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045 Alfred Vanderbilt and all the kiddies his boy could find

Alfred Vanderbilt

Alfred Vanderbilt

Lusitania costs Germany sympathy

It is Sunday 2 May 1915. It is the 45th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 At Boezinge, near Ypres, Canadian army doctor John McCrae writes his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

 The wife of Fritz Haber, the man behind the German attacks with warfare gasses, commits suicide.

The Germans recapture Hill 60 in the Flemish Westhoek with the help of gas.

A German-Austrian offensive at Gorlice and Tarnów in Galicia forces the Russians back.

 Italy distances itself from the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

News about Russian victories over the Turks on Armenian territory is filtering through.

The Battle of St. Julien ends when general Herbert Plumer withdraws his troops, but ‘Ypres II’ quickly continues with the Battle of Frezenberg.

Upon the pretext of ill-health British general Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien is dismissed by Sir John French.

At Gallipoli Sir Ian Hamilton sends a telegram to Lord Kitchener: ‘Two new divisions, please’.

And off the coast of Ireland oceanliner Lusitania is sunk by only one German torpedo, causing the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom the fabulously wealthy American Alfred Vanderbilt.

There they lie on dry land. A handful of rusty bullets, eaten away by the salt of the Atlantic Ocean. Remington .303s. It is September 2008 and thanks to an Irish team of divers we are now absolutely sure Lusitania did not only carry passengers. She also transported a considerable war cargo from the United States.

Did that justify the torpedo which on 7 May 1915 accurately led to the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom 35 babies? Who would dare take the responsibility for that? And yet we have to be serious about the German argument behind the attack: Lusitania served the British army.

At ten past two in the afternoon of that fatal day U-20’s Captain-Commander Walther Schwieger can see the ship with her four black funnels slowly move into view. One torpedo is enough to carry out his death sentence. When it strikes, an enormous explosion in the inside of Lusitania quickly follows.

When Schwieger himself forever goes under, north of the Dutch island of Terschelling in 1917, Lusitania is the biggest trophy of the 49 ships he has sent down. Here and there you can read: ‘It was the beginning of the end of the war’. That is a point you can undoubtedly mark sooner or later, but there is certainly a reasoning underpinning this. When Germany has lost the war because of the weight America carried, then the tilting of the balance has started on 7 May 1915, fifteen kilometres away from Kinsale lighthouse, Ireland.

The United States are still a long way short of the war, much longer than the eighteen minutes it took Lusitania to go down with all hands. American president Woodrow Wilson calls for calm three days after the disaster: ‘There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.’

So for the  time being Wilson was going to keep his country out of the war, but on that 7 May of the year 1915 American public opinion definitely chose sides: against Germany. Among the victims of Lusitania were no fewer than 128 American citizens. The American press wondered whether Germany had gone crazy.

They are eighteen horrible minutes. While the ship sails on, but is listed on starboard, crew and passengers desperately fight for their lives – or destiny makes them drown petrified of fear.

A man tells his wife to jump. She refuses. She wants to stay with him. But he frees himself of her and then drops her in a lifeboat. When the woman looks back a little later, she sees her husband, still waving at her, disappear into the cold ocean with Lusitania.

Children tumble from lifeboats which are crushed against the hull of the ship, while she tilts and experiences her rigor mortis. A steward tries to cut the ropes of lifeboat 7 with a knife. It turns out to be in vain when also number 7 is pulled into the deep and the water awfully quickly smothers the cries and whimpering of the women and children who had sought refuge.

That was hell, and now for the hero.

That day Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt is the richest passenger on Lusitania, which counted a total of 1,959 persons on board. He is a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a fortune in the nineteenth century with transportation by rail and ship. Another five generations before Cornelius, a certain Jan Aertszoon had left his native town of De Bilt near Utrecht in the Netherlands to go to America, where possibilities would appear to be limitless.

Alfred is a sportsman, who especially loves the foxhunt and driving a chariot. His lovelife is not without excitement either. Alfred’s first marriage ends in divorce after a one-night stand with the wife of the Cuban attaché had become public. Even worse is that the Cuban lady’s marriage also floundered, after which the poor woman took her own life.

On 1 May 1915 Alfred Vanderbilt, 37 years old, boards Lusitania in New York, destination Liverpool. Among other things he is going to inspect his riding stables in England. He is only accompanied by his man-servant, Ronald Denyer.

