About Behind the Lines

What was the CRB?: The Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) initiated, organized, and supervised the largest food and relief drive the world has ever known. Nearly 10 million Belgians and Northern French, trapped behind the German trenches, were fed and clothed every day for four years during World War I. It spent nearly $1 billion 1914 dollars ($20 billion in 2015 dollars). The CRB worked to buy, ship, and deliver the food into German-occupied Belgium via Rotterdam. Every day between 30-50 ships were on the high seas filled with CRB relief supplies. From Rotterdam the food was loaded onto canal barges and brought into Belgium through its extensive canal system. The CRB worked in  concert with its counterpart in Belgium, the Comite National de Secours d’Alimentation, which did the actual distribution of the food and clothes. For more information see Contacts & Resources Page for WWI’s  Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and Herbert Hoover.

Who Were the CRB Delegates: Most of them were young, idealistic Americans who volunteered to go into German-occupied Belgium to guarantee that the relief supplies were not requisitioned by the German military. They had to swear to be completely neutral and promise not to do anything to hurt the German war effort, while they watched the Belgians suffer under the brutal German regime. Many of them fell in love with Belgian girls—some of whom worked in the underground against the hated Huns. See the list of CRB Delegates.

What was 1914 Like?: No radio, no television, no cell phones, no commercial airplanes, and motorcars were still outnumbered by horses, wagons, and people on foot. Home entertainment was a night of singing, reciting verse, reading, or listening to the gramophone. A night out was to a theatrical play or to the new silent moving pictures. Ragtime was all the rage. The only way back and forth to Europe from America was by ship, and the usual trip took 10 days or more one way. The only instant communication was the cablegram through underwater cables. The only news was received from newspapers, magazines or word-of-mouth. Most days men wore starched collars and suits; women wore corsets and dresses.

Why This Book?: Few nonfiction books about the CRB put the story into the full context of what was happening in Belgium. Additionally, most CRB-related book focus on the 30,000-foot level—highlighting the critical, fascinating work of the great movers and shakers of the time as they solved the diplomatic problems of such unprecedented relief on such a massive scale. Few books tell the story of those on the ground, doing the actual relief work.

Behind the Lines: While touching on the major players and the work they did, this book deals more with the equally fascinating and critical work done by the boots on the ground—the Belgians and the volunteer American CRB delegates who lived and worked inside the German ring of steel. Behind the Lines, covers the start of the war in August 1914 through December 1914. My original plan was to have a trilogy, with two books following Behind the Lines, but publishers expressed interest in having only one book tell the entire story (August 1914 to April 1917 when America entered the war). As of 2016, I’ve pivoted to writing one book that will do just that. The working title is WWI Crusaders: The little-known story of German occupation, Belgian resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation. I hope to find a traditional book publisher who wants to get the book out by the autumn of 2018, which will be the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI.

Overview: The Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) is one of the great, little-known stories of America and World War I. The chart below gives some highlights.

A Major Theme It changed the way the world waged  war (e.g. tanks, poison gas, planes) It changed the way the world saw — and ultimately did — humanitarian aid
Lives Affected 9 million battlefield deaths 9+ million saved from starvation
Never Seen Before Such carnage Such massive, sustained relief (nearly 1 billion in 1914 dollars over four years; nearly 24 billion in 2014 dollars)
U.S. Neutrality It forced the issue on the American public The CRB/Belgium story awakened Americans emotionally to realize neutrality was not an option.
U.S. Role On the sidelines until near the end The CRB established, in the eyes of the world, America as a great humanitarian force when Hoover brought a radical new approach to aid.