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 #23: The WWI Fall of Antwerp and a Small Pontoon Bridge to Safety

 March 9, 2014

A Spot of History: The Fall of Antwerp is one of the major events of the opening days of WWI, taking place from September 28 to October 10. Thousands tried to flee prior to the bombardment of the city. It was pure chaos and bedlam. When the shelling started, it got even worse.
Antwerp refugees trying to get cross a pontoon bridge -- one
of the last escape routes out of the city before the German
Before the war, the Flemish city was named by Baedeker’s Belgium and Holland tour book to be “one of the most interesting towns in Belgium” and was considered by most to be the unofficial capital of Flanders (the Flemish speaking northern part of Belgium).  Antwerp had started out as a walled medieval city laid out along the east bank of the River Scheldt, with ramparts built in the 1500s forming a semicircle on the other three sides. By the mid-16th century, the town was such a thriving port of commerce that some said it was the most prosperous and wealthy in Europe, even surpassing Venice.

By 1914, Antwerp was Belgium’s second largest city, but still maintained its bustling, small town feel. This was especially true in the medieval Old Town, which hugged the river and was a picturesque maze of narrow cobblestone streets, crooked alleys and open squares accentuated by magnificent facades, ornate gables and graceful spires. A reminder of the ancient past was in the more than 300 Madonnas that graced numerous street corners. Placed high above the heads of many who never glanced up, the Madonnas had held candles and lighted the way for nighttime pedestrians hundreds of years before.
Altogether, the grace, beauty and charm of Antwerp seemed to flow from every ornate window ledge and stately building, every cobblestone lane and finely wrought balcony – and in September 1914, every resident probably wondered what would survive the coming German invasion.

There was no talk, however, of declaring the city an open one as Brussels had done – Antwerp would fight and the Belgian army would make its stand to show the Germans how tough the little Low Country was. Many residents felt the city, with its two outer concentric rings of fortresses, was nearly impregnable. “In fact, Antwerp was almost universally considered one of the three or four strongest fortified positions in Europe.” Rumor had it that the city and its forts could hold out for months at the very least – plenty of time for the Allies to join the Belgian fight and push the Germans out of the country before winter. 
Antwerp was worth such fortifications primarily because it was one of the largest commercial ports in the world. Even though it had a metropolitan population of only 400,000, its port was the third busiest in the world when it came to vessel tonnage in and out. (The top five from top down were: New York, Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and London.) As a 1910 Baedeker’s Belgium and Holland tour book related, Antwerp “situated on the broad and deep Scheldt [River], 55 [miles] from the sea, is one of the greatest seaports of Europe, serving as an outlet for the commerce of Germany as well as of Belgium.”

On September 28, the Germans started shelling Antwerp’s outer forts. Spotters in high altitude balloons helped guide the massive artillery guns. With the German’s 17-inch howitzers and one-ton projectiles, it would not be long before the forts began to fall and the beautiful, medieval city of Antwerp would come under bombardment.
On the battle front, by Thursday, Oct. 1, the German siege guns had devastated two of the outer forts and German soldiers were moving up into the breach, while Belgian troops, who had been fighting continuously for days, were trying to hold them back. The battle line was barely a half-dozen miles outside of town. King Albert wired England for help, knowing his 150,000 troops couldn’t hold the outer forts against the Germans and their big guns. Everyone wondered when the English would come and rescue them.

On October 5, the city’s military commander, General de Guise, finally posted a placard around the city that told everyone the truth – the situation was grave, the city was about to fall and all noncombatants should immediately flee north to neutral Holland. Those who were not able to flee were told to retire to their basements, disconnect gas and water lines, stuff the staircases with mattresses as a way of protection, and, the proclamation stated confidently, “having taken these precautions, the population can await the bombardment in calm.”
De Guise neglected to tell the whole truth, however, omitting the fact that the Germans had given the city a 48-hour ultimatum – if you don’t surrender, we will start bombarding the city at exactly 12:01 a.m. Wednesday morning, Oct. 7.

In the end, knowledge of the ultimatum would probably not made much difference – after  de Guise’s proclamation went up, the city turned from relative calm to panic in a heartbeat. “Hundreds, thousands of terrified fugitives filled the streets,” wrote Antwerp merchant Edouard Bunge. “Trains were made up to run to Esschen [Holland], the only line still in operation. As fast as they were filled – and God knows they filled quickly –  people fought for their places. Vehicles that were still left in the city were appropriated by force. One would see hacks, market wagon trucks, push-carts, dog-carts, and all sorts of vans laden with people. One noticed especially the throngs of the poor, those who could not afford the luxury of a vehicle, walking with their eyes straight before them, a mixture of men, women and children, burdened with their poor belongings – a pitiful crowd driven by fear, and whose only desire was to gain the Dutch frontier at the price of no matter how much suffering.”
Down at the city’s docks on the Scheldt River the scene was frightening, chaotic and close to total panic. Every boat and canal barge, no matter how small, was so packed with people and their meager belongings that they verged on swamping. Thousands more refugees jammed from the wide docks to a narrow temporary pontoon bridge like wet sand in a giant funnel. All the permanent bridges had been previously destroyed to prohibit the Germans from using them, so every Antwerp resident knew the pontoon bridge was one of the last ways out of town into still-free East Flanders.  

