond Roelands, Roger Van den Bleeken, and Andre De Vleeschouwer (see my previous post for details), my wife and I moved south to spend a half day and night in Brussels.

When we arrived, we immediately pulled out my 1914 Brussels map. As I explained in my last post, back during my research stage I had taken a tiny Baedeker’s city map from 1914 and blown it up to 3 feet by 3 feet so I could see every detail of the map. Then, as I found place names and street mentions in my research, I’ll jot down the significant ones in red on the map. By the time I was finished writing Behind the Lines, the map was covered with red notations of where people had walked, worked, lived, or hidden during the German bombardment and occupation.

Armed with my 1914 blown up Brussels map, I wanted to find two places:

            * 66 Rue des Colonies, which had been home to the main CRB office, and where my
                        grandfather, Milton M. Brown, had worked during his days as a CRB delegate.

            * Galeries Royales St. Hubert, a beautiful late 1800s metal-and-glass-covered shopping
                        arcade. This was the location, during WWI, of a bookshop whose owner had been
                        a distributor of the underground newspaper, La Libre Belgique.  

For a while, my search for 66 Rue des Colonies, wasn’t going so well. I couldn’t seem to find the right streets on my map and match them to where we were walking. Just when I was the most frustrated, and I was hot and tired and hungry and my wife was a few paces behind me, something magical happened. I swear I heard my long-dead grandfather whisper in my ear, “You’re almost there, boy.” A moment later, I turned the corner and the building and number were right there.

A sense of relief and wonder overtook me. I had the strangest – but nicest! – sensation that my grandfather and some other CRB delegates and Belgians in my book, Behind the Linesarching for 66 Rue des Colonies, which was home to the CRB offices. Just before I reached the spot, I swear I heard my long-dead grandfather whisper in my ear "You're almost there, boy." I turned the corner and the building and number were still there. And I felt happy that my grandfather and some of the other CRB delegates and Belgians in my book, Behind the Lines, seemed to be walking with me.arching for 66 Rue des Colonies, which was home to the CRB offices. Just before I reached the spot, I swear I heard my long-dead grandfather whisper in my ear "You're almost there, boy." I turned the corner and the building and number were still there. And I felt happy that my grandfather and some of the other CRB delegates and Belgians in my book, Behind the Lines, seemed to be walking with me., were walking with me. It was a great feeling.

And that feeling continued as we made our way to the lovely Galeries Royales St. Hubert, which is still standing and is magnificent to see. My wife loved the shopping and I loved the sense of walking in the footsteps of people I had come to admire. We both marveled at the workmanship and artistry that had created such an arcade back in the late 1800s. I was also happily surprised to see that there was a bookshop in the arcade, although I was not able to find out if it was in the same location, or had any ties, to the WWI bookshop.  

Later that afternoon, local historian Marc Brans met us at our hotel and we three went out to an early dinner. What a wonderful evening it was! I truly enjoyed finally meeting the man who I had been emailing for more than a year about WWI, Belgium, the underground, and my book. In our email correspondences, Marc had always been a kind and generous person, freely sharing his knowledge and resources. In person he continued to be so as we shared some good Belgian beers and seafood and talked about our various research projects. My wife sat back and enjoyed the wine and seafood!

I have now been home months since the Belgium trip, but the images and memories are still strong in my mind. They will help me, no doubt, as I move forward in writing Book Two, which I am now earnestly working on.

End of Post.

Post #33: Understanding 1914 Belgium, and Searching for the Past in Present Day Antwerp

Friday, October 2, 2015 

The Don’t-Forget-WWI Project: An excerpt from page 99 of my nonfiction book, Behind the Lines, www.WWIBehindTheLines.com 

"We Shall Never Forgive!” 

As September [1914] came to a close, Max [the mayor of Brussels] was not the only Belgian in jail. All Belgians under  German occupation rule had become “prisoners in their own land,” according to reporter Arthur L. Humphreys in the Times of London. “They may not go from one town to another; they may not use the telephone or the telegraph; they may write letters only through the German military post; they may not use their own railroad system as passengers or for parcel transport. Belgians seen walking across the fields are hailed by a Landsturm guard. They may walk only in the streets and go to their shops and offices within the radius of their own communities. The psychological effect of this is appreciable only after it is endured.”


