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 #36: The Bloody Somme, the 1916 Belgian Harvest, and an NEH Rejection

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Don’t-Forget-WWI-Project: Many know that in August 1916 World War One’s bloody Battle of the Somme had just started. It would last until November and have a mind-bogglilng 1.5 million causalities.

But most don’t know that at the same time the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), and its Belgian partner, the Comite National, were fighting their own epic battle to provide
Belgians outside a Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) store
in German-occupied Brussels.
food to nearly 10 million Belgian and Northern French trapped behind German lines.

One example: In July and early August 1916 there was a major fight to determine who was going to get the coming harvest from Northern France—the German army or the civilians of Northern France. Hoover fought both the Allied governments and the German government over the issue. After repeated requests for a decision from the German government in Berlin, an answer came back—take it up with the German military authorities.

So Hoover went to Charlesville, France (headquarters of the German military forces) on August 1 to force a decision. The arguments on each side were intense, with no resolution in sight. To break the stalemate, Hoover and his deputy, Vernon Kellogg, went to Berlin with representatives of the military government to have it out once and for all. The tide was turned in the CRB’s favor when Hoover came face-to-face with the general who had ordered the execution of English nurse, Edith Cavell. Hoover’s personal appeal to the emotionally conflicted general is one of the great moments in CRB history.

This scene will be an important part of my Volume II in my CRB trilogy. To learn more about this great American humanitarian program, and to read a sample of my first book in the trilogy, Behind the Lines, go to www.WWIBehindTheLines.com 

My Post: Admittedly, it has once again been a long time since I wrote a post. My only excuse is that I’ve been working so hard on researching that I haven’t had time for much else. My wife and my dog complain that I’ve forgotten them!

Every day I immerse myself in1915 wartime Europe and America. Friends who have seen the history books, official reports, and reams of correspondence that I’m reading say they appear to be incredibly dry and boring. To me, they are fantastically illuminating snapshots into life-and-death scenes that few people know about today. They reveal so much to those who take the time to let them speak fully.

Even the lists of statistics about tonnages, and bushels, and calories all tell their own unique stories. From these numbers on yellowed pages comes visions of young children and new mothers and out-of-work men and elderly grandparents—all standing in lines waiting for the food that will sustain them for another day. It is a time of great desperation and of tremendous courage.

The hardest part to me of researching and writing is the filtering. What will go into my books and what will have to wait patiently for others to use some other day?

Because of the sheer quantity of material I’ve been trying to absorb, I’ve had to develop an extensive filtering system to help me remember what I’ve read and to make crucial decisions about inclusion or exclusion. This system includes four major components:

1.     Index cards. Yep, old-fashioned 3x5 index cards identifying the material I’ve reviewed. Currently I have more than 2,000 such cards.

2.     Cast of Characters excel spread sheets. I have more than 100 pages that identify all the various people involved in this complicated story. Each person has a row that includes a column for a photo (whenever possible), their age in 1915, their educational background, how they got to the CRB or CN or to Belgium, and stories about them from all the various sources.

3.     Great Quotes document. In all my reading, I continually come across great quotes that I don’t want to forget. I began typing them up and putting them into categories years ago. I currently have more than 60 categories and more than 800 pages of single-spaced typed quotes! Yes, it’s a bit overboard, but it’s a tremendous resource that I believe will make my books that much better.

4.     Monthly Narrative excel spread sheets. I have a row for each month of the year from 1914 through 1917, and each row has three columns: one for world stories; one for Belgium stories; and one for CRB/CN stories. I enter shorthand notes into each of these that reference all the great stories that I’ve discovered from my research.

So, when I sit down to read any material—whether it be a book, a document, or a letter—I first create a two-character ID for the item. Then I read it and take notes by hand. I then type up the notes. I then take those typed notes and enter them, where relevant, into the four components listed above.

It is laborious and time consuming, but when I finally sit down to start writing, all the work will pay off handsomely (I hope!).

I began a short sketch or two in June and wrote more in July. Now, as the third week of August comes upon me, I find that I have about 50 pages. Nothing completed, or in order, but it’s a good start that I hope to shape into a dynamite book.

And, finally, I have to say that I was knocked for a mighty loop a few weeks ago. At the end of July I found out I was NOT accepted into the NEH Public Scholar program for 2016/2017. I knew I had a slim chance at best, but I was ever hopeful that my topic – American’s largest private humanitarian relief effort that’s unknown to most – would make the cut. Sadly, it did not.

It took me a long week and weekend to get over the news. I will be interested to read the judges' written assessment of my project that I should be receiving in a few weeks.

As for Book Two: I’ve started the process of picking myself up and getting back into the project. It certainly helps that I had already started some writing. And I've decided to re-phrase an old adage that most people know: The best revenge is writing a best seller! (as opposed to living well). My goal will be to write such a great, page-turning, NY Times best seller that the NEH administrators will say, "Wow, we were really wrong in our assessment of Jeff Miller and his CRB/Belgium project!"  

Thanks to all those friends and family who send kind condolences on the NEH situation. And a special thanks to Professor Branden Little and George Nash who wrote reference letters for me.  

End of Post.

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