Antwerp's pontoon bridge -- one of the last
escape routes out of the city.

Soon, Antwerp would endure three days and nights of bombardment by the Germans’ big artillery siege guns.  Following is a short excerpt from my book:
E.E. Hunt was ripped from his sleep by a blast that was so ferocious it felt as if the house had been lifted from its foundation. Two more artillery shells came screaming in in quick succession, and when the fourth hit, “every pane of glass in the house blew out in the chaos which followed the bursting of that fourth bomb. It had hit directly across the street, less than 35 feet from where I was hurrying into my clothes. I could hear screams and sobs; then the sound of people rushing by the house, and the crash of glass which littered the sidewalks, splintering to bits as the people ran.”

The bombardment of Antwerp had commenced.
“ ‘Everybody all right?’ I yelled, strapping on my belt of gold-pieces and flinging on my clothes.

“ ‘All right!’ answered Thompson shrilly from the next room. ’Y-yes,’ called Weigle from upstairs.’“
They dashed to the basement as more shells screamed into the city. They found de Meester already in the basement in a small coal closet. They joined him.

“To my astonishment, the cannonade gave me an intense feeling of exaltation. It was like the exhilaration of fever. I was convinced that we should all be killed, so I wrote on the walls of our cyclone-cellar the names and addresses of Thompson, de Meester, Weigles and myself. My senses were keenly alive to danger, but there was a strange joy in the thought that life was to be obliterated in a mad chaos of flame and steel and thunder. Death seemed suddenly the great adventure; the supreme experience. And there was something splendid, like music, in the incessant insane snarl of shells and the blasts of explosions.”  
In a quick maneuver, Hunt and Thompson ran upstairs and brought down mattresses and blankets. They tried to sleep, with intermittent success, as the pounding continued up above. 

At four in the morning, Hunt and Thompson, ever searching for stories and photos, went out onto the Avenue du Sud. “Refugees, most of them women, were hurrying by in every direction, half-dressed, only half sane, and horribly afraid. Many, no doubt, were crouching in the cellars, but most of the people ran. Old and young, in little coveys of fours, fives, half-dozens, dozens, ran along the sidewalks, slipping and crashing over the broken glass, making a terrifying and unearthly racket as they ran.”
One shell smashed into the corner of Avenue du Sud and rue du Peage, ripping through the cobblestones and the curb and carving a hole three feet deep and seven feet across. People screamed and scurried for cover. Another shell hit the house across the street and blew out the whole hallway; another took out the third story four doors down. Black smoke rose above the city where the city’s fuel storage facilities were now on fire.

At a time like this, Hunt couldn’t help but think of the absurd. “I stood in the middle of the street and watched the gray sky in the hope of seeing a shell. The idea was absurd, yet I felt an odd sense of being cheated of part of the spectacle. The air seemed full of steel. I counted three explosions a minute: I wanted to see something. One could hear the shells so easily, it seemed ridiculous not to see them…”
End of excerpt. [To read more of the bombardment, you’ll have to wait to read my Chapter Three: October.] Source: E.E. Hunt’s excellent book, War Bread.

My Post: I’m excited to report that I’ve been hitting all my writing deadlines, so far. I completed Chapter One by the end of January; completed Chapter Two at the end of February; and I’m currently about 15 pages into Chapter Three, which is supposed to be finished by the end of March. So far I have a little more than 100 pages in relatively good shape. I wish I could say that every word’s a gem, but I can’t right now. Maybe later I can say that every fourth word's a gem! :)
Ultimately, my plan is to have the entire book in rough draft form by the end of May. Then take all of June to edit, rewrite, re-plaster, etc.  It should be between 250 and 300 pages and will cover August 1914 through December 1914 and will be heavy with photos and footnotes, with the footnotes all at the end of the book (aka endnotes) for better readability.

After that, the truly hard work begins – determining how best to present this book to the general public. I know certain things for sure – it will be an e-book and there will also be a print version – but as many people before me have said, “the devil’s in the details.”
Yesterday, Saturday, March 8, I took a half-day seminar on e-books. Quite an eye-opening event. Lots to do and lots to think about – everything from the all-important book cover to which format will I use to translate my manuscript into something that can be read by as many devices as possible.

While it’s all terribly complicated and horribly confusing, one thing I know for sure is that it can be a black hole that will suck the time and life right out of me. I cannot afford to take the time right now to be sucked into it. My ONE job, my absolutely one critical function I can’t lose sight of is to get the story down on paper – and make it as great as possible. Without a story, I have nothing. With a story, I can then turn to the challenges that I’ll need to overcome to get this book out to the general public.
That’s primarily why I’ve never been good with keeping this blog current – I can’t afford the time and energy to keep this up AND stay on deadline with the book. Right now, everything must be subservient to the book – including my own life! (My wife, of course, would disagree, but...)

With that said, it’s time for me to stop this post and to get back to the book. But thanks to anyone out there who's taken the time to read this.
End of Post

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