In Lonely Are the Brave, my novel due out in April, a war hero warmly recalls his most meaningful moment of service, parading through Brussels in December 1918 to celebrate the city’s liberation from four years of German occupation.
Why the Belgians chose an American regiment that had spent mere weeks fighting on their soil rather than French or British units that had fought for years, speaks to political loyalties. I suspect that Herbert Hoover’s gift had much to do with the decision.
In autumn 1914, after German forces had overrun nearly all Belgium and the British had blockaded the North Sea, Belgium was sealed off from the outside world. Famine threatened.
Hoover, a wealthy mining engineer who happened to be in London, vowed to act–and by telling Britain and German leaders that public opinion would blame them if Belgium starved, he convinced them to let him attempt to feed a nation under military occupation. His Commission for Relief in Belgium, paid for by private charity and administered in-country by young Americans as neutral citizens, captured imaginations around the world.
The CRB saw seven million Belgians through the war and, in 1916, added three million French people in German-occupied territory to the program. To feed them all, day in, day out, the CRB brought in millions of tons of wheat, corn, dried peas and beans, powdered milk, and other basics. These were rations, calories for survival, bare sustenance.
But to Belgium, the Americans’ presence brought another precious commodity: hope of liberation.
More to come.