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 #21: Belgian Spirit and Facing Fear -- Seth Godin's Way

December 5, 2013

A Spot of History: As mentioned in earlier posts, when the Germans conquered Belgium they effectively shut down the country and cut off its seven million people from the rest of the world.

All telephone, telegraph and mail services were shut down, no trains, buses or cars were allowed to run, and travel even between nearby villages was strictly forbidden. Newspapers were circulated but only if they were written or approved by the Germans. And -- in Europe's most industrialized country -- factories and manufacturing plants stood silent.

In essence, the country was instantly transported back to feudal times.
Later, limited mail and train services were restarted, but travel was permitted only after obtaining a pass from the Germans, and telephones, telegrams and automobiles were never allowed during the more than four years of German occupation.   

Couple those hardships with sky-high unemployment and near famine conditions and it's hard to imagine how the average Belgian coped, let alone fought back. But that's exactly what they did -- the Belgians fought back. Every chance they got, every tiny window of opportunity they saw, they would take if it gave them some slight psychological advantage over their captives.

"The Belgians are prisoners who shame, outwit, and pinprick their gaolers [sp] in a kind of warfare more efficacious than sniping, in which both sexes and all ages have become expert through a merciless apprenticeship," wrote journalist Arthur L. Humphreys in a series of 1915 articles in the London Times entitled The Heart of Belgium.
Humphreys continued, "Should a German officer sit down at the same table in a cafe or restaurant with a Belgian, the Belgian takes another seat. If an officer enters a tram, women draw back so that their garments will not touch his, as if they would escape vermin. One officer who lost his temper on such an occasion exclaimed: 'Madame, I shall not contaminate you!' Her only reply was to look at the officer's coat and draw a little farther away."

Another woman from a small town where the Germans were billeted in homes said that the soldiers "try to be friendly. They say they have wives and children at home, and we say:  'How glad your wives and children would be to see you! Why don't you go home?' "
Prentiss N. Gray, the 1917 CRB assistant director in Brussels, wrote in his
published journal, Fifteen Months in Belgium: A CRB Diary (, "The Belgians never tire of telling stories of German stupidity, and as far as I can make out, their fund of stories is endless.... Any discomfort of a German is joy to the Belgian heart."

 E.E. Hunt, war correspondent and one of the first CRB delegates, tells the story in his book, War Bread, that a Flemish peasant applied for a pass at the German Pass Bureau in Antwerp. The German asked the man how long he wanted the pass good for. The Belgian answered: “How long are you Germans going to stay in Belgium?”

Born from fear and raised on daily horrors endured, this Belgian spirit was one of the few things every self-respecting Belgian could cling to without breaking any German rules or regulations.

As related by Rhodes scholar and CRB delegate Emile Hollmann, one Belgian jurist summed it up when he stated: "'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!'"

My post: The concept of fear and how it can turn some people into action heroes while transforming others into immoveable mush is fascinating to me.

That's why I want to share a recent blog post about fear from the wise-as-an-old-owl Seth Godin. Here it is in its entirety.

Title: Fear the fear, feel the fear

Most of the things we avoid are avoided because we're afraid of being afraid.

Too meta?

Sorry, but it's true. The negative outcomes that could actually occur due to speaking up in class, caring about our work product, interacting with the boss--there's not a lot of measurable risk. But the fear... the fear can be debilitating, or at the very least, distasteful. So it's easier to just avoid it altogether.

On the other hand, artists and leaders seek out that feeling. They push themselves to the edge, to the place where the fear lives. By feeling it, by exposing themselves to the resistance, they become more alive and do work that they're most proud of.

The fear doesn't care, either way. The choice is to spend our time avoiding that fear or embracing it.

End of  Godin's blog post. For those who want to know more about Seth, his website is at

As a writer, I'm lucky enough to say that I've never been so fearful that I wasn't able to write. Yes, I have felt the fear that comes from wondering if my writing would be good enough for the topic at hand. And I've been fearful at times that I couldn't complete some of my big book projects.

But I guess I've always embraced Seth's concept. In fact, I now realize that when it comes to writing, I've danced cheek-to-cheek with fear many times -- and her hot breath on my neck can be exciting!

It's kind of like when I played soccer as a kid in New Jersey back in the 1960s. Just before the start of a game, I'd be scared to the point of nearly being sick to my stomach. I was scared that I would screw up, not play well, let my teammates down -- all the usual stuff. But the second the whistle blew, all that would vanish and I'd simply play the game. No internalizing, no angsting -- just running, dribbling, shooting and defending.   

Today, when it comes to my writing, there are those moments away from the research and the computer that I can feel the fear rise, and the questions start: Can I really write the book I'm imagining? Am I a good enough researcher? Am I a good enough writer? Is my aging brain up to the complex challenge?

But all that vanishes the moment I sit back down to the research and my computer. It's as if some internal whistle has just blown, all fear disappears and I the game.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. 

End of Post.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Jeff. Glad to see that your book is moving ahead.