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 #32: This Coming Sunday, Reflect on Another Sunday 101 Years Ago

Friday, August 21, 2015

THIS DAY IN WWI HISTORY (Sunday, Aug. 23, 1914): An excerpt from my nonfiction book, Behind the Lines, 

Dinant—“The Town Is Gone
Dinant excerpt page 20.

A few days later, it was Dinant’s turn.

A town of more than 7,500, Dinant was the second largest in Namur Province and sat on the right bank of the Meuse River at a major crossing. Known for its stalactite caverns and chased copper and brass wares, and for being the birthplace of Adolphe Sax (the inventor of the saxophone), the town had survived for more than 700 years, squeezing itself in between the river and the base of barren limestone cliffs, which were crowned by a ruined fortress. The most distinctive element of the town’s skyline was the 200-foot-high “curiously Oriental spire” of the Church of Notre Dame, a restored thirteenth-century Gothic structure located in the town’s grand place (main square).

Because of its strategic position at a major river crossing and its close proximity to the French border, Dinant was quickly fortified by French troops when war was declared. After heavy fighting, though, the town was finally occupied by the Germans on Sunday, August 23. They promptly accused the residents of fighting alongside the regular troops and in retaliation began to destroy the town and kill its civilians.

That Sunday morning, according to later testimony in a committee of inquiry, “soldiers of the 108th Regiment of Infantry invaded the Church of the Premonastrensian [sic] Fathers, drove out the congregation, separated the women from the men, and shot 50 of the latter. Between 7 and
9 the same morning the soldiers gave themselves up to pillage and arson, going from house to house and driving the inhabitants into the street. Those who tried to escape were shot.”

In some cases the Germans lined up people against a wall and executed them with machine guns. Monsieur Wasseige, the forty-three-year-old director of a Dinant bank, refused to open the bank’s safe, so he and his two sons, Jacques, nineteen, and Pierre, twenty, along with about 100 others, were machine-gunned down in the town’s square, place d’armes. The Germans forced Wasseige’s three youngest children to witness the murder of their father and two brothers.  Later, an American observer said, “We saw the wall with the machine-gun bullet marks, breast high, along its entire length.”

Another person said, with cutting sarcasm: “Those killed [in Dinant] ranged in age from Felix Fivet, aged three weeks, to an old woman named Jadot, who was eighty. But then Felix probably fired on the German troops.”

When the Germans were finally finished, they had “killed 674 people, deporting an unknown number and destroying 1,100 buildings.” The town’s distinctive church spire was gone, as was nearly everything else.

“Dinant is far worse than anything I have seen, or even dreamed the war could bring about,” said one American observer walking through the devastation later.

“The town is gone,” said another American. “Part of the church is standing, and the walls of a number of buildings, but for the most part, there is nothing but a mess of scattered bricks to show where the houses had stood.”

End of excerpt

My Post:

As the above excerpt and my last post’s excerpt bear witness, August 1914 was a very difficult month for Belgium. At the same time, Germany, France, England, Russia, and much of the world would be quickly sucked into WWI’s black hole of death and destruction.

I remind myself of that bleak time when I struggle with mundane problems and little hassles that always seem initially bigger than they really are. I only gain the right perspective after I purposefully take a breath and compare my problems to those of some of the people I'm researching from 100 years ago. It's then that I once again remember how fortunate I am to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, surrounded by wonderfully supportive people.

Right now, I'm feeling very fortunate and lucky (thank you, United air miles! :)  to be leaving soon with my wife for a trip to Europe. We start with a few days in Belgium—Antwerp and Brussels -- then on to a river cruise and then a few days in Amsterdam. In Belgium we’ll be meeting with some wonderful local historians who I’ve been email pals with for a couple of years but have never met. And we’ll be sharing an evening meal with one of my mother’s best friends who lives outside of Antwerp.

Searching for 1914 Antwerp & Brussels

As part of my research for Book Two (no title yet), I’m going to take my huge (2 feet by 3 feet) 1914 maps of Antwerp and Brussels. They're covered with my notes of where certain characters lived, worked, or wandered while they were doing CRB or Belgian underground work.

In Antwerp I can’t wait to see if my great grandfather’s (Edouard Bunge) townhouse at 21 Ave Marie Therese is still there. During the war he gave the place to the CRB so that the young CRB delegates could live there. It’s also where Edouard and his daughters Erica (my grandmother), Eva and Hilda survived the three-day bombing of the city in October 1914. Supposedly a shell hit the front door but didn’t explode. If the townhouse is still standing, I might actually knock on the door and see what happens.

I also want to find the spot on Place de Meir where the U.S. Consulate office was and where one of the US photographers took a famous photo of the German soldiers first marching into the city (see page 130 of Behind the Lines).

I want to see if 74 Rue du Peage still exists. It’s the townhouse where E.E. Hunt and other US war correspondents sweated out the German bombardment of the city. A chunk of the townhouse was blown away with a direct hit while they were in it (see pages 115-116 in Behind the Lines).  

In Brussels, I’m hoping we can visit 66 Rue des Colonies, where the CRB had its headquarters. Across the street was Emile Francqui’s bank. In the still standing Galeries St. Hubert, I want to see if there is a bookshop. Back in 1914, the Massardo Bookshop was a critical distribution center for the underground newspaper, La Libre Belgique. And I want to ask locals about the Caveau de Paris, a little restaurant on the Rue du Marche aux Herbes that U.S. Legation Minister Brand Whitlock said was “where diplomats were always found at noon, where one could pick up gossip of the world” before the war began.

When we get back, I’ll write up what I found.

Author Appearances

Lastly, as a new item of each post, I’ll end by listing any appearances I’ll be making in the next few months. I’m grateful to each group for inviting me to participate.

October 17, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Rocky Mountain Literary Festival
Mount Vernon Country Club
Golden, CO 
I’ll be the second speaker of the day

End of Post

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