CRB London August 1916

Despite the backing of the most powerful and influential men in Britain, France and America, the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) frequently ran into both international and local squabbles which threatened to undermine its prime objective; to prolong the war by feeding both Belgium and the German army. Personal relationships, human frailty, including jealousy, and the lure of making even more from the rich pickings, motivated a greed which could well have back-fired in many different ways.

Rumblings at Westminster tended to be muted in the early stages of the war, but by 1916 more and more MPs voiced their concerns about the Relief programme. They asked questions about the total value in Belgium of the foodstuffs imported by the Neutral Relief Commission (another name for the CRB) and the amount of contributions made by the United States, by other neutrals, by the British Empire and by other allied governments. [1] Critics quickly became swamped by an avalanche of information that included the tonnage of foodstuffs, including bacon and lard being exported to Belgium. Lard was of particular interest because glycerine for high explosives could be extracted from it. Statistics were produced to show that in November 1914, 67 metric tons had been imported into Belgium and Northern France; in October 1915 this had risen to over 6,000 metric tons. [2] Parliamentary suspicions were entirely justified. Food was certainly flowing into the German ranks whether by the requisition of home grown products or resale of imports by unscrupulous Belgians but overwhelmingly by secret agreement between the CRB/CNSA and the German government. Baron von der Lancken’s official reports proved that without a doubt. [3]

Unloading Belgian Relief produce from America in Rotterdam

On 21 January 1916 Lord Eustace Percy at the foreign office, wrote an alarming letter to Herbert Hoover about the volume of rice which had been stockpiled in Belgium by the CRB. He was ‘much disturbed’ to find that large quantities had been re-exported to Germany through Holland and been sold to the Germans ‘by the Relief Committee in Belgium’ [4] Emile Francqui assured Hoover that the matter had been investigated and that the ‘information’ from Lord Percy was exaggerated. Apparently it was the fault of a private German company which bought the food from a Belgian dealer who purchased the rice from ‘consumers’. Hoover’s problem was that while he had foreign office approval to import 5,000 tons of rice per month, between September and November around 34,000 tons had been landed, much more than double the agreed amount. Percy consequently threatened to ban the import of rice until the Germans handed over an equivalent amount from their own stock. Hoover’s response in February was firstly to rebut the statistics used by the foreign office and added that ‘some of the local committees, finding the fabulous price at which they could sell rice, have done so entirely in innocence of heart and have invested the money in potatoes….’ [5] It beggars belief.

In March 1916 Lord Percy wrote another detailed and worrying letter to Hoover. He had received reports from an ‘unusually trustworthy’ source that as much as half of the food imported by the Commission to the district of Ghent was going directly to the German army or being redirected to Breslau in Germany. Between November 1915 and January 1916, British sources claimed that seven boatloads of coffee, rice, beans, flour and oil nuts, some 4,200 tons in total had reached Germany through Holland. Lord Percy named one particular mill-owner in Brussels who was extracting oil from the milling process and selling it to the Germans ‘for munitions purposes’. [6] Hoover’s standard reply was to insist that the total leakage was very small and that the smuggling of overseas material through Holland was much greater than previously believed. [7] Deny, deflect and deceive were his watchwords, but constant complaints that the concession to the CRB was indeed feeding the enemy, gathered volume.

Comite National in Belgium was responsible for the disbursement of food once it reached Belgium

There is a further aspect to this that appears to have been scrupulously ignored. Belgians knew that the system was being abused by their own countrymen. At first the Comite National made little effort to monitor the day to day workings of the provincial committees but by December 1915 they had to acknowledge the ‘innumerable breakages of their instructions’ were leading to serious abuses which had caused adverse comment abroad. The CSNA conceded in their Report on general operations in 1915 that imported foodstuffs were not being exclusively sold in their appointed shops or being distinctively identified as relief produce, [8] which had been part of the basic agreement. In other words, his focus was limited to Belgians who were ignoring the rules and selling or reselling food to the Germans. By so doing, attention was drawn away from the greater scandal – Hoover’s faustian pact with the German government.

In Parliament, honourable members began to sharpen their questions especially when the German government of occupation began to use food provision as an inducement to encourage unemployed Belgians to work for them. ‘What action was the Government going to take in view of the admitted facts that the importation of foodstuffs by the Neutral Relief Commission makes Belgian products available for the Germans, and the distribution of these foodstuffs is being used as a means of obtaining forced labour in Belgium?’ [9] The answer from Lord Robert Cecil, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs was curt. ‘I cannot agree that the alleged facts are admitted’. Later in the same debate he was asked if he knew the exact amount of proceeds from the sale of foodstuffs in Belgium. All he said was ‘No Sir, I cannot answer that without notice’. [10] The foreign office simply closed down discussion.

