In early March 1915, Hoover complained to Ambassador Whitlock, ‘I have had a severe drilling this week from the English Government with regard to our whole organisation in Belgium’. [1] He was upset that they were investigating the claims he had formerly made due to ‘the constant lying reports which appear in the English press as regards to our foodstuffs being taken by the Germans or devoted to their requisitions in the operations zone.’  Hoover knew that there was what he called ‘ the military party’ which included Churchill and Kitchener, ever ready to find fault. He had to be careful. Complaints had been lodged that there were not enough independent Americans employed to oversee the distribution.

Barges flying CRB flags line up to off load food in Rotterdam. How could 25 students monitor even one shipload?

‘I told them we had about fifty Americans at work, which was deemed insufficient’. Later in the same letter, Hoover admitted that he had lied to the British Government: ‘I am assured that if the knowledge came to them that our staff had been limited to twenty-five members, they would at once say that this is absolutely inadequate.’ [2]  It was a sure sign of complicity that he confided so intimately with the Ambassador. CRB was not going to comply with the official demands. It didn’t have to. Lord Percy had explained; no matter how it might be made to look, ‘please accept my word of honour that we only desire to help’. [3]

This particular passage completely undermined Hoover’s claim that every sack of flour was accounted for. It also laid bare the naked lie that sufficient independent American observers were employed to ensure that the Germans fulfilled the conditions of non-interference. Given the thousands of kilometres of canals and rivers in Belgium, the broken roads and railways, where dangerous passage was carefully negotiated and by- roads and diversions abounded, how could twenty-five American Rhodes scholars plucked from Oxford undertake this task properly? [4] These well-meaning undergraduate students may have had a smattering of French, but were ignorant of Flemish or the Walloon dialect, and were accompanied everywhere by Germans who dictated what they saw and where they saw it. [5] Although they had been warned to expect personal hardship, the ‘observers’ had ‘ luxuries thrust upon them, chateaux in which to live, automobiles in which to ride, and appointed offices in which to work.’ [6]

To add insult to injury, the American Legation staff in Brussels quickly came to the conclusion that the Rhodes scholars were, almost to a man, useless. They lacked maturity and discretion and had a conceit of themselves which made relationships difficult. One volunteer from Oxford told Brand Whitlock that God had called him to go to Belgium. Whitlock was determined to obtain ‘through Hoover’s intercession’ a call for him to go back. [7] The Germans ensured that these American students found it impossible to keep a close scrutiny on the importation and delivery of foreign foodstuffs. The Rhodes scholars served the Secret Elite purpose as a mere fop to the pretence that the food was destined for Belgian mouths only.

General Moritz von Bissing

Hoover lied without compunction, and generally speaking, he got away with it. Indeed his communications with the German Governor, General von Bissing, show that at exactly the same time as he was vying for Lloyd George’s financial commitment, Hoover was warning the Germans that the English Government strongly objected to the introduction of foodstuffs into Belgium from neutral states on the grounds that it was relieving the Germans from the duty of themselves feeding the Belgians … that therefore this was a great military advantage to the Germans and a great military disadvantage to the English’ [8] And finally he touched on the truth, “We feel that while our service is personally beneficial to the Belgian civil population, it is nevertheless of the utmost importance to the Germans from every point of view.” [9]

While Hoover had approached his appeal to Lloyd George from the standpoint that Britain had a responsibility to save the Belgians from starvation, his position with General von Bissing was that this whole organisation worked to the utmost benefit of the Imperial German Army ‘from every point of view’. [ibid] The subtext for von Bissing clearly warned that if the CRB withdrew, the consequences for the German war effort would be disastrous.

The Germans could be very difficult about the number of passes granted to American observers, and when the novelty of chaperoning the Rhodes scholars wore off, they treated some of them with contempt. The American Under-Secretary Hugh Gibson squared up to Baron Oscar von der Lancken, who headed the German political department, in November 1915 and submitted a memorable note of the meeting. Gibson was angry and complained bitterly that while German authorities in occupied Belgium were placing all kinds of obstacles in the way of CRB, the military authorities in the North of France ‘evidently understood the vital importance of the work’. He warned the Baron that ‘in the event of necessary withdrawal’, the British Government would not entertain any other neutrals taking over. Von der Lancken retorted petulantly that Germany ‘has plenty of food now [ late 1915] coming from the Balkans and that the Belgians would not starve’.

