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 #19: Rhodes Scholars and German Savages Ready to Scalp Women and Children

July 26, 2013

A Spot of History: The CRB officially came to life at a London meeting in late October 1914. Work was begun immediately on multiple fronts, including buying foodstuffs from international markets, chartering ships around the globe, and organizing a transportation center in Rotterdam that would coordinate all cargo vessels and the transfer of goods into Belgium.

But what of the critical guarantee made to England that no food would fall into German hands? The English didn't trust any promises the Germans made, and couldn't rely on the assurances of the Belgians, who were open to intimidation and control by their German captors. 

The CRB needed neutral boots on the ground to guarantee the guarantee.

So where to find American men willing to go into German-occupied Belgium who spoke French and/or German, would work for free, were available immediately and could think on their feet and act with great tact in a war ravaged country controlled by a brutal conqueror?     

It would takes weeks, if not months, to recruit people from America (the crossing alone could take 10 days or more).

As George Spaulding -- one of the first 10 CRB delegates to enter Belgium later explained: "It occurred to Hoover to apply for volunteers among the American students at Oxford University."

It made practical sense: Fall term would be ending soon and the students would have six weeks off for winter break. It just might be the stop-gap measure needed until permanent staff could be recruited from back home. On Nov. 24, Hoover sent a telegram to 25-year-old Perrin Galpin, second year student at Oxford, asking that he find men "with some experience roughing it, who speak French, have tact, and can get on with the Germans." Because there were 10 areas of supervisory concern in Belgium, Hoover asked for 10 men who could commit to at least six weeks.

Galpin enlisted the aid of two fellow students -- C. G. Bowden and Emile F. Hollmann [a.k.a. Holman], who was president of the American Club at Oxford. Together, they held an informal meeting that drew 25 interested U.S. students.

There were more questions than answers, primarily because neither Hoover, nor anyone else, could say exactly what the work would entail. The CRB was -- by the necessity of attempting such massive relief for the first time -- making it up as it went along. Additionally, conditions within sealed-off Belgium were sketchy at best. This was a country that had put up fierce resistance when the Germans invaded and had experienced unparalleled retaliatory destruction because of it. Now, in terms of infrastructure and status of the Belgians, few outside the country knew what to expect within the country.

While such a lack of information might have scared off career-oriented applicants, it spoke deeply to adventure seeking students. In short order, Galpin sent a list of 10 who were ready and added notes on their qualifications (albeit slim due to their young ages).  

On Saturday, Dec. 5 -- less than two weeks after Hoover's initial telegram -- the first 10 CRB delegates (Oxford students; eight Rhodes scholars and two others), headed for Rotterdam and their final destination, Belgium. All in their mid- to early 20s, they each carried a small suitcase, 20 to 30 English pounds, and little clue as to what they were getting into.

"What we were to do, no one exactly knew," said Hollmann. "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, they hadn't expected.

But even before they reached Rotterdam, Galpin received a terse telegram back at Oxford: "Hoover just returned from Belgium   we must have more men    send along at once"

And so the CRB story began...

[Sources: "The Commission for Relief in Belgium and the Chateau de Mariemont," by George Spaulding, Alan Hoover Collection, Box 8, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library; Perrin Galpin's Papers, Box 1, Hoover Institution; Emile Holman Papers, folder 1, Hoover Institution.] 

My Post: Every day I come across new pieces of this wonderfully intricate and complex puzzle. My biggest fear is that I won't properly index the best stories so I can access them when I begin writing.

In my mind, it's like the ending of the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into this gigantic warehouse stuffed so full that the audience knows the Ark will never be found or seen again. Just like that, I'm worried that if I read a great CRB story and don't index it correctly, when I move onto to the next document the first piece will never be seen again...lost in the growing warehouse of my research.  

So, to help my 60-year-old brain remember each worthy tale, I'm relying on four critical tools:

1. Index cards. My 1980s work created approximately 1,000 index cards. I've already handwritten nearly 500 new cards and believe I'll end up with an additional 1,500 to 2,000 cards by the time I'm finished.

2. An Extensive Profiles excel spread sheet (38 pages so far) that includes all known CRB delegates and other ancillary persons who will be part of the story. Each entry includes (where known) multiple items from age and physical description to a photo (if available) and stories that might have relevance.

3. A chronological historical narrative excel spread sheet (25 pages so far) that identifies all possibly relevant stories and the sources for those stories. I'm hoping that when I'm done researching, this document will help me "see" the flow of the stories in relation to time and all the other stories.

4.  A self-explanatory Great Quotes word document that's divided into 18 categories. Not one of these quotes I want to forget -- they're just too good! The document is 29 pages and growing every day.

As you can probably tell, I'm currently into quantifying things. This might not seem too creative, but it's my way of giving myself a feeling of progress when working on any long term goals. While I may be number crunching now, though, I promise I'll get creative when it's time to start writing.

Speaking of which, I'm hoping to start writing in late August/early September. I already have a general idea of how I want to construct this book, and happily the research is confirming and refining my idea nicely.

But even if I start writing in late August, that doesn't give me much time to produce a good book that's  350 to 500 pages by early 2014. So I've been working through the weekends, I've given up my newspaper/Starbucks time (haven't been there in months) and, sadly, I've put an indefinite hold on my once-a-week piano lesson. The way I figure it, by early 2014, even if I don't have a completed book, I should, at least, have enough of it done to determine its overall quality. From that determination will spring my next steps.  

That's a long way off, though, so now I'll just put my head back down and continue the slog through the research.

Thanks again for taking the time to read my blog.

End of Post 

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