Humphreys also recorded a conversation he had had with a Belgian: “We know how to suffer in Belgium. . . . Our ability to suffer and to hold fast to our hearths has kept us going through the centuries. Now a ruffian has come into our house and taken us by the throat. He can choke us to death, or he can slowly starve us to death, but he cannot make us yield. No, we shall never forgive!”

When asked if the Belgian hated the Germans, he replied: “Of course I hate. For the first time in my life I know what it is to hate; and so do my countrymen. I begin to enjoy my hate. It is one of the privileges of our present existence. We cannot  stand on chairs and tables as they do in Berlin cafes and sing our hate, but no one can stop our hating in secret.”

That hate would grow stronger through four long years and become less and less secret.

End of Excerpt

My Post: In my last post in August, I said I was going to Belgium and was going to search out some WWI places to see if they still existed. I’m happy to report that my wife and I had an incredible time in Belgium, made more so by four wonderful local historians: Raymond Roelands, Roger Van den Bleeken, Andre De Vleeschouwer, and Marc Brans. More on them later in this post.

My wife and I flew into Brussels and immediately grabbed the airport express bus to Antwerp and checked into the charming Hotel Rubens, right behind the city’s main old town square, Grote Markt. We then dropped our bags and took off in search of 1914 Antwerp.

To aid us, we had my 1914 city map that I had used for the writing of Behind the Lines. Back during my research stage, I had taken a tiny Baedeker’s city map from 1914 and blown it up to 3 feet by 3 feet so I could see every detail of the map. Then, as I found place names and street mentions in my research, I’ll jot down the significant ones in red on the map. By the time I was finished writing Behind the Lines, the map was covered with red notations of where people had walked, worked, lived, or hidden during the German bombardment and occupation.

On this modern-day trip to Antwerp, I wanted to see what still might be there.

One obstacle to this quest I discovered before I had even left home. The 1914 map was in French, while all modern maps of Antwerp are in Flemish. Unfortunately, a surprisingly amount of street and place names do not look the same in French as they do in Flemish. In many cases I had to use the shapes of streets to match the 1914 map to the 2015 map.

When we got to Antwerp, I had a general idea of where the sites were that I wanted to see, but because we didn’t have much time in Antwerp, I identified only three places I wanted to track down:

            Hotel Saint Antonie on Place Verte (now called Groenplaats), where E. E. Hunt and a
                        group of American and British war correspondents stayed in 1914. Hunt also said
                        the hotel was British HQ in Antwerp before the Germans took the city. 
            Rue Leys (now Leystraat), on the eastern end of Place de Meir, the main shopping street
                        then and now. Back in 1914, the U.S. Consulate overlooked Rue Leys and is
                        where the photo of German soldiers marching into Antwerp was taken that I used
                        in Behind the Lines on page 130.   
            21 Avenue Marie Therese, the Bunge house, at the tip of the park with the Quinten
                        Metseys  (aka Matsys) statue (famous artist) nearby.

My search wasn’t very successful.

The Hotel Saint Antonie is, to the best of my understanding, a Hilton Hotel today. I’ll have to compare 1914 photos of the hotel with the photos I took to see it’s the same building. I think it is.

The photo I wanted to recreate in modern-day Antwerp.
I could find Rue Leys, but I couldn’t replicate the exact look of the 1914 photo. The next day, when I told the three local historians about my search, Roger explained that I had been looking at the scene from the wrong perspective and direction. Once he explained that, I believe I understood where the shot had been taken from. 

And, finally, I had hoped to see my great grandfather’s townhouse at 21 Avenue Marie Therese.  I’m sad to report that it is no longer there. A modern apartment building has taken its place.

The next day (Thursday) it rained off and on throughout the day. Raymond, Roger and Andre were kind enough to give us their entire day to show us around Kapellen (approximately 20 minutes northeast of Antwerp), where my great grandfather, Edouard Bunge, his daughter Erica Bunge had lived at the Chateau Oude Gracht.

