Stock-piles of flour in Brussels. Note that the sign states 'American Commission for Relief in Belgium', which irked the Belgian CNSABecause the official histories of the First World War omit the Commission for Relief in Belgium, the extent of the deception has gone unnoticed. How could the flow of foodstuffs be maintained in such quantities that the Belgian need was more or less met and at the same time the Germans were able to benefit from the supplies and support their own people? Did no-one see this? Were there no complaints? Surely, with such massive sums of money flowing between New York – London, and the volume of trade between America, Rotterdam and Brussels so obvious, malpractice could not be hidden from public scrutiny. The answer is remarkably straightforward. It was. The CRB had political protection and the governments resorted to flagrant denial on both sides of the conflict.

We know that the Germans gave the necessary formal assurances in a letter to Brand Whitlock, the American minister in Brussels, on 14 November 1914. They promised faithfully that any imported supplies would be scrupulously respected, free from seizure or requisition and their possession, control and disposition would be entirely in the hands of the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation (CSNA). [1] So far, so good, but out of the blue Hoover’s lies about imminent disaster were unmasked by an article published in the New York Times on 22 November 1914. The personal adjutant to the military governor at Antwerp mocked the claim that the Belgian people were on the brink of starvation. He boasted that ‘an inter-communal commission had been organised at our suggestion and that all districts are being supplied’. The adjutant, [2] claimed that ‘if America has not been so soft-hearted as to send foodstuffs … we should certainly have considered it our duty to bring food from Germany, for … it is our duty to see that the people do not starve.’ [3] He was of course, absolutely correct, but this was precisely the message which could have destroyed the CRB before it was fully established. Hoover and the commission stamped on it immediately. When he threatened to close down American Relief the German Government quickly denied the claim and thanked the Americans for their vital work in helping avoid starvation. [4] Apparently, it was a misunderstanding made worse through poor translation. Not so. It was the very truth that everyone involved feared might spoil one of the world’s greatest scandals.

Caution was the by-word. Great care had to be taken to avoid alerting detractors to the scheme. In London, the British Cabinet was split over the issue of supplying food to Belgium. Indeed the impression given in October 1914 was that Cabinet Ministers thought they were discussing whether or not to approve the entry of food into Holland  under the guarantee of the Spanish and American Ministers, to be used solely for refugee Belgians [5] rather than the entire civilian population.

 Kitchener, Churchill and lloyd George, a triumvirate against supplying food to Belgium, so why did Lloyd George change his mind? Kitchener, Churchill and lloyd George, a triumvirate against supplying food to Belgium, so why did Lloyd George change his mind?

Kitchener, Churchill and Lloyd George voiced concerns that the Germans would use these supplies and take advantage of Belgian produce, but Grey, Haldane and Asquith were in favour and despite these objections, it went ahead. How unusual. The Ministers for War and the Admiralty, the voices of the army and navy, were strongly set against the importation of food to Belgium, as was a majority in Cabinet, yet it went ahead. What’s more, if they imagined that the food was ‘solely for refugee Belgian civilians’, they were being misled.

As early as December 1914, when Hoover was thwarted by the slow progress in obtaining the necessary funds to kick-start the CRB, he received a prudent note from Lord Eustace Percy at the Foreign Office. Knowing who and what he represented, Hoover expected doors to open and government approval be given automatically at every turn, but the Secret Elite could not deliver instant success. As ever, the ordinary person’s opinion remained vital to public support for the war. Matters had to be agreed in secret. Opposition in Parliament and in the press could flare up unexpectedly, and secret deals were always laced with the possibility of exposure. Concessions had to be fought for and conditions for approval, met.

Churchill’s department was positively obstructive. The Admiralty Trade Division took independent action to dissuade shipowners carrying cargoes of food to Dutch ports [6] stating unequivocally that ‘the Admiralty considers it most undesirable that any British vessels should be employed in adding to the already very large supplies of grain etc. which are flowing into Holland’. Such interference had to be stopped and Lord Percy leapt to Hoover’s support stating that he would ‘push the matter with all the force I can.’

Lord Eustace Percy was third secretary in the Foreign Office and very much under the spell of his senior managers like Grey and Sir Arthur Henderson.

