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.

#18: The Importance of Credible News & What Some Will Endure To Provide It, OR Creative Photoshopping 100 Years Ago

June 23, 2013

A Spot of History: In this cellular age of constant connectivity, it's hard to imagine being cut off from not only the world at large but nearly everything beyond your own neighborhood. No mail, no phones, no TV, no radio, no wifi, no cars or trains, and travel restricted to within a few walking miles of  home.

That's what basically happened to Belgium in August 1914 when the Germans took total charge of  seven million Belgians' lives, and cut the country off from the rest of the world. Of course radio, TV and wifi weren't around yet, but civilians were not allowed to use telephones, send telegrams (the original texting before cell phones), couldn't drive cars, were forbidden to gather in crowds and had to get a pass to travel beyond their local area. It's as if the Belgians were instantly transported back to mediaeval times, complete with a feudal lord who controlled every aspect of their lives.

"Hemmed in on all sides by gun and bayonet," Rhodes scholar and CRB delegate, Emile Holman, poetically put it.

Hugh Brown, a lawyer and friend of Herbert Hoover's, explained to an audience at the University of Nevada, "Belgium lay with an iron wall erected around three-quarters of her border, British ships blockading most of the remainder, and the little strip of Holland prevented by its neutrality from sending anything in."

What made this prison even worse, was the lack of credible newspapers -- a daily necessity/ addiction for many people before tablets, smart phones and the Internet. Who was winning the war? What was happening on the battlefields? How many had died? What were politicians saying? Where would Belgium get food for the winter? In Belgium's news-deprived world, mounting war questions heightened fears to a fevered pitch.

A few newspapers were allowed to publish, but they were under firm German censorship so readers could not rely on their reporting. And persons caught in possession of smuggled foreign papers were tossed in jail.

Within this world of doom and gloom came one small beacon of light -- La Libre Belgique, an underground Brussels newspaper.

While small in size and reach -- around four to eight pages and 10,000-30,000 copies -- it had a huge impact on the spirit of an entire nation. Self-proclaimed as "A bulletin of Patriotic Propaganda, irregularly regular," it appeared nearly once a week. Editorial offices were "in an automobile cellar" and those wanting to buy ads were told: "Business being dead under the German domination, we have suppressed the advertising page and we advise our clients to save their money for better times." The price was "Elastic -- from zero to infinity." The dateline always read "Kommandantur, Brussels" -- the German civilian government's headquarters. Articles covered everything from battlefront news to countrywide conditions, restrictions and German abuses. 

Nearly every element of the paper was like a weekly slap in the face to the Germans.

Napoleon In Hell, Wiertz Museum
When, to the world's horror, English nurse Edith Cavell was executed in Belgium by the Germans for spying, the paper ran an altered image of a painting in Brussels' Wiertz Museum. The real painting, entitled "Napoleon in Hell," showed the French general haunted by spirits of those he had slain. In La Libre Belgique's version, the head of Napoleon and been replaced by a photo of the German Kaiser's face, with Cavell as one of the spirits haunting him.

In another pre-Photoshop photoshopping of an image, the paper ran an audacious cover photo of German Governor-General Baron Moritz Ferdinand von Bissing reading a copy of the outlawed paper. The caption read: "Our dear Governor, disheartened by reading the lies of the censored newspapers, seeks for truth in La Libre Belgique."

 Adding insult to injury -- or better yet, salt to an open wound -- the paper somehow always showed up on von Bissing's desk. One week it might be sent in a letter posted from Germany. Another it was thrown through the window. Another it was sandwiched between dispatches delivered by an orderly.

Here was bold defiance in the face of harsh German rule. And the Germans seemed powerless to stop it.

That wasn't for lack of trying. The Germans placed a 50,000 franc reward on the head of the editor or editors. Anyone caught with a copy faced three years in jail and a 3,000 mark fine. Countless homes were raided, businesses ransacked, and numerous people were taken into custody, questioned, then either thrown in jail, deported to Germany or executed. Numerous times the Germans got close...very close....