In the pure panic after the torpedo has hit, Vanderbilt calls out the following to him: ‘Find all the kiddies you can, boy’. This is based on an article which appeared in The New York Times eight days after the disaster. The newspaper talked to a Canadian woman who survived the catastrophe. She is quoted to have said: ‘People will not talk of Mr Vanderbilt in future as a millionaire sportsman and a man of pleasure. He will be remembered as the children’s hero and men and women will salute his name. When death was nearing him, he showed gallantry which no word of mine can describe.’

And then follows the story of the ’kiddies’ his ‘boy’ has to find. When he returns with two, Vanderbilt takes them under his arms and hurries to a lifeboat. When they could not find any children any more, Vanderbilt apparently started helping women. There are other witnesses who testify that Vanderbilt gave his own lifejacket to a woman. She recognized him as the man who had given her five dollars the night before during a charity concert on Lusitania.

The New York Times continues: ‘He looked around on the scene of horror and despair with pitying eyes.’ And then the Canadian woman finishes by saying: ‘I hope the young men of Britain will act with the same cool bravery for their country that Mr Vanderbilt showed for somebody’s little ones.’

And via Lusitania we are back again at the war and its armies. On the eve of the Great War Lusitania’s history tells us about the thin line that runs between civil society and military reality. The oceanliner was built in 1902, named after the Roman province of Lusitania in what is now Portugal. She started to commute between the old and the new world,  but already when she was designed a possible war assignment was taken into account. In 1913 the shipowner was ordered by the British government also to adapt Lusitania for use as an auxiliary cruiser. In September 1914 this was followed by the designation to have Lusitania transport goods for the army.

Before the war the maritime arms race between Germany and Great Britain was also reflected on both sides in the construction of increasingly bigger and faster oceanliners. In 1907 it had been Lusitania that broke the world sea speed record when crossing the Atlantic. This came with an award, the Blue Riband. It had been in the hands of the owner of the German Großdampfer Kaiser Wilhelm II for three years.

Lusitania’s average speed during her record race had been over 23 knots, which is more than enough to outsail any submarine. However, the May 1915 voyage was not made at full speed ahead. Ordered by the admiralty Captain Turner also stated to have refrained from the prescribed zigzag course. That fact frequently crops up in what some people might consider a conspiracy theory but which by others is thought to be more than probable. Lusitania is said to have deliberately been exposed to the threats of the German U-boats in order to ready America for the war. Winston Churchill himself is supposed to have decided to let Lusitania approach Ireland without an escort, fully realizing that the German U-boats were lurking around.

In any case Captain-Commander Schwieger was surprised at the ease with which he could sentence Lusitania to death. He wrote the following in his diary: ‘Unexplainable that Lusitania did not take the North Channel’. This North Channel is the seaway between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

There is another reason to be suspicious. In his memoirs personal assistant to president Wilson, Colonel House, mentions a meeting with both the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and King George V. Both are reputed to have asked him how the United States would react to the sinking of an ocean liner by the Germans. Apparently George even explicitly mentioned the name Lusitania.

One thing is certain, the British fully exploited the propaganda potential of the Lusitania disaster. There was also widespread indignation among the German population regarding the merciless attack on civilians, but the British papers did not mention this. Instead there was the fable that German children were given time off from school to celebrate the sinking of Lusitania, which started to lead a life of its own.

Then there is the bronze commemorative medal, put on the market by a Munich businessman in August 1915, which conveniently leads to functional mudslinging. The British immediately start producing cast iron replicas and distribute these among their own people. The suggestion is that the Germans delight themselves in the death of 1,198 innocent people.

The medal can be interpreted in a different way. Its maker could have wanted to ridicule the unscrupulous greed for money of the shipowner, Cunard Line. On one side of the medal we can see Lusitania going down, with the cynical motto ‘keine Bannware’, ‘no contraband’. On the other side there is a skeleton selling tickets for Lusitania and the words ‘Geschäft über alles’, ‘Business first’.

And this whilst the German embassy had printed a warning in American papers just before Lusitania left. ‘Notice’, it said over this advertisement, which was placed next to an advert of Cunard Line. The message was loud and clear that whoever intended to make an Atlantic voyage should be aware that the waters around the British Isles were war territory.

Alfred Vanderbilt had even received a telegram with the ominous words: ‘The Lusitania is doomed. Do not sail on her.’ The telegram was signed ‘Morte’. Vanderbilt must have thought somebody had wanted to play a joke on him.

