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

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

WWI Crusaders: A band of Yanks in German-occupied Belgium help save millions from starvation as civilians resist the harsh German rule.

by Jeffrey B. Miller
Milbrown Press, 2018
Jolie Velazquez, Reviewer

Meals at a CRB Canteen

Looking at this one-and-a-half-inch thick book, ostensibly about another dreary aspect of the Great War, one would be hard pressed to realize that therein lies a fascinating adventure story as well as a detailed history of the largest humanitarian effort of its day.

The author spent years gathering details about Herbert Hoover, his creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, and the hundreds of people whom he relied upon or who tried to thwart him. The author was fortunate enough to have inherited a trove of materials from his grandparents (letters, journals, and photos) of the many colorful people in the CRB saga. Readers are lucky that Mr. Miller's love of historical fiction also taught him how to write an engrossing story. The narrative progresses like an action thriller at times and a lesson by an engaging history teacher at others.

CRB Distribution Site

Miller's chronicle comes to life by focusing on the people, lots of them, who helped the beleaguered Belgians and the antagonists who tried to stop them. We meet royals, politicians, generals, philanthropists, college students, patriotic civilians, and shopkeepers. We learn about the fabulous volunteer Bunge sisters and Eugene Van Doren, publisher of the underground newspaper that the Germans were never able to put out of business. Every time a new person is introduced we get to know them with biographical details which led them to this wartime moment. (One small irritation about this method is that the reader gets interested in many people who sometimes leave the scene much too soon. Miller has included an epilogue "What happened to them?" if it is nagging at the reader to find out.)

By sticking to the timeline as events occur, Miller keeps up the tension in his narrative. Aside from the monetary and structural complications of feeding millions of people in a war zone, Miller makes clear the political situation for all parties (especially in Belgium and northern France) and the resistance efforts carried on by civilians who often unwittingly endangered the process. One could easily recommend WWI Crusaders simply for the details about occupied Belgium and the German Army's treatment of occupied countries. There are elements of danger even for the Americans when they are treated like spies by German soldiers and petty bureaucrats.

The book ends when the Americans enter the war in 1917 and the CRB passes on its duties to another neutral country to administer. Of course, that was not really the end of the CRB, which continued to work in other countries as an American organization. Many of the CRB personnel went on to create permanent organizations dedicated to humanitarian relief, some into the modern era. A new title, The Big Show in Bololand by Bernard Patenaude, has just been published and covers Hoover and his veterans of the CRB providing aid to the starving Russians after the revolution and war. (I am looking forward to reading that one too.)

Jolie Velazquez


  1. This was a truly tremendous humanitarian undertaking. Thanks for reminding us of it, Jolie.

  2. Thanks for making bus aware of this organization and what looks to be a great story. Herbert Hoover deserves more attention than he ever receives.