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Humanitarian Relief: “Ami de la Nation Belge”

, Politics aside, most people of goodwill are pleased to see the start of humanitarian relief aid as it begins to trickle into Gaza. Inarguably, there are innocents on both sides of the conflict, and food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and energy are needed—and needed NOW. The focus of many Western countries has been swift and well-intentioned.

The European Union immediately pledged $75 million in relief funds. The U.S.A. has pledged $100 million, followed by the UK with $12.8 million, Australia with $32 million, while Canada and Japan have pledged $10 million each.

But all this goodwill is useless if it doesn’t reach the intended recipients. Make no mistake—the organizational requirements for this humanitarian commitment are monumental. Who distributes what and to whom? Who pays what and for how long? Exactly what, where, and when are medical supplies needed? Will aid be requisitioned by the combatants?

Will aid workers be safe? Will humanitarian workers be considered “neutral” or “enemy agents”? The list of challenges is long, and the logistical issues involved are complex. This article directs your attention to what many historians consider the world’s first pioneering, large-scale humanitarian relief in history. It is a noble and little-known story of how occupied Belgium in World War I was the recipient of an epic relief effort that saved millions (yes, millions!) of Belgians from starvation and destitution. Consider…

On Tuesday morning, August 4, 1914, the armies of Kaiser Wilhelm II invaded neutral Belgium on their way to their goal of France. At that time, Belgium was the most industrialized AND the most densely populated country in Europe. The country imported more than 75% of its foodstuffs. This importation stopped abruptly as Germany closed Belgian factories, mines, and farms, and blockaded many of the ports of entry.

The occupying German army requisitioned what little food was available to feed their troops. As winter approached, massive unemployment and a rapidly dwindling food supply foretold a soon-to-be humanitarian crisis.

The German occupation refused to take responsibility for feeding a hostile civilian population, while simultaneously, the British and the Allies tightened their naval efforts against all things German. By the winter of 1914, the prospect of mass starvation and famine was all too real.

Worldwide awareness of the impending crisis was swift and universal. The stories of Belgian destitution, replete with over one million refugees fleeing their country, filled newspapers and magazines around the world. (Note: this was before the age of radio and television). Relief groups sprung up around the world, and Belgium’s situation became a cause célèbre—especially in the neutral United States.

The one man who will be forever linked to Belgium’s struggle was an American named Herbert Hoover. He was an altruistic, prosperous 40-year-old mining engineer living in London. Hoover began to administer an unprecedented, unique-to-history mission of mercy.

His novel relief organization called the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), was tasked to obtain foodstuffs, clothing, and medicine from abroad into Belgium, where it would be distributed accordingly. To save an entire country from starvation was no easy task. First, it had to raise money from around the world—through charity and with Allied governmental subsidies.

Next, the CRB had to purchase foodstuffs (mainly wheat) from North America, South America, and Australia. Then, it had to arrange a fleet of ships to safely navigate supplies into a war zone, lest they be seized or subjected to submarine attacks. Then (and if!) the cargo reached Rotterdam, their cargo had to be accounted for, inspected, and unloaded for conveyance by canal into Belgium.

CRB’s duties did not end there. Once inside occupied Belgium and under the ever-present hostile vigilance of the occupying Germans, the supplies had to be prepared for consumption in mills, dairies, and bakeries. The food, clothing, and medicines then had to be distributed equitably to a needy population of 8 million citizens scattered over 2,500 villages and cities.

This required a system of ration cards so that the relief reached their intended recipients and not the German army of occupation. This monumental task was not seamless. It was so massive, so multidimensional, and so surrounded by hostilities that problems beset the efforts at every turn. It was a race against time, famine, malnutrition, and belligerent governments.

Yet, over the four years of war, 2,300 cargo voyages carried more than five million metric tons of relief supplies into Belgium. It cost nearly $1 billion (approximately $25 billion in today’s dollars). It is estimated that nearly 5-7 million Belgian civilians’ lives were saved.

The grandiose, unparalleled feat taken on by the CRB had never been attempted before. The challenges were immense, and if nothing else, it remains possible for humanity to greatly aid belligerent countries in conflict. Belgian King Albert said it best: The pioneering humanitarianism displayed by the CRB means it is forever the “Ami de la Nation Belge.”

As of this writing, organizations such as UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and others are beginning to administer aid and humanitarian services in Gaza. Aid officials are beset with multiple difficulties: establishing a humanitarian corridor into Gaza, limited supplies and funding, extreme danger to frontline clinics and relief workers (35 workers confirmed dead thus far), and a reliable “scrutiny system” to see that aid reaches the most vulnerable.

Granted, occupied Belgium in 1914-17 and the Israel/Palestinian situation in 2023 are two very different conflicts, with two very different belligerents from two very different centuries. Yet, humanitarian relief efforts today in Gaza are facing many of the same logistical nightmares as did the Commission for Relief in Belgium. No matter what your politics, most people of goodwill are hoping that the innocents receive the aid they so desperately need. In many ways, the CRB proved that point in Belgium during World War I Belgium. It can be done…God willing, of course!

Did You Know?

  • In post-World War I, Herbert Hoover became Secretary of Commerce and in 1929 was elected the 31st President of the United States.
  • The CRB was greatly aided by a vast network of 40,000 Belgian volunteers who, at risk to their own personal safety, handled much of the distribution of food throughout their land.
  • Some cargo ships, despite their neutrality, were torpedoed and sunk. In April 1915, the cargo ship Harpalyce was sunk after off-loading relief cargo in Rotterdam. It had a crew of 44 members. Less than one month later, the infamous sinking of the passenger British ship Lusitania occurred in the same waters with 1,193 fatalities.

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