Of all shipping disasters only Titanic, three years earlier in peace time, left a deeper impression than Lusitania. Yet a lot of questions regarding her loss still remain unanswered. Did the British army try to make the wreck of Lusitania inaccessible in the fifties for divers by using depth charges? If so, what needed to be hidden? But most of all, did high British circles give the go-ahead for the mass killing on Lusitania? Did the end, winning the war with America, justify the means, losing one single ship packed full with people?

Next week: François Faber

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

041 Pancho Villa and the lead role in his own film

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

Americans have a problem in Mexico

It is Sunday 4 April 1915. It is the 41st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Field Marshal Karl von Bülow, commanding officer of the Second Army of the Germans, has to leave the battlefield after a heart attack.

Also Alexander von Kluck has to step back as commander of the First Army as a result of injuries by a French grenade.

Russian general Aleksei Brusilov enters Austria-Hungary, but the Germans come to the rescue of the Austrians in the Carpathians.

Anzac troops, Australians and New Zealanders, leave for the Dardanelles from Egypt.

The Turkish government focuses its anger on two million Armenians and starts their deportations.

After a bitter mine battle, which started in February, the French finally succeed in conquering the ridge near the village of Les Éparges.

Italy declares to remain neutral, provided that Austria-Hungary gives up a number of territories.

Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German general staff, transfers troops from the western to the eastern front.

Albanian forces, under German-Turkish command, are preparing for an attack on the town of Durrës and after that on Serbia. 

And in the Battle of Celaya heavy blows are dealt to Mexican revolutionary and popular hero Pancho Villa.

Well, Pancho Villa. What are we expected to believe of this man? That he married 24 women? That he invented the tactics of the mad locomotive, stuffing a hijacked train carriage with  explosives and then setting it in motion towards the enemy? That he once ceased a pursuit when he suddenly perceived an ice cream van in the streets of Chihuahua? That his right-hand man Rodolfo Fierro shot dead a random passer-by because he had a current bet with Pancho Villa: does a dying man fall forward or backward? That in 1926 Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of two American presidents, paid 25,000 dollars for Pancho Villa’s skull? And that since then this skull has been in the possession of a secret society called Skull and Bones?

One story is juicier than the other. Pancho Villa is therefore larger than life. In Mexico he is still lauded in corridos, ballad-like songs that do not always reveal whether a hero or a villain is praised.

Our question should be what Pancho Villa has to do with the First World War. We have to look for the answer with the Americans. In the middle of the Great War, when the United States are still neutral, Pancho Villa plays the game of cat and mouse with the American army under the command of general John Pershing. The country that is to put an end to a world war has not been able to collar a confounded rogue like Pancho Villa in their own backyard.

The United States’ descent into the European cesspit also had to do with Mexico. When the Zimmermann telegram, named after the German state secretary for Foreign Affairs, made public in January 1917 that the Germans were stirring up Mexico against the United States, president Woodrow Wilson was forced to resort to military means. America entered the European war.

The biggest country of Latin America, Brazil, also actually declared war on Germany in 1917, in response to the recommencement of the German U-boat campaign. Smaller countries like Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador contented themselves with the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914 Latin America still bore a European stamp. In preceding decades the continent had been swamped with European emigrants. But the increasing United States inspection of the activities of Central and South America was equally unmistakable. The First World War would irreversibly speed up this process. After 1918 the almost a century-old Monroe doctrine had become practice: ‘America for the Americans’. The game of a Europe that had bled to death was definitely over in Latin America.

The omnipotence of the Spaniards and the Portuguese had already ended in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The French had remained just barely visible in Latin America thanks to a few Caribbean islands and French Guyana. The German influence was primarily military. Latin American governments preferred to professionalize their armies after the Prussian model, spiked helmets included.

But it was particularly the British who had represented Europe on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In the three decades before the First World War British businessmen increased their investments in Latin America fivefold.

Though there had no longer been any political dependence in Latin American countries for a century, economic and cultural independence was a completely different story. In fact the continent had kept its colonial structure. English and increasingly American bankers and industrialists pulled the strings.

Uncle Sam himself also played his part. It was especially under president Theodore Roosevelt that foreign politics in the United States began to exhibit imperialist features. The Spanish-American war of 1898 had been a walk in the park, a ‘splendid little war’. Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and also the Philippines, the last vestiges of the Spanish Empire had been taken under the wings of the American Eagle on a nod and a wink.