Raymond picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 a.m. and took us out to the Kapellen churchyard where many of my family members are buried. We met Roger and Andre in the church parking lot and then proceeded to the burial spots.

The three explained that non-Catholics are not allowed to be buried in a Catholic graveyard. Because the Bunges were not (and still not) Catholic, Edouard Bunge had donated a small piece of his property that touched the edge of the graveyard to the Church so that the family could be buried there. A beautiful female statue and an underground crypt (now covered over) are surrounded by multiple headstones that mark many of my family. It was a surprisingly emotional reunion with those who I had written about in Behind the Lines, and with those who I hadn’t written about but loved very much.

Raymond had also arranged for a reporter from an Antwerp Flemish newspaper to come out and interview me about my trip. She even took a photo and the photo and the article appeared in the Saturday newspaper! Anyone who’s interested can see the photo and article by clicking here.

Susan and I ended up having a wonderful day with Raymond, Roger and Andre, who were so kind and knowledgeable. We saw two different local historical society offices, a creative display of the 1914 electrical fence that the Germans had erected between neutral Holland and occupied Belgium, heard parts of a major speech on Edouard Burnge and Chateau Oude Gracht that Raymond has given many times to local groups, and we shared a wonderful lunch at a stylish restaurant, Brassierie De Hoge Boom. From Raymond’s speech, I learned that at the end of war Edouard Bunge had been taken to court and accused of being a collaborator with the Germans. He successfully defended himself, but I had never heard that story before.

As a small token of our great appreciation for all they did, I presented each of them with numerous documents that they had not seen before.

After we left the three at 6:30 p.m., we then spent a fun evening at the home of my mother’s dearest friend, Francoise. Guests also included her daughter, Therese, and my distant cousins Karin and Werner. It was a wonderful evening of Belgian cuisine and great conversation.  

Altogether, the day was one of the highlights of our entire two-week trip.

In the next post, I’ll tell you about the last day of our Belgium trip, when we wandered around Brussels and had a great visit with local historian Marc Brans.

End of Post.

Post #32: This Coming Sunday, Reflect on Another Sunday 101 Years Ago

Friday, August 21, 2015

THIS DAY IN WWI HISTORY (Sunday, Aug. 23, 1914): An excerpt from my nonfiction book, Behind the Lines,www.WWIBehindtheLines.com 

Dinant—“The Town Is Gone
Dinant excerpt page 20.

A few days later, it was Dinant’s turn.

A town of more than 7,500, Dinant was the second largest in Namur Province and sat on the right bank of the Meuse River at a major crossing. Known for its stalactite caverns and chased copper and brass wares, and for being the birthplace of Adolphe Sax (the inventor of the saxophone), the town had survived for more than 700 years, squeezing itself in between the river and the base of barren limestone cliffs, which were crowned by a ruined fortress. The most distinctive element of the town’s skyline was the 200-foot-high “curiously Oriental spire” of the Church of Notre Dame, a restored thirteenth-century Gothic structure located in the town’s grand place (main square).

Because of its strategic position at a major river crossing and its close proximity to the French border, Dinant was quickly fortified by French troops when war was declared. After heavy fighting, though, the town was finally occupied by the Germans on Sunday, August 23. They promptly accused the residents of fighting alongside the regular troops and in retaliation began to destroy the town and kill its civilians.

That Sunday morning, according to later testimony in a committee of inquiry, “soldiers of the 108th Regiment of Infantry invaded the Church of the Premonastrensian [sic] Fathers, drove out the congregation, separated the women from the men, and shot 50 of the latter. Between 7 and
9 the same morning the soldiers gave themselves up to pillage and arson, going from house to house and driving the inhabitants into the street. Those who tried to escape were shot.”

