Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Behind the Lines
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Behind the Lines: WWI's little-known story of German occupation, Belgian resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation
by Jeffrey B. Miller
Milbrown Press, 2014

First of a trilogy, Behind the Lines also could be considered a companion piece and sequel to Jeff Lipkes's Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, which described holocaust-like behavior by German troops invading Belgium. Jeffrey Miller, a descendent of the victims, describes the invasion and occupation by German troops and their administrative mindset, the impact upon the Belgian psyche, work force, and economy, but most of all upon their ability to feed themselves — total devastation. For those of us who are WWI students, this book will enhance our education on what happened outside of the combat zone.

The Band of Yanks: the American Commission for the Relief in Belgium

The Wehrmacht marched into Antwerp in a gray river that flowed for three days. Spooked troops had murdered civilians and burned several towns to the ground. Centuries-old structures and priceless documents were destroyed. Perhaps this was retribution for this very small country with the audacity to oppose the self-righteous nation who stomped on their neutrality. The cliché, beaten but unbowed, applied here as individuals helped English soldiers and others flee to neutral Holland. An underground newspaper sprung up and mocked the conquerors, all at the risk of torture and death for the perpetrators. Cardinal Mercier wrote a letter that shamed Germany to the world. Miller should have included the letter in this book, even in an appendix.

There was one vital task that the nation ceased to be able to do — feed itself. Nine million faced starvation because the conquerors held no obligation to assist. Yet one small group of people from several nations, particularly the United States, led by a mining engineer, Herbert Hoover, moved national governments, friend and foe, to raise money and organize the monthly collection, shipment and distribution of 80,000 tons of various grains to prevent what could have become the biggest holocaust in world history. How this was done despite internal politics, an ongoing war, personal enmity, logistical nightmares, a devastated countryside, foreign occupation, and naïve college students, makes this book a gripping story.

Order Now
The author uses archives from Hoover's presidential library and Stanford, plus records from his own ancestors who worked to feed their countrymen and oppose the Germans, and is able to describe events at almost an hourly pace. Hoover emerges as a man who wanted total control, partially out of ego but also because he was emotionally concerned about the starvation of a nation. Others risked their lives (and sometimes lost them) to fight back as best they could by collecting intelligence and smuggling troops over the border.

Two more volumes are forthcoming at unmentioned intervals. While this is a story of quiet heroism by many people, there is tragedy in what happened in August and the remainder of 1914 as people suffered grievously, not just from hunger but from the destruction of homes prior to a bitter winter. A heavy loss of self-respect descended as the nation could no longer sustain itself and as cultural treasures were thoughtlessly destroyed by supposedly one of the most cultured countries in the world. Remember Belgium's predicament when the Versailles reparations are discussed again.

Ron Drees


  1. Professor Vernon L. Kellogg of Stanford University, an entomologist, played a big role in this effort. His largely forgotten book, Headquarters Nights, details his impression of the German headquarters. He had studied in Germany and knew officers from those pre-war days.

  2. One picky point: I believe the reference to the Wehrmacht in the opening of the second paragraph is incorrect. Should it not be the "Deutsches Heer", which I believe was the phrase of the time describing the Imperial German ground and air forces of the time? The term "Wehrmacht" was assigned in the mid-'30s, under the Nazi regime.