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 #37: Slave Raids and My Grandfather

Don’t-Forget-WWI-Project: While many people know about the horrors of World War I’s trench warfare on the Western Front 100 years ago, most people do NOT know about the horrors endured by Belgian and Northern French civilians trapped behind German lines.

Some Belgian children waiting for the CRB/CN food.
At the start of the war, when the Germans occupied most of Belgium and a thin slice of Northern France, they refused to feed any civilians. The non-governmental American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and its Belgian partner the Comite National took on the task of trying to feed and clothe nearly 10 million people trapped behind German lines.
After Herculean efforts that included getting the Allies and the Germans to agree to the program and dealing with periodic hurdles thrown up by both sides, the CRB and CN had a system in place for buying, shipping, preparing and distributing tens of thousands of tons of food per month. The civilians were staying alive, at least until the next crisis showed itself.  

In late 1916, a major crisis did appear, and one that would not only threaten many civilians but jeopardize the entire relief effort as well.
The Germans decided to deport Belgian workers to Germany where the Belgians would take over jobs so that Germans workers could join the fighting. These “slave raids” were carried out all across Belgium, from the biggest of cities to the smallest hamlets.

The scenes at countless train stations were horrifying similar, as lines of men from teenagers to those in their late 50s were first reviewed, then commanded to go either left or right. Left in most cases meant freedom, while right meant being herded and shoved into cattle cars for a journey of unknown duration and destination. (Shades of WWII’s Holocaust only 25 years later!)
The Germans defended their actions by saying they were simply giving work to the unemployed. The CRB, CN, the Allies, and the rest of the world felt otherwise. Brand Whitlock, the U.S.  Minister to the Legation in Belgium, summed up how many felt when he said it was “one of the foulest [deeds] that history ever records.”

The deportations, and the reactions to them, would become a major part of the story of Belgium and the CRB during World War I. They are also an important part of my next CRB/Belgium book, which I’m working on right now. To learn more about this great American humanitarian program, and to read a sample of my first CRB/Belgium book, Behind the Lines, go to www.WWIBehindTheLines.com 

 My Post: I currently have written about 150 pages of my second CRB/Belgium book, tentatively titled WWI Crusaders. While I am not completely happy with all the pages, I am glad that the book is off to a relatively good start. Most important, I’m now getting a better handle on where the book is going (beyond just the simple outline I had done earlier).

I know that one of the critical parts to the new book will be the deportations mentioned above. I’ve already amassed a tremendous amount of research material about them. Most are heartrending primary accounts of what happened. Some of these are from Belgians and others are from CRB delegates who were only observers.
One of the CRB delegate accounts is from my grandfather, Milton M. Brown. It has been a fascinating experience to read his impassioned prose about the event. While he spent every day in Belgium trying hard to act completely neutral (a lynchpin of the relief work), his true feelings came out in the deportation account he wrote:

“Even to us who had no personal interest in the scene, no private grief to result from what was happening about us there came a stinging hate, an almost irrepressible impulse to revolt against this relic of barbarism in a modern world, this savage treatment of an innocent people. And I know that at that crossroads on that misty, dreary day, I learned more of hatred for the Germans than I had ever felt before.” He was 26 years old.
I also have all his diaries and correspondence from that time. Because I was only a teenager/young adult when I knew him in his late 70s/early 80s, it has been an interesting process reconciling in my mind those two different people I’ve come to know.  

Milton only became a CRB delegate in January 1916, so he was not in Behind the Lines, which covered only 1914. I’m happy to report that I can finally write about him in this second book. I’m looking forward to that.
While I could not write about my grandfather in Behind the Lines, I was able to write about my grandmother, Erica Bunge. She was a 22-year-old Belgian woman.

For those who might worry that my books are about my family, I should say that my family is merely a thread in the tapestry of each book. I have researched more than 50 individuals—most of them CRB delegates—so that their stories well out number my family tales.
Anyone who wants to read a sample of Behind the Lines can find one at the book’s website, www.WWIBehindTheLines.com

End of Post.

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