Another project of Roosevelt was a canal that would connect the two oceans. Panama was taken away from Colombia, after which the digging could start. Roosevelt stretched the Monroe doctrine a little more. Countries in Latin America that economically or politically made a mess of things, had to take into account intervention of the United States. In 1905 the Dominican Republic was the first country visited by the policeman of the western hemisphere, Teddy Roosevelt.

Nextdoor neighbour Mexico, however, was a much more complicated story, and an old story to boot. Before the Americans began to fight each other in a bloody civil war, the United States and Mexico had known a history of border conflicts.

Napoleon III’s grotesque attempt to turn Mexico into a puppet empire also lay buried in time. The staff duty puppet, Maximilian of Habsburg, had been killed by a Mexican firing squad in 1867. Nine years later one Porfirio Díaz took firm control of the situation. He allowed the economic power of the United States in Mexico to increase spectacularly, but at a certain moment it became a bit too much for Diaz. ‘Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!’, he exclaimed. As a counterweight Díaz decided to attract European investors, notably British. To the Americans this was the sign again to start looking around for new rulers in Mexico.

Díaz’s dictatorship, the Porfiriato, was double-faced. Economic progress went hand in hand with social oppression. Liberal forces therefore rose up in 1910 with the support of America. Díaz fled and drew his last breath in Paris in the year of the war 1915.

The fall of the Porfiriato leads to a turbulence in which also the Americans lose their balance. In April 1914 there is the Tampico Affair. The Mexicans have arrested an American officer, to which the Yankees react by occupying the port of Veracruz for a short while. There is the threat of war, but Argentine, Brazil and Chile manage to mediate.

In October 1915 president Wilson decides to acknowledge a new government, led by Venustiano Carranza. In doing so he incurs the wrath of one of Carranza’s opponents, Francisco Villa, better known as Pancho Villa, since he fled into the mountains after killing the rapist of his sister, so the story goes.

In April 1915 Pancho Villa had suffered a grim defeat in the Battle of Celaya. With French fervour Villa attacked, but his opponent proved a beter student of the war on the European continent. Pancho Villa’s men got hopelessly entangled in the defensive positions of Carranza’s troops.

It seemed that Villa had played out his role, but he did not admit defeat. Was it pure revenge or an attempt to pit Carranza against Wilson?  Whatever the case, in May 1916 Pancho Villa crosses the border with more than 400 men. The Villistas are targeting the sleepy border town of Columbus, New Mexico. The raid has to be paid for with the lives of eighteen Americans and about seventy Villistas.

America’s answer soon follows. Columns of soldiers, commanded by general John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, invade Mexico. America now has its own little war. But the hunt for Pancho Villa, El Centauro del Norte, remains without success. After eleven months the punitive expedition is abandoned. American soldiers have not only battled with followers of Pancho Villa, but also with Mexican government troops. This was because Carranza did not tolerate American interference. Which then to the Germans was a reason to start intriguing, with the familiar result.

Pancho Villa has also been called the Mexican Robin Hood. He divided the land of conquered haciendas among farmers and soldiers. He imposed taxes on landowners. He robbed trains. He proclaimed himself governor of Chihuahua. He printed his own money. He even created his own legend.

What is true in any case is that he played the leading role in his own films. In 1912 an American production, ‘Life of Villa’, appears. And another two years later a Hollywood crew travels to Mexico again. The title of the new film is somewhat longer: ‘The Life of General Villa’. The contract, in which Villa promises the crew that they can film him during the Battle of Ojinaga, has been fully preserved, but unfortunately the film itself has not, apart from one or two scenes. In 2003 Antonio Banderas plays the star role in a film about the curious collaboration between Hollywood and the Mexican caudillo. The title of the film is really a nice one: ‘And starring Pancho Villa as himself’.

There is also a bestseller about him. American journalist John Reed associated with Pancho Villa for a while. Reed became known as the writer of ‘Ten Days that shook the world’, an eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He published his adventures with Pancho Villa under the title ‘Insurgent Mexico’.

Pancho Villa continued his guerilla war until 1920 with a small army of peasants, cowboys and unemployed miners. His reputation is marked by cruelties. Especially the Chinese suffer under his hands. In 1920 Pancho Villa makes peace with the Mexican government, but by doing so he does not save his own skin. In 1923 hired murderers killed him by pumping an enormous quantity of lead into his body. They leave him in his car, a Dodge, American make, riddled with bullets.

Next week: Fritz Haber

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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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