In some cases the Germans lined up people against a wall and executed them with machine guns. Monsieur Wasseige, the forty-three-year-old director of a Dinant bank, refused to open the bank’s safe, so he and his two sons, Jacques, nineteen, and Pierre, twenty, along with about 100 others, were machine-gunned down in the town’s square, place d’armes. The Germans forced Wasseige’s three youngest children to witness the murder of their father and two brothers.  Later, an American observer said, “We saw the wall with the machine-gun bullet marks, breast high, along its entire length.”

Another person said, with cutting sarcasm: “Those killed [in Dinant] ranged in age from Felix Fivet, aged three weeks, to an old woman named Jadot, who was eighty. But then Felix probably fired on the German troops.”

When the Germans were finally finished, they had “killed 674 people, deporting an unknown number and destroying 1,100 buildings.” The town’s distinctive church spire was gone, as was nearly everything else.

“Dinant is far worse than anything I have seen, or even dreamed the war could bring about,” said one American observer walking through the devastation later.

“The town is gone,” said another American. “Part of the church is standing, and the walls of a number of buildings, but for the most part, there is nothing but a mess of scattered bricks to show where the houses had stood.”

End of excerpt

My Post:

As the above excerpt and my last post’s excerpt bear witness, August 1914 was a very difficult month for Belgium. At the same time, Germany, France, England, Russia, and much of the world would be quickly sucked into WWI’s black hole of death and destruction.

I remind myself of that bleak time when I struggle with mundane problems and little hassles that always seem initially bigger than they really are. I only gain the right perspective after I purposefully take a breath and compare my problems to those of some of the people I'm researching from 100 years ago. It's then that I once again remember how fortunate I am to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, surrounded by wonderfully supportive people.

Right now, I'm feeling very fortunate and lucky (thank you, United air miles! :)  to be leaving soon with my wife for a trip to Europe. We start with a few days in Belgium—Antwerp and Brussels -- then on to a river cruise and then a few days in Amsterdam. In Belgium we’ll be meeting with some wonderful local historians who I’ve been email pals with for a couple of years but have never met. And we’ll be sharing an evening meal with one of my mother’s best friends who lives outside of Antwerp.

Searching for 1914 Antwerp & Brussels

As part of my research for Book Two (no title yet), I’m going to take my huge (2 feet by 3 feet) 1914 maps of Antwerp and Brussels. They're covered with my notes of where certain characters lived, worked, or wandered while they were doing CRB or Belgian underground work.

In Antwerp I can’t wait to see if my great grandfather’s (Edouard Bunge) townhouse at 21 Ave Marie Therese is still there. During the war he gave the place to the CRB so that the young CRB delegates could live there. It’s also where Edouard and his daughters Erica (my grandmother), Eva and Hilda survived the three-day bombing of the city in October 1914. Supposedly a shell hit the front door but didn’t explode. If the townhouse is still standing, I might actually knock on the door and see what happens.

I also want to find the spot on Place de Meir where the U.S. Consulate office was and where one of the US photographers took a famous photo of the German soldiers first marching into the city (see page 130 of Behind the Lines).

I want to see if 74 Rue du Peage still exists. It’s the townhouse where E.E. Hunt and other US war correspondents sweated out the German bombardment of the city. A chunk of the townhouse was blown away with a direct hit while they were in it (see pages 115-116 in Behind the Lines).  

In Brussels, I’m hoping we can visit 66 Rue des Colonies, where the CRB had its headquarters. Across the street was Emile Francqui’s bank. In the still standing Galeries St. Hubert, I want to see if there is a bookshop. Back in 1914, the Massardo Bookshop was a critical distribution center for the underground newspaper, La Libre Belgique. And I want to ask locals about the Caveau de Paris, a little restaurant on the Rue du Marche aux Herbes that U.S. Legation Minister Brand Whitlock said was “where diplomats were always found at noon, where one could pick up gossip of the world” before the war began.

When we get back, I’ll write up what I found.

Author Appearances

Lastly, as a new item of each post, I’ll end by listing any appearances I’ll be making in the next few months. I’m grateful to each group for inviting me to participate.

October 17, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Rocky Mountain Literary Festival
Mount Vernon Country Club
Golden, CO 
I’ll be the second speaker of the day

End of Post