Gibson’s reply was very instructive. In sarcastic mode he regretted that the Germans had not informed the CRB of this at an earlier meeting. He pointed out that they continued the work ‘only because we thought it was needed by the German Government as well as by other belligerents.’ [10] Consider that statement. Gibson acknowledged that the CRB continued its work because it thought the importation of foodstuffs ‘was needed by the German Government …’ The Commission was working for Germany too. Von der Lancken, of course knew this and his apologies were forthcoming. He took leave of Gibson in ‘an unusually friendly manner.’ [11]

Gibson's journal, though an interesting source, was altered in favour of Herbert Hoover's role.

In fact the exchange between Gibson and von Lancken was a double-bluff which added more to the charade which surrounded the importation of supplies, than the reality of what was actually happening. Both knew that the German army was crying out for the supplies of food that flowed through the port of Rotterdam. Oscar von Lanken spoke with the forked tongue we have long associated with senior members of the diplomatic corps. His official reports to Berlin told a very different story. He and members of his department met with the CNSA on a daily basis and, as he saw it, constantly thwarted the CNSA’s attempts to lay down the law in Belgium. [12] The Germans were also sensitive to their vulnerability to spying and took measures ‘to make espionage and the transmission of illicit information to Britain, as was practised by some members of the CNSA, impossible.’ [13] The comment was written in August 1915. (Please bear that in mind when we turn our attention to Edith Cavell in the next series of blogs.)

Germany’s very survival depended on the continuation of the Belgian Relief agencies. When the British foreign office laid down conditions and demands in response to revelations in the London press that Germany was requisitioning Belgian produce, they could not be ignored. Von Lancken wrote in his report to Berlin in August 1916 that the whole question of wheat imports was so critical to survival that the British government should be given no excuse to suspend the CNSA’s activities. In his 1916 reports he acknowledged that the continuation of food supplies to Belgium and the North of France was of ‘major self-interest to the Reich’ [14] Interestingly, when the German authorities backed down from wholesale removal of the Belgian harvest, von Lancken noted that German soldiers could still buy produce from Belgians for their personal use with the approval of the British government. [15] One can but wonder what the allied troops confined to the strictures of the trenches would have made of that fact.

As his official reports between 1915 and 1918 demonstrated, von Lancken took pride in Germany’s success in using the CRB to its own benefit. He mocked the ineffective checks made by the Rhodes students writing;

‘in spite of this supervision, we have, once again, successfully routed an appreciable quantity of foodstuffs to the [western] front or to Germany, and just as profitably, made use of local products for the occupying force – by means of the clauses which were kept voluntarily elastic or thanks to arrangements contracted secretly with the neutral committee or again with their unspoken tolerance.’ [16] This was a breathtaking admission which  blows all other claims out of the water.

Von Lancken’s reports indicated collusion and tacit understanding. He clearly admitted that the German authorities were secretly rerouting appreciable quantities of relief food both to the army at the front and to the civilian population in Germany. Furthermore he explained how it was done. The elasticity of the regulations which were supposed to ensure that the foodstuffs went only to the needy Belgian population made a nonsense of such claims. In another official report he scorned the agreements within which the German army of occupation was supposed to operate as ‘deliberately woolly and vague’, claiming that the advantages that Germany gained from the work of the CRB continued to grow and grow. [17] Sadly, no mainstream historian appears to have spoken out against this scandal.

Let there be no doubt. The German army and its subsequent capacity to continue the war depended on the continued success of The Commission for Relief in Belgium. How much plainer can we be? The CRB played its part in deliberately prolonging the war.

[1] George Gay and HH Fisher, Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Vol.1. p. 52, Document 33.]
[2] Ibid.
[3] Gay and Fisher, Public Relations, p. 309, Document 190.
[4] The appointment of American Rhodes Scholars from Oxford University was altogether appropriate for the Secret Elite. The scholarships had been created by Cecil Rhodes, the man whose imperial dream was to create a world dominated by the best of English culture. The reality of a one-world Anglo-Saxon-based cabal developed from this into the Secret Elite who had caused the First World War . [Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, pp. 17-30.]The American Rhodes Scholars were thus presumed to be an outstanding choice to support the CRB in their work, though they were in fact completely inappropriate for the task, had it been genuine.
[5] John Hamill, The Strange Career of Mr Hoover Under Two Flags, p. 318.
[6] Tracy Barrett Kittredge, The history of the Commission for Relief in Belgium 1914-1917 – Primary Source Edition, p. 90.
[7] Whitlock to Page, 19 December 1914.
[8] Gay and Fisher, Public Relations, pp. 48-49, Document 31.
[9] Ibid., p. 49.
[10] Gay and Fisher, Public Relations, pp. 73-74, Document 43.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Michael Amara et Hubert Roland, Gouverner En Belgique Occupee, p. 99.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., p. 214.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., p. 334. Report August 1916 – January 1917.
[17] Ibid., p. 298. Report February-July 1916 – January 1917.