The most surprising part of the La Libre Belgique story is that the paper was never silenced during four years of war. Presses were destroyed, contributors were caught, lives were lost, but somehow the paper continued to appear. And no one seemed to know who was making that happen. Rumors abounded, though:  Jesuits wrote it. It was edited in a cave. Printing was done in a moving car around the country. Etc. etc.

So who was the editor and what was his story?

Even the last issue, Nov. 12, 1918, when Belgium was finally free, did not reveal who had edited, printed and circulated the paper. As humbly stated in that last issue: "What can we reply to that oft-repeated question, 'Who is the Libre?' The Libre Belgique is a lineage, a tradition."  

And in the paper's typical mocking style, the last words on the last page were ones that Baron von Bissing loved repeating when speaking about the German occupation of Belgium: "What we hold, we hold tight!"  

I will, of course, be including the story of La Libre Belgique in my upcoming book (it's too good not to), but for now, I can tell you the editor during the first two years of the paper was an unassuming hero named Eugene van Doren (see below). The photo caption reads: "A less conventionally

heroic figure could scarcely be imagined." Personally, I think van Doren cuts a fine heroic figure. (In fact, I think he looks like actor Paul Henreid in his portrayal of WWII German resistance fighter Victor Laszlo in the wonderful movie, Casablanca. See below.)

Regardless of what he looked like, van Doren was a remarkable man who ran a newspaper that became so much more than paper and ink. It became a symbol of defiance and hope in a country that needed both desperately. A source of national pride in the face of German occupation.

If you want to read more about La Libre Belgique and van Doren, you should buy the book, UndergroundNews, The Complete Story of the Secret Newspaper That Made War History, by Oscar E. Millard. It was published 20 years after the war in 1938 (only one year before the start of World War Two, when Belgium would once again be occupied by the Germans). Other sources for this piece include: Brand Whitlock's "Belgium, A Personal Narrative" (2 vols), E.E. Hunt's "War Bread," and Hugh Gibson's "A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium."

My Post: I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted from writing all of the above!  

But I'm also exhilarated because I've now completed the first two weeks in my read/assimilate/ index stage. The stories of the individual CRB men are nothing short of remarkable. Fascinating for their details, descriptions, humor and passion. It's incredibly exciting to get to know these mostly young, idealistic Americans and glimpse key moments of their lives back in 1914-1917 German occupied Belgium.

It is, however, somewhat daunting to look at all that I have to read before diving into the writing portion. Happily, just when I was starting to obsess about it, I received my daily inspiration from Seth Godin (who I've mentioned -- and recommended -- before). For me, it was a particularly relevant missive. Here it is in full (with a link to his site in the title):

Fearlessness is not the same as the absence of fear

The fearless person is well aware of the fear she faces. The fear, though, becomes a compass, not a barrier. It becomes a way to know what to do next, not an evil demon to be extinguished.

When we deny our fear, we make it stronger.

When we reassure the voice in our head by rationally reminding it of everything that will go right, we actually reinforce it.

Pushing back on fear doesn't make us brave and it doesn't make us fearless. Acknowledging fear and moving on is a very different approach, one that permits it to exist without strengthening it.

Life without fear doesn't last very long--you'll be run over by a bus (or a boss) before you know it. The fearless person, on the other hand, sees the world as it is (fear included) and then makes smart (and brave) decisions.

 End of Seth Godin's thought.

I love the idea of using fear as a compass. Great concept. I just hope I'm making "smart...decisions" right now, because I sure have the fear part down!

On another note, for those who are interested, the crowd-sourcing project of CRB name/photo matching is coming along well. We're down to only 63 names without photos. Please help if you can! Click here for the web page.

And, finally, thanks once again to anyone who takes the time to read my blog. If nothing else, I hope "A Spot of History" is at least mildly entertaining and/or informative.

End of Post.

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