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 #33: Understanding 1914 Belgium, and Searching for the Past in Present Day Antwerp

Friday, October 2, 2015 

The Don’t-Forget-WWI Project: An excerpt from page 99 of my nonfiction book, Behind the Lines, 

"We Shall Never Forgive!” 

As September [1914] came to a close, Max [the mayor of Brussels] was not the only Belgian in jail. All Belgians under  German occupation rule had become “prisoners in their own land,” according to reporter Arthur L. Humphreys in the Times of London. “They may not go from one town to another; they may not use the telephone or the telegraph; they may write letters only through the German military post; they may not use their own railroad system as passengers or for parcel transport. Belgians seen walking across the fields are hailed by a Landsturm guard. They may walk only in the streets and go to their shops and offices within the radius of their own communities. The psychological effect of this is appreciable only after it is endured.”

Humphreys also recorded a conversation he had had with a Belgian: “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!”

When asked if the Belgian hated the Germans, he replied: “Of course I hate. For the first time in my life I know what it is to hate; and so do my countrymen. I begin to enjoy my hate. It is one of the privileges of our present existence. We cannot  stand on chairs and tables as they do in Berlin cafes and sing our hate, but no one can stop our hating in secret.”

That hate would grow stronger through four long years and become less and less secret.

End of Excerpt

My Post: In my last post in August, I said I was going to Belgium and was going to search out some WWI places to see if they still existed. I’m happy to report that my wife and I had an incredible time in Belgium, made more so by four wonderful local historians: Raymond Roelands, Roger Van den Bleeken, Andre De Vleeschouwer, and Marc Brans. More on them later in this post.

My wife and I flew into Brussels and immediately grabbed the airport express bus to Antwerp and checked into the charming Hotel Rubens, right behind the city’s main old town square, Grote Markt. We then dropped our bags and took off in search of 1914 Antwerp.

To aid us, we had my 1914 city map that I had used for the writing of Behind the Lines. Back during my research stage, I had taken a tiny Baedeker’s city map from 1914 and blown it up to 3 feet by 3 feet so I could see every detail of the map. Then, as I found place names and street mentions in my research, I’ll jot down the significant ones in red on the map. By the time I was finished writing Behind the Lines, the map was covered with red notations of where people had walked, worked, lived, or hidden during the German bombardment and occupation.

On this modern-day trip to Antwerp, I wanted to see what still might be there.

One obstacle to this quest I discovered before I had even left home. The 1914 map was in French, while all modern maps of Antwerp are in Flemish. Unfortunately, a surprisingly amount of street and place names do not look the same in French as they do in Flemish. In many cases I had to use the shapes of streets to match the 1914 map to the 2015 map.

When we got to Antwerp, I had a general idea of where the sites were that I wanted to see, but because we didn’t have much time in Antwerp, I identified only three places I wanted to track down:

            Hotel Saint Antonie on Place Verte (now called Groenplaats), where E. E. Hunt and a
                        group of American and British war correspondents stayed in 1914. Hunt also said
                        the hotel was British HQ in Antwerp before the Germans took the city. 
            Rue Leys (now Leystraat), on the eastern end of Place de Meir, the main shopping street
                        then and now. Back in 1914, the U.S. Consulate overlooked Rue Leys and is
                        where the photo of German soldiers marching into Antwerp was taken that I used
                        in Behind the Lines on page 130.   
            21 Avenue Marie Therese, the Bunge house, at the tip of the park with the Quinten
                        Metseys  (aka Matsys) statue (famous artist) nearby.

My search wasn’t very successful.

The Hotel Saint Antonie is, to the best of my understanding, a Hilton Hotel today. I’ll have to compare 1914 photos of the hotel with the photos I took to see it’s the same building. I think it is.

The photo I wanted to recreate in modern-day Antwerp.
I could find Rue Leys, but I couldn’t replicate the exact look of the 1914 photo. The next day, when I told the three local historians about my search, Roger explained that I had been looking at the scene from the wrong perspective and direction. Once he explained that, I believe I understood where the shot had been taken from. 

And, finally, I had hoped to see my great grandfather’s townhouse at 21 Avenue Marie Therese.  I’m sad to report that it is no longer there. A modern apartment building has taken its place.

The next day (Thursday) it rained off and on throughout the day. Raymond, Roger and Andre were kind enough to give us their entire day to show us around Kapellen (approximately 20 minutes northeast of Antwerp), where my great grandfather, Edouard Bunge, his daughter Erica Bunge had lived at the Chateau Oude Gracht.

Raymond picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 a.m. and took us out to the Kapellen churchyard where many of my family members are buried. We met Roger and Andre in the church parking lot and then proceeded to the burial spots.

The three explained that non-Catholics are not allowed to be buried in a Catholic graveyard. Because the Bunges were not (and still not) Catholic, Edouard Bunge had donated a small piece of his property that touched the edge of the graveyard to the Church so that the family could be buried there. A beautiful female statue and an underground crypt (now covered over) are surrounded by multiple headstones that mark many of my family. It was a surprisingly emotional reunion with those who I had written about in Behind the Lines, and with those who I hadn’t written about but loved very much.

Raymond had also arranged for a reporter from an Antwerp Flemish newspaper to come out and interview me about my trip. She even took a photo and the photo and the article appeared in the Saturday newspaper! Anyone who’s interested can see the photo and article by clicking here.

Susan and I ended up having a wonderful day with Raymond, Roger and Andre, who were so kind and knowledgeable. We saw two different local historical society offices, a creative display of the 1914 electrical fence that the Germans had erected between neutral Holland and occupied Belgium, heard parts of a major speech on Edouard Burnge and Chateau Oude Gracht that Raymond has given many times to local groups, and we shared a wonderful lunch at a stylish restaurant, Brassierie De Hoge Boom. From Raymond’s speech, I learned that at the end of war Edouard Bunge had been taken to court and accused of being a collaborator with the Germans. He successfully defended himself, but I had never heard that story before.

As a small token of our great appreciation for all they did, I presented each of them with numerous documents that they had not seen before.

After we left the three at 6:30 p.m., we then spent a fun evening at the home of my mother’s dearest friend, Francoise. Guests also included her daughter, Therese, and my distant cousins Karin and Werner. It was a wonderful evening of Belgian cuisine and great conversation.  

Altogether, the day was one of the highlights of our entire two-week trip.

In the next post, I’ll tell you about the last day of our Belgium trip, when we wandered around Brussels and had a great visit with local historian Marc Brans.

End of Post.

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