Thursday, November 10, 2005


In Flanders FieldsOn November 11, 1918, World War I ended. The most horrendous theatres of operations were in Belgium and France, where the trench warfare and successive offensives by the warring parties against well dug in adversaries, as well as the use of new cruel weapons (gas, flamethrowers, aeroplanes) and methods (massive indirect artillery fire) caused the loss of millions of men on both sides. The British lost 700,000 men, the better part of a generation, in West Flanders (battles around Ypres) and on the Somme river in North France. We Belgians owe them eternal debt.

The famous war poem "In Flanders Fields" was written by the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He wrote it on the back step of an ambulance, particularly affected by the death of a fellow offiver a short while earlier. "In Flanders Fields" is therefore unique, since born directly out of pain and sorrow.

By 1917 a stalemate existed along the Western Front, with on one side the combined British, French and Belgian armies, and on the other side the Imperial German Army. Neither side was able to end the status quo, and prospects for a peace looked very bleak. Then came President Woodrow Wilson's address to Congress where he declared war on Germany. Soon General "Black Jack" Pershing was on his way to Europe, and many 20,000 strong infantry divisions would follow him. The American engagement on the Western front essentially ended the bloody impasse, and by fall 1918 Germany was forced to surrender.

US Forces lost about 117,000 men KIA in liberating France and Belgium. But not only owe we western Europeans the US for this bloody sacrifice, but also for the massive relief operation set up by President Wilson, who already during the war sent Herbert Hoover to the Continent to assess the needs and set up organizations for distributing food and aid packages. Since the country most affected was my own, the first organization to see the light was the CRB, or Commission for the Relief of Belgium:

Trapped between German bayonets and a British blockade, Belgium in the fall of 1914 faced imminent starvation. Hoover was asked to undertake an unprecedented relief effort for the tiny kingdom dependent on imports for 80 percent of its food. This would mean abandoning his successful career as the world's foremost mining engineer. For several days he pondered the request, finally telling a friend, "Let the fortune go to hell." He would assume the immense task on two conditions-- that he receive no salary, and that he be given a free hand in organizing and administering what became known as the Commission for the Relief of Belgium.

The CRB became, in effect, an independent republic of relief, with its own flag, navy, factories, mills and railroads. Its $12 million a month budget was supplied by voluntary donations and government grants. More than once Hoover made personal pledges far in excess of his total worth. In an early form of shuttle diplomacy he crossed the North Sea 40 times seeking to persuade the enemies in London and Berlin to allow food to reach the war's victims. He also taught the Belgians, who regarded cornmeal as cattle feed, to eat cornmeal. In all, the CRB saved ten million people from starvation.

87 years have passed since the end of the conflict, and that is a long time. In my country, there are those who therefore even openly state that we should not feel perennially indebted towards those who once freed us of brutal oppression. Let them go to hell.

For what it's worth: THANKS.


No comments: