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 (CN), 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 Did I Chose This Story?: As with many other writers, this story chose me. My grandparents were actively involved in the humanitarian relief. My grandmother was Erica Bunge, daughter of Antwerp merchant Edouard Bunge. She, her father, and two sisters survived the three-day bombardment of Antwerp and then the brutal German occupation. To aid relief efforts, Erica and her father began a dairy farm on their estate outside of Antwerp that ultimately gave 1 million liters of milk to the city’s children’s cantines. My grandfather was a young Princeton grad who served in Belgium as a CRB delegate from January 1916 until April, 1917. He was put in charge of the clothing program that was part of the relief effort. Milton and Erica fell in love during the war and after the war, in 1919, they married. After they died, I inherited all their diaries, correspondence, and photographs from that time. My grandmother is in Behind The Lines, and they will both be in WWI Crusaders, but these two books are not books about my family. My grandparents are only two threads in the tapestry of my books. I have taken years to research not only the time period, Belgium, and the war, but also nearly 50 CRB delegates. Besides my two books, I also hope to write a full-length movie screenplay about this incredibly exciting and dramatic story.
Why These Two Books?: Few nonfiction books about the CRB put the story into the full context of what was happening in Belgium. Additionally, most CRB-related books 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. I tell much of this great humanitarian story through the eyes of those delegates and Belgians who did the work. I consider both of my books to be creative nonfiction, with the word creative referring to presentation, not historical accuracy. As the godfather of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, has said, creative nonfiction is simply “a true story well told.” I have tried to fashion both books in the style of popular historians Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, and David McCullough.
Behind the Lines: The origins of the CRB and the CN were so complex and at times confusing that I decided to write one book, Behind the Lines, that focused on the first five critical months — August to December, 1914. I’m proud to report that Behind the Lines has received national recognitions and reviews, most notably a Kirkus Starred Review (only about 760 out of 10,000 books annually reviewed by Kirkus are given a Starred Review), and inclusion in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014. The Kirkus Starred Review ended by stating: “An excellent history that should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians.” (I’m still waiting for the catapult!) To see all the reviews and recognitions, click here.
WWI Crusaders: With Behind the Lines completed, I felt it necessary to have one book, WWI Crusaders, that tells the full story in one volume. It will be released sometime in 2018.
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.|