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 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 or an excerpt from Behind the Lines. I used to call this item "A Spot of History," but now it's titled "Don't-Forget-WWI Project."

I hope you find something of interest within this blog.

Post #34: Rhodes scholars Head into German-occupied Belgium

Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015

Don’t-Forget-WWI Project: During World War One, exactly 101 years ago today, on Sunday, Dec. 6, 1914, 10 young American students on Christmas break from Oxford University were in Rotterdam preparing for the adventure of a lifetime.
1914: Belgians in a food relief line.

They had been chosen to be the first 10 official “delegates” in the CRB (Commission for Relief in Belgium), which would ultimately become the largest food and relief drive the world had ever seen. These early twenty-somethings (eight of whom were Rhodes scholars) were about to go into German-occupied Belgium to help organize and supervise the delivery and distribution of food to 7 million near-starving Belgians.

With all communications cut between Belgium and the outside world, no one knew what to expect. One of the ten, Emile Hollmann, wrote, “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—and much more—is in my nonfiction book, Behind the Lines, which was included on the nationally recognized Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014. (More about my book by clicking here.

Here's an excerpt from page 279 of  Behind the Lines about the Oxford students on Sunday, Dec. 6, 1914, in Rotterdam, Holland:

Getting Their Assignments
It’s probably best that no one recorded when the men finally got back to the hotel, but the next day, even though it was Sunday, they were up early, dressed appropriately, and ready to find out what all this Belgian work was about. They walked the short distance from the hotel to the CRB office, which was on a “tree-bordered Dutch lane lying beside a busy canal where the schools of herring used to run, and where nowadays market carts and fisherwomen, motor-cars, delivery wagons, and peasant farmers in whitewashed wooden shoes clatter leisurely by.” To the east, and nearly within throwing distance, was the city’s major Maas train station.

The building that the CRB occupied was a 100-year-old mansion The house still bore some luxurious paneled walls and painted ceilings that were adorned with allegorical figures. The dining room had been converted into a waiting room but maintained its “massive fireplace, with long vertical Dutch mirrors and wall paintings in the style of 1750, showing quiet landscapes, Ruskin’s ‘fat cattle and ditch-water,’ or violent storms at sea.”

While the house maintained some of its previous accoutrements, it was no longer a quiet, stately mansion; it was the bustling business office of the rapidly growing shipping arm of the CRB. A large staff of Dutch, Belgian, and American clerks were scattered throughout the building, and Dutch and Flemish barge captains and dock laborers were always waiting in line for an audience with someone who could either put them to work or solve a problem they had encountered while employed by the commission. The halls and various offices were filled with a nearly constant cacophony of ringing phones, clattering typewriters, and buzzing conversations.

Overseeing it all was forty-year-old Captain Lucey, who occupied the best office in the building. The large room on the second floor overlooked the Meuse River and the harbor. From his  windows he could see many of the 300 barges that the CRB had already chartered. Some were being loaded by floating elevators, others by hand; others waited for their cargoes while still more were being towed upriver by canal tugs toward Belgium. All were draped with huge canvas flags bearing the protective inscription “Belgian Relief Commission.”

Even though it was Sunday, people were working in the office, and Lucey was there to greet the ten Oxford students. As one CRB delegate described Lucey, he was a “nervous, big, beardless American . . . who left his business . . . to organize and direct a great trans-shipping office in an alien land for an alien people.” The captain spent little time on the preliminaries, getting straight to work on instructing the ten students as to what he knew of Belgian conditions, what he thought they would be doing, and what he felt needed to be done.

Nelson wrote his parents that Lucey “gave us a fairly good idea of what our work would be like, besides telling us in a general way of the situation in Belgium. You will be surprised when you hear of the magnitude of this undertaking, and of the extraordinary difficulties under which it must be carried on.” 

In a confident tone that marked so many Americans of the time, Nelson stated, “The Americans have been hampered so far by lack of men and lack of supplies, but when our men get established throughout the country, and the organization is perfected, we will be able to handle the situation, for we already have some thirty or forty ships on the way to Holland.”

Nelson was so impressed with the operation and with Lucey that he wrote, “One feels prouder of being an American after meeting and talking with him.” The young first-year Rhodes scholar already knew, before he had started doing any relief work, that “our work goes on day and night,
seven days a week.” He even predicted that for the Oxford students this would not be a six-week jaunt, as they had signed up for: “This job is not a three month’s or six month’s job; it is a one or two year’s job, for even if the war should stop today, the Belgians must be fed until they can gather in the next harvest.” And he was already clear on his intentions, even before experiencing one day in occupied Belgium: “I shall very likely stay by this work for six months or longer, if I can arrange matters at Oxford.” He had become a convert to the cause and even ended one of his letters to his parents by stating, “I hope North Dakota, which is prospering because of this war, will be generous in her aid to the Belgians.”

End of Excerpt

My Post: In my last post way back in early October, I wrote about the Antwerp part of our incredible visit to Belgium in September. After a wonderful day exploring Antwerp, and a great day of meeting with local historians Raymond Roelands, Roger Van den Bleeken, and Andre De Vleeschouwer (see my previous post for details), my wife and I moved south to spend a half day and night in Brussels.

When we arrived, we immediately pulled out my 1914 Brussels map. As I explained in my last post, 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.

Armed with my 1914 blown up Brussels map, I wanted to find two places:

            * 66 Rue des Colonies, which had been home to the main CRB office, and where my
                        grandfather, Milton M. Brown, had worked during his days as a CRB delegate.

            * Galeries Royales St. Hubert, a beautiful late 1800s metal-and-glass-covered shopping
                        arcade. This was the location, during WWI, of a bookshop whose owner had been
                        a distributor of the underground newspaper, La Libre Belgique.  

For a while, my search for 66 Rue des Colonies, wasn’t going so well. I couldn’t seem to find the right streets on my map and match them to where we were walking. Just when I was the most frustrated, and I was hot and tired and hungry and my wife was a few paces behind me, something magical happened. I swear I heard my long-dead grandfather whisper in my ear, “You’re almost there, boy.” A moment later, I turned the corner and the building and number were right there.

A sense of relief and wonder overtook me. I had the strangest – but nicest! – sensation that my grandfather and some other CRB delegates and Belgians in my book, Behind the Linesarching for 66 Rue des Colonies, which was home to the CRB offices. Just before I reached the spot, I swear I heard my long-dead grandfather whisper in my ear "You're almost there, boy." I turned the corner and the building and number were still there. And I felt happy that my grandfather and some of the other CRB delegates and Belgians in my book, Behind the Lines, seemed to be walking with me.arching for 66 Rue des Colonies, which was home to the CRB offices. Just before I reached the spot, I swear I heard my long-dead grandfather whisper in my ear "You're almost there, boy." I turned the corner and the building and number were still there. And I felt happy that my grandfather and some of the other CRB delegates and Belgians in my book, Behind the Lines, seemed to be walking with me., were walking with me. It was a great feeling.

And that feeling continued as we made our way to the lovely Galeries Royales St. Hubert, which is still standing and is magnificent to see. My wife loved the shopping and I loved the sense of walking in the footsteps of people I had come to admire. We both marveled at the workmanship and artistry that had created such an arcade back in the late 1800s. I was also happily surprised to see that there was a bookshop in the arcade, although I was not able to find out if it was in the same location, or had any ties, to the WWI bookshop.  

Later that afternoon, local historian Marc Brans met us at our hotel and we three went out to an early dinner. What a wonderful evening it was! I truly enjoyed finally meeting the man who I had been emailing for more than a year about WWI, Belgium, the underground, and my book. In our email correspondences, Marc had always been a kind and generous person, freely sharing his knowledge and resources. In person he continued to be so as we shared some good Belgian beers and seafood and talked about our various research projects. My wife sat back and enjoyed the wine and seafood!

I have now been home months since the Belgium trip, but the images and memories are still strong in my mind. They will help me, no doubt, as I move forward in writing Book Two, which I am now earnestly working on.

End of Post.

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