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 detailed the complex and chaotic beginnings of the CRB and CN during the critical first five months of the war (August to December, 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. I used to call this item "A Spot of History," but now it's titled "Don't-Forget-WWI Project."

My main forcus now is to finish researching and writing WWI Crusaders, which tells the riveting full story of the American CRB delegates from August, 1914 to April, 1917, when America entered the war and the CRB delegates had to leave Belgium and Northern France.

I hope you find something of interest within this blog. For more information about Behind the Lines and/or WWI Crusaders, please go to the books' website by clicking here.

Post #9. Which Comes First: The Chicken, The Egg...or The Black Market?

January 16, 2013
A Spot of History: Even with the CRB’s humanitarian relief work in 1915 German-occupied Belgium, eggs were a dear commodity. In a time when the average U.S. factory worker was paid only $2 a day, a single egg in war-ravaged Belgium cost 10 cents. Converted to 2013 money, that’s $2.30 you’d pay for a single egg. Classic supply and demand pricing.  

On the supply side, many Belgians maintained some kind of small hen house as best they could.

On the demand side, the Germans couldn’t resist trying to control such a widespread activity. But in an uncharacteristically good-hearted move, they announced in one province that every Belgian needed to report how many hens they possessed so the proper amount of feed could be provided.

The Belgians—known for their love of exaggeration—took this as a wonderful opportunity to not only gain some extra feed but to stick it to the dirty Boche. They naturally inflated how many hens they had. The Walloons then shrugged their shoulders and muttered “Mais, qui—nothing else we can do, n’cest pas?” While the Flemish also shrugged their shoulders (they’d win Olympic Gold if it was a sport), but they didn’t mutter for fear a spy would hear and turn them in—thus ruining this new hen-feed game.

The Germans dutifully recorded everyone’s account of how many chickens resided in each hen house. To the Belgians, all seemed right with the world.

Suddenly, though, the rules changed: The tricky Germans turned around and proclaimed that daily egg quotas would now be established using the number of hens each person reported. Uh-oh….

Having never heard the expression, “pride cometh before laid eggs,” they knew fessing up to inflated hen counts wasn’t a viable option. So, they did the next logical thing and ran as fast as they could to the black market to buy enough eggs to meet their quotas. Belgians buying Black Market eggs to give to the Germans—what an interesting twist...  
A chicken that's stopped producing
You can imagine, though, how long that strategy lasted, considering the $2.30 per egg price. In fact, it was rumored that one priest—who must have been inspired by a choir of angles because he declared a mighty army of chickens (while possessing only a handful)—quickly went broke.  

The ultimate winners of this game?

Why the hens, of course. Everyone—Germans, Belgians, CRBers—all focused on feeding the egg-producing birds rather than cooking them. At least until they stopped producing…

My Post: Talking about producing, I’ve been producing like a 1915 Belgian hen this last week (sans the clucking, of
Jeff producing like a 1915 Belgian chicken
course). That’s why this Post is a bit late – I was working hard to ensure I’d make my first real deadline. That deadline was Jan. 15 and it was to take my nearly 1,000 handwritten index cards (which represented two years of full time research 25 years ago) and type them up onto new index cards. This would not only get the information in a searchable database, but also help me get reacquainted with my old research.   

Two weeks ago I was sure I would NOT make it. Primarily because, on top of the usual distractions of life, Susan and I had two houseguests for a week. While Sam (English) and her husband, Justin (Australia) were both charming and low maintenance, in an 850-square-foot house with one bathroom it’s hard to forget about houseguests and focus on work.

Once they left, I cranked up my fingers and let fly. Most of the cards had only a few entries I had to type, but others contained long quotes or stories that went on

One of myhandwritten index cards I've now typed
for multiple cards. Happily, I finished them all yesterday, Jan. 15, at 1:30 p.m. MST.

While this work probably sounds mind-numbingly dull to many, it was great fun to me. Nearly every card had a:
1.       Fascinating factoid, e.g. “Aluminum war rings” were made by French soldiers with their pocket knives out of German shells. The soldiers would sell them for 2 to 4 francs or a pack of cigarettes.
2.      Definition: e.g “Flic” means a German sentry
3.      Story: e.g. In the opening days of the war, the Germans herded together 600 people from the little village of Tamines and shot them. They started with rifles, but that was too slow, so they brought in machine guns, which were a lot quicker and more efficient. When the dead—ranging from 13 to 84—were being buried, one man was found still alive, but a German doctor had a quick look then said to go ahead and keep burying him. (To know why the Germans did what they did, you’ll have to do your own research, OR wait until my book comes out! :)

So now that the cards are done, it’s on to my legal pads. I have a deadline of January 31 to type up seven legal pads of handwritten notes. Each pad has 50 pages of my scribbling—all notes from my primary source materials (books, diaries, letters, etc.). This typing is a lot more involved and detailed than the index cards, so I’m a bit worried I’m not going to make the deadline. I should know after typing the first pad, which will give me a good idea of how long the entire project will take.

The good news is that I’m still feeling incredibly confident about, and committed to, this project. I certainly don’t feel 60. I actually feel more like the late 30s guy who did all the original research and writing back in the 1980s. It’s a great feeling…

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