What Lord Percy promised was unequivocal. His actions confirmed that a coterie inside the British Cabinet was fully committed to support the CRB, even although, from time to time, newspapers complained that the Germans were siphoning off the food supplies. Percy calmed the turbulence by assuring Hoover that ‘you must not let the momentary difficulties created by the action of overworked officials at the Admiralty or elsewhere dishearten you. Neither must you feel hurt if I put to you from time to time the unfounded rumours we hear about what is happening in Belgium. I want to nail the lies as they come up, but you mustn’t take any such enquiry as indicating that our sympathy with you in your work is slackening in any way. Whatever appearances may be, please accept my word of honour that we only desire to help, not interfere.” [7]

‘unfounded rumours … nail the lies … my word of honour … we only desire to help’

This was a letter of affirmation, a promise to Hoover that the Foreign Office was right behind him, even though from time to time, it may have to appear to take a different public stance. Games would be played. Warring sides would have to appear to be at cross purposes. But ‘our sympathy with you in your work’ will not slacken. It was a promissory note. And Lord Eustace Percy was as good as his word.

Hoover was not. He was prepared to make any promise, give any assurance and fabricate any answer to promote his venture and mask the real picture. In this he was greatly helped by Chancellor Lloyd George’s dramatic conversion from Cabinet sceptic to Treasury enthusiast. Hoover wrote a memorandum of a meeting on 21 January 1915 with Lloyd George, Lord Emmott [8] Lord Eustace Percy representing the Foreign Office and the Attorney General Sir John Simon, a personal friend of Secret Elite leader Alfred Milner and valued member of the cabal. [9] At the start of the meeting Lloyd George made it plain that he would veto Hoover’s proposals about the international exchange of money to facilitate the CRB ’s work because Belgian Relief was assisting the enemy and prolonging the war. By the end he had apparently undergone a personal epiphany to the extent that he gave his instant approval to Hoover’s proposals. [10] Yet again a key player changed his stance to fall in line with the Secret Elite. Amazing. How could Lloyd George go from his conviction at the start of the meeting that Belgian Relief was aiding the enemy and prolonging the war, to an absolute about turn which gave it his full support?

 Propaganda poster blazing the word starvation to ignite alarm

When asked by Lloyd George in February 1915 to put the needs of the civilian population of Belgium on paper, Hoover produced a memorandum which began: ‘Except for the breadstuffs imported by this Commission there is not one ounce of bread in Belgium today.’ [11] He must have been aware that there were a large number of civilians in Belgium and Holland who knew better. There were spy rings and information flowed regularly across the English Channel. [12] Every alleged fact he produced could be checked out, but it was grist-to-the-mill of the propaganda machine. Although Hoover continued his bombast, he was prepared to concede that ‘foodstuffs are sold at a small profit in order to compel the more well-to-do population to assist in the support of the destitute’. What arrant nonsense. Food prices in Belgium were continuously raised by the CSNA and the profits never satisfactorily recorded.

Herbert Hoover stated categorically that ‘there has never been any interference (by the German government) with the foodstuffs introduced by us. We can account to the satisfaction of any auditor for every sack of wheat from the time it leaves Rotterdam until it reaches the Belgian civil consumer.’ [13] This nonsense was to be unmasked later, but in February 1915 Hoover raised the stakes with a more extreme threat: ‘Unless foodstuffs are introduced into Belgium from foreign sources, the decimation of this population will begin in thirty days.’ [14] Threat of the ultimate starvation of the Belgian nation was to become a constant theme in newspaper articles and appeals voiced by members of the CRB. There was never any evidence of ‘ultimate starvation’. Yet the myth remains unchallenged even in Belgium. Strange.

[1] Tracy Barrett Kittredge, The History of the Commission for Relief in Belgium 1914-1917 – Primary Source Edition, p. 81.
[2] He was a German aristocrat, Major Frankenburg and Ludwigsdorf, personal adjutant to the military governor of Antwerp.
[3] Kittredge, The history of the Commission, p. 81.
[4] Ibid., p. 82.
[5] Edward David, Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, pp. 201-2.
[6] George I Gay and HH Fisher, Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, vol. I p. 308Document 189.
[7] Ibid., pp. 308-9, Document 190.
[8] Alfred Emmott was Chair of the Committee on Trading with the Enemy and Director of the War Trade Department from 1915-1919.
[9] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 57 and 313.
[10] Gay and Fisher, Public Relations, pp. 232-235, Document 129.
[11] Ibid., p. 263, Document 146.
[12] The Germans were concerned about the amount of spying that was taking place in mid-1915. Oscar von der Lancken, Head of the German Political Department in Belgium, made particular reference to some members of the CNSA sending illegal information to Britain in the month before Edith Cavell was arrested. Ref. Micheal Amara and Hubert Roland, Gouverner En Belgique Occupee, p. 99.
[13] Gay and Fisher, Public Relations, p. 264, Document 146.
[14] Ibid., paragraph 4. p. 265.