The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

014 Herbert Hoover and the decorated cotton bags

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover

America bravely comes to the rescue of Belgium

It is Sunday 27 September 1914. It is the 14th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Turks deal the Russian ecomomy a heavy blow by closing the Dardanelles.

In East Prussia Russian general Paul von Rennenkampf pushes back the Eighth Army of the Germans near the wood of Augustovo.

The British make progress in Cameroon.

The Germans have to increase the pressure in Poland in order to be able to spare the Austrians.

  In Qingdao the Japanese force German troops to go on the defensive.

 In Berlin the Kriegsbrot, warbread, is introduced.

 Sir John French and his expeditionary force move northward towards Ypres.

 The Germans conquer Mechelen, between Brussels and Antwerp.

 The Battle of the North French town of Albert ends in a marching off of the Germans.

 Winston Churchill arrives in Antwerp to stand by King Albert and the Belgians.

 And the western world is getting worried about ‘poor little Belgium’, which will get its guardian angel in the person of American Herbert Hoover.

On 1 October 1914 the American diplomat Hugh Gibson raises the alarm. The people of Brussels are starving. Gibson’s cry for help echoes at home in the United States. A humanitarian offensive is started with the Commission for Relief in Belgium as its vehicle. Herbert Hoover will be the energetic chairman of the relief commission. He is forty years old and has already made his pile.

Herbert Hoover became a successful mining engineer, but now a public life tempts him. From London he has made an effort in the first weeks of the war to take away American citizens from the European continent. Now he will take pity on the population of Belgium that threatens to be pulverized by the cruelties of war. People speak of the Rape of Belgium. It is an image that suits the allied pamphleteers fine. The Hun putting his teeth ruthlessly into a defenceless people is a caricature which is good for the fighting spirit.

The facts were clear as far as British viscount James Bryce was concerned. In May 1915 he published a shocking report about German atrocities in occupied Belgium. Bryce lists four conclusions.

1. The Germans systematically and deliberately organized massacres among civilians in various places.

2. Children and women were among the victims.

3. German officers ordered looting, arson and destruction of property.

4. Civilians were used as a human shield, wounded soldiers were murdered and the Red Cross flag and the White Flag were abused.

‘The first victim in a war is the truth’, it is said and quite rightly so. The numerous examples are of all times. The Iraqi soldiers who took Kuwaiti babies from incubators in 1990 and put them on the floor appeared to be fabricated by a PR agency. But it was not all that original. Horrible stories about infanticide had already been effective in the Great War.

Listen to the following testimony, taken down by Bryce: ‘As I looked into the kitchen, I saw how the Germans took the baby out of the arms of the farmer’s wife. There were three Germans, one officer and two privates. The two privates held the baby and the officer took his sword and cut the baby’s head off.’ There is no end of children’s suffering with Bryce. Eight German soldiers impaling a two-year-old child on their bayonets, babies being plunged in boiling water, infants being smashed against the wall… After the war historians searched for evidence of these atrocities, especially photos, but did not find any. Bryce unmistakably sacrificed his academic reputation to the war interest, just as many journalists patriotically trimmed their sails to the wind.

This does not alter the fact that in towns like Dinant and Andenne in the Walloon province in Belgium and Louvain and Aarschot in Flanders horrible massacres took place. What was at the bottom of these orgies of barbaric violence? Explanations invariably produce the myth of the franc-tireur. The Germans were still horrified at the memory of these snipers from the Franco-Prussian War. They shot cowardly at passing soldiers from behind walls or from attic windows. Somebody called: ‘Man hat geschossen!’ And then this spread like wildfire through the German ranks. What followed were retaliatory measures out of all proportion to the modest resistance of Belgian civilians.

Take for instance the small town of Aarschot, not far from Louvain. On 19 August 1914 the Belgian army is still fighting a battle with the Germans. But at seven o’clock at night the German colonel Johannes Stenger is standing on the balcony of the house of the mayor called Jozef Tielemans. Shots ring out. Stenger collapses. He is dead. It has never become clear who pulled the trigger. Most likely it was a ricocheted bullet from a German rifle. But the Germans soon come to a different conclusion. Stenger was shot in the back by the mayor’s son, a franc-tireur.

A hunt for more of these ‘free shooters’ follows in the small town, which also falls prey to looting and pillaging. Men are gathered together in a field. In groups of three 76 of them are killed in cold blood. Another group, among them mayor Tielemans, is detained all night. Tielemans wants to convince the Germans that before their arrival he called on his citizens to give up all violence. To no avail. The mayor, his brother and his son are in the next group to be executed. It is this sort of horror story that spreads across the globe. To many, however, the fire which was set to the university library of Louvain is the clearest proof that Germany should no longer be considered part of the western civilised world.

Belgium groans and moans. As the war progresses, also the economy is subordinated to the German war interest. Farmers do not do too badly, but the industry is really kept on a back burner. In 1913 for example there are 54 active Belgian blast furnaces.  In 1917 only one of them is actually working because of lack of ore. Belgian men are deported to replace in factories German workers  who have left for the front. The Germans have a thin excuse for this measure: to fight staggering unemployment in Belgium. As occupied territory the country is also hit by the allied trade blockade, which is fatal to the food supply. The Germans do not show much interest in this problem anyway. They have other worries than feeding the Belgian people.

In this humanitarian vacuum the Commission for Relief, an organisation of volunteers including Herbert Hoover himself, has to try and relieve the needs of Belgium. Hoover’s commission takes care of fundraising, buying food and transporting it to Europe. Then In Belgium there is a National Relief and Food Committee which controls the distribution of foods, transported to Belgium by boat from Rotterdam. The committee is led by Emile Francqui. The co-operation between Hoover and Francqui, who is ten years older, goes hand in hand with mutual irritation. Already thirteen years before the war the two collided with each other in a mining affair.

Hoover is treading on eggs anyhow. His commission has to enter into agreements with both warring factions and stick to them. The American philanthropist succeeds in persuading the English to allow food to pass through already in October 1914. Of course Germany will have to promise not to requisition these foods for their own rank and file. But it is giving and taking all the time. Hoover crosses the North Sea forty times. Without the spectre of low queues before aid stations in Belgium he would have stopped ages ago.

In October 1914 Hoover does not realize that his humanitarian task is going to take him years. But his mission, making children laugh, keeps him going. At the end of the war King Albert will grant him a special title for this: ‘Citizen of Honour and Friend of the Belgian people’. In America Hoover was the figure head that covered many collections for poor little Belgium. Here and there at fairs and fancy dress balls money was raised.

Help does not only come from America. In the first few months of the war a million pounds goes from Australia to the Belgian refugees. Goods are sent from Argentina, China and Spain but also from France.

Hoover’s commission shipped over 300 million kilos of flour to Belgium. It was transported in cotton bags. Belgian women then made these bags into clothes or pillows, but a large number was also decorated with embroidery and lace. These were then sold in order to buy fresh food for the Belgians. Herbert Hoover also received hundreds of these decorated cotton bags as gifts. A collection of these bags can be seen in the American museum that bears his name.

When America takes sides with the allies in 1917, Hoover’s commission has to mark time. Envoys from the neutral countries Spain and the Netherlands take over the work, but initially Hoover is not confident about this. In a pressing letter he urges both governments certainly not to let down the Belgians.

At home Hoover is put to work by president Wilson for the rest of the war. As manager of the Food Administration he now starts to fight food shortage. He does this using slogans such as ‘food will win the war’ and ‘use all leftovers’. People were encouraged to follow Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

Hoover’s reputation could not be any better. He is known as a Napoleon of Mercy. An orphan from Iowa becomes the enemy of starvation. Such a person should be made president of the United States. And this is exactly what happens. But the year of his inauguration is 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash when America sinks away in a Great Depression. Hooverism, aimed at wage increase to stimulate the economy, turns out a disaster. Thus the benefactor goes into history as the president who had no answer to the crisis. There will be no second term in office for him. Franklin D. Roosevelt gloriously beats him after a bitter fight. During Hoover’s campaign his train was pelted with rotten eggs and fruit several times. Oh the irony.

When Germany invades Poland six years later, former president Herbert Hoover gets behind the radio microphone. He predicts a war of attrition and calls on his country to keep far away from this. Despite Hoover’s warning America will also go to battle against Germany in the Second World War. And Herbert Hoover travels to Germany immediately after the war to start the food supply again, a special assignment given to him by president Harry Truman. That is how the Germans get acquainted with Hoover meals, Hoover-speisung.

He had done exactly the same thing in Germany after the First World War. But Hoover had also handed out food in Russia which had just been taken over by the Bolsheviks. His answer to the critical question whether he was not giving the communists a leg up in this way was: ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’

Herbert Hoover, son of a blacksmith from a family of God-fearing Quakers, died in 1964, half a century after the outbreak of the Great War. He was ninety years old. Statistics do not tell how many children he kept laughing.

Next week: Carol I

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

 

 

 

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