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

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

YANKS BEHIND THE LINES: How the Commission for Relief in Belgium Saved Millions from Starvation During World War I

by Jeffrey B. Miller.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2020
Ron Drees, Reviewer

American Staff of the CRB

This is Jeffrey Miller’s third book to be reviewed here, preceded by Behind the Lines and WWI Crusaders: A Band of Yanks in German-Occupied Belgium. This third volume of the trilogy covers the food relief effort during the entire Great War with an epilogue for the major characters. Well-illustrated with photographs of the major individuals, there are also ample statistics and relevant maps. Here is the entire story of how Americans jumped into action, overcoming Belgium nationalism, British bureaucracy, and German militarism. There was still plenty of room for incompetence and bad judgment on the American side.

Miller is uniquely qualified to research and write this book, as his maternal grandparents were active participants in the effort. His grandfather was a CRB (Commission for Relief in Belgium) delegate and married the daughter of a Belgian farmer whose dairy herd fed children. This gave him direct access to oral histories, diaries, and other documents to tell this story.

CRB Warehouse

This epic account begins with Germany’s 1914 attack, overwhelming and occupying Belgium. Belgium and Germany both needed to import vast amounts of food, as neither could grow enough for their populations, in Belgium’s case importing 75 percent of all food needed to feed about 7 million. Herbert Hoover was in London, having just finished repatriating tens of thousands of Americans from Europe during the early days of the war. Now, looking for other forms of public service, he saw an opportunity to prevent widespread Belgian starvation.

Yet this was far from a straightforward exercise in shipping food from one place to another. The difficulties included:

1) Raising funds to pay for it, eventually $753 million in WWI dollars

2) Finding neutral ships to deliver 2,313 cargoes, despite a worldwide shipping shortage due to the war, and overcoming German submarines

3) Overcoming British resistance to relief efforts for fear of food going to Germany

4) Dealing with intermittent German opposition to feeding a conquered nation

5) Accounting for every pound of food to prevent black market operations, justify donations, and maintain the credibility of Hoover’s organization, the Commission for Relief in Belgium

6) Overcoming the jealousy and turf battles with the home-grown Comite National de Scours et d’Alimentation, the Belgian relief organization

7) Distributing the food equitably

8) Recruiting neutrals, primarily Americans until April 1917, to oversee the effort

9) Enlarging the effort to include clothing

10) Dealing with winter, especially 1916–1917, which froze canals necessary for distribution

11) Expanding coverage to 2.1 million French caught behind German lines

Herbert Hoover in His Prime

Yet, somehow, Hoover and the CRB accomplished it all.

While Hoover’s efforts staved off starvation, the war still meant four years of hunger and despair for Belgians as the book explains in painful detail. Average caloric intake decreased to 1522, less than half the prewar normal. In April 1917 the U.S. entered the war, and the Americans of the CRB had to leave Europe, to be replaced by Dutch and Spanish neutrals.

While we students of the Great War concentrate on the battles, it is well to read how the ordinary citizens of Europe, trapped behind enemy lines, fared under enemy rule. Living in a straitjacket with no idea as to if or when basic freedoms of education and movement would be restored, or when hunger would end, make for a long occupation and a history worth remembering. While Miller describes Belgian suffering, it would have been an interesting contrast if he had described German suffering due to the English blockade, which continued until the 1919 treaty. While Germans starved, Miller attributed no Belgian deaths to hunger during this war.

The relief effort contributed to Hoover’s election as U.S. president in 1928. One wonders why a man who could deal so successfully with belligerents couldn’t have dealt more effectively with the Great Depression.

Ron Drees


  1. Bravo. Excellent review. Cheers

  2. It's almost incredible that such an operation could have taken place given the obstacles to be overcome. Thanks for making this clear to us, Ron.