A Book by Jeffrey B. Miller
WWI Crusaders by Jeffrey B. Miller is a book that fell in my lap at an entirely suitable time. As my readers have likely noticed, I have been on a WWI “kick” for a while. I have been reading numerous books, playing games, watching films, and attending museum exhibitions at a rather rapid pace all year. if you combine that fact with my seemingly unrelated consumption of world news due to the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis, a book about a similar humanitarian crisis during WWI is right up my alley. Prior to reading this, my knowledge of German occupied Belgium was limited to the scant information found in the books I’ve read. Something like a food shortage isn’t as “glamorous” as reading about The Battle of Verdun, or the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so most scholars will likely gloss over it. The fact that this book covered, and especially in such an expansive manner is impressive.
“Heroism and humanity behind the lines. WWI Crusaders telling the personal stories behind the facts of one of America’s greatest humanitarian efforts that’s little-known today. During WWI (1914-1918), the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) initiated, organized, and supervised the largest food relief program the world had ever seen. The CRB and its Belgian counterpart, the Comite National (CN), fed for four years nearly 10 million Belgians and northern French trapped behind German lines.
Young, idealistic Americans volunteered to go into German-occupied Belgium to guarantee the relief food would not be taken by the Germans. These humanitarian crusaders had to maintain strict neutrality as they watched the Belgians suffer under the harsh German regime. WWI Crusaders is the first book for general readers that tells in one volume the interlacing stories of German brutality, Belgian resistance, and the young Americans who went into German-occupied Belgium. Through lively personal stories, this nonfiction book follows a handful of young CRB delegates, a 22-year-old Belgian woman, two American diplomats, the leaders of a Belgian underground newspaper, and the founder of the CRB, who would become known to the world as the Great Humanitarian. It is a story that few have heard.”
For those unaware as I, The Commission for Relief in Belgium or C.R.B. was an international (predominantly American) organization that arranged for the supply of food to German-occupied Belgium and northern France during the First World War. Belgium was ransacked by the Germans, with most military-aged men sorted and shipped off to become slave labor or act in so called “penal battalions” fighting for Germany. This time is historically referred to as the “rape of Belgium”, and was a popular subject in wartime propaganda. With no one to work fields, and with military blockades shutting out supplies, Belgium was in dire straights. It was predicted that the ill, aged, and female populations would suffer as well as any children. Something had to be done, and thus the C.R.B. was formed.
These aforementioned American volunteers witnessed the dramatic deportations, when an estimated 120,000 men were taken to factories in Germany. The book describes the horror of having men line up and be told they can stay (if too old, sick etc.) or be loaded into a cramped cattle car for forced labor, with soldiers beating their screaming wives and children grief-stricken and panicked. This vile chapter in history foreshadows an even more sinister chapter some thirty years later, that I am shocked that I had never heard of this. It seems it was a VERY important part of discourse that was utilized to try to push The United States into the war.
I think my biggest takeaway from the book was the way that the food relief volunteers were able to keep a rule of absolute neutrality to such a degree that they somehow gained respect from the German occupiers. That said, the Germans weren’t actually big fans of the relief effort as a whole, assuming it was a front for a spy ring or worse, but one man was able to create a massive public relations nightmare (propaganda posters and fundraising galore) for the occupiers, anything shy of allowing the efforts would have likely pulled the US into the war far earlier than The Zimmerman Telegram eventually did. That man was Herbert Hoover, whose reputation is sadly looked over because he oversaw the country during the beginnings of The Great Depression. Seeing a different side of a man that is usually seen as one of the worst Presidents in history was definitely interesting.
Jeffrey B. Miller has organized this book in a linear manner, and great care has been taken to include primary documents such as letters that some of the volunteers sent home documenting everything. It’s interesting to see how most went from not thinking the occupation was “that bad”, to a sense of misery for the people they are there to protect. I enjoyed that the book would dip in and out of various points of view in order to get a grasp of how most people were handling the situation. Men like David Nelson had very interesting backgrounds and sent MANY letters, so their POV is a real treasure here. Photographs of the various people and places involved in this story are frequent, so the reader gets a good idea of what’s happening pretty easily.
This book is an exhaustive look at this time in history, and clocks in at a massive 726 pages. That may be daunting for some, and the author realizes this. He has taken great effort to get his research out to the masses by having two other books on the market that look at the efforts of the C.R.B. from a few different vantage points. WWI Crusaders is a chronological take on the material, and from all accounts is the Magnum Opus of the author. The other books, Behind the Lines, and Yanks Behind the Lines are thematic interpretations of the material and fall more into a pop-history market. I have not read the other two books, but I may dip my toe in at a later time to see if any new information can be found in them.
If you have a fascination with World War I that surpasses the overall broad story of what happened, this is an interesting “deep dive” into something I doubt many people know about. I had previously seen the Belgium relief effort posters at the National WWI Museum, but did not realize what all went into the full story. I absolutely loved this book despite the time sink, and can tell that the author spend an incredible amount of time on research. This is a great addition to any history buff’s library.
Note: I acquired an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review – thanks to Jeffrey B. Miller and Milbrown Press for the opportunity.