MPs were also rightly anxious about the volume of maize and other feeding stuffs imported into Holland (the inference being that such product was then re-exported to Germany) The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs assured them that ‘according to the Dutch statistics, only 2 tons of vegetable or animal oils’ had been exported to Germany that year. [11] Two tons. This was simply ridiculous. Time after time valid questions were answered with weak assurances or avoidance. Eventually, in August 1916, two years into the war, the blunt question was put;

‘Is his Majesty’s Government satisfied that the funds of the National Committee for Relief in Belgium are in fact devoted to the relief of loyal Belgians in the occupied territories, and not to that of Germans or of Belgians working for the German Army?’ [12]

Lord Robert Cecil under-secretary for foreign affairs.

Lord Robert Cecil’s reply was hardly convincing. He blustered on about ‘satisfactory guarantees covering all domestic foodstuffs’ but was obliged to concede that ‘violations of these guarantees by the Germans still arise’ although the ‘United States, Spanish and Netherlands Representatives at Brussels are taking energetic steps, [to stop this] and the Germans are well aware that a continuance of such violations will endanger the whole work.’ Was that a serious intention? Did assurances mean anything? He insisted that ‘His Majesty’s Government are satisfied that the foodstuffs imported by the Relief Commission run no risk of appropriation by the enemy.’ [13] Satisfied? He knew what was happening. The Foreign Office had evidence of the German appropriations, of railway trucks rolling from Holland to Germany, of the disappearance of food stocks, but of course admitted nothing. How could it, given the complicity of the Secret Elite?

There was a stock reply. ‘His Majesty’s Government have assisted the relief work in response to the wishes of the Allies, including the Belgian Government, and in the interests of the whole population.’ [14] If necessary, when challenged about the volume of imports into Belgium, the answer was tantamount to, ‘our figures very often do not agree with those published elsewhere.’ [15] The policy was being pursued despite loudly voiced complaint and problematic questions. And the Germans continued to feed their army and their civil population from the well-stocked nest that was occupied Belgium. In mid-November the CRB reported to the American Legation that ‘the Germans were shipping 3,000 head of cattle per week in to Germany, and much grease’. [16] This was not a leakage, it was a torrent behind which a desperate struggle for power was waged.

Tensions between the CRB and the Comite National in Brussels heightened in 1916. By that time the system had been more or less established and the Belgians felt that too much praise had been heaped on the Americans while their immense efforts often went unrecognised. They were jealous. A bitter battle of wills developed with Hoover and his right hand man, Hugh Gibson in one corner and Francqui and the Comite National in the other. It never bodes well when thieves fall out. The Belgian government in exile at Le Havre agreed to recognise the CNSA, or ‘Francqui and Company’ as Brand Whitlock sarcastically dubbed them, as its representative in Belgium, and in return Francqui ‘agreed to abdicate when the king returns’. [17] In the eyes of the head of the American Legation, ‘ Francqui assumed the power and rank of a dictator and has even told Hoover that the CNSA must be shown the respect due to a government.’ [18] While recognising that Whitlock was partisan, his outburst when Francqui declared that Belgium wanted no more charity from America and that the Americans were ‘invaders’, was classic. He found ‘the chicanery, the double-dealing, the black treachery of some participants’ to be so loathsome that words failed him. [19] Yet the world understood that the CRB and its Belgian arm, the CNSA, were as one, united to feed the needy and destitute of Belgium. It was no less than a global scam.

Comite National in Brussels. It considered itself a provisional government and acted accordingly.

The stakes were enormous. The CNSA bankers were well aware that it was Hoover’s CRB which could cream off the profits from international transportation and trade in foodstuffs and gifts of clothing. They wanted their fair share.

Hoover had admitted to Whitlock in August 1916 that the CRB had accumulated a vast profit running into millions of dollars. He claimed to have suggested to Francqui that it should be used after the war to fund a scholarship for Belgian boys in American Universities and vice-versa. [20] The parallel with Cecil Rhodes and his Oxford University scholarships must have been music to Secret Elite ears.

In private, the name-calling was slanderous. Hoover called Francqui a ‘financial pirate’ and the CRB’s head of the Department of Inspection, Joseph Green, accused Francqui of leading a corrupt financial ring in Brussels, claiming that his dubious reputation ‘was known in financial circles on three continents’. [21] Note the clear emphasis on finance. When the squabbling was reduced to basics, it was all about money, power and control.

Aloys van de VYVERE, Minister of Finance during the war and later Prime Minister of Belgium

Hoover became further embroiled in a heated argument with the Belgian Government in exile when he presented them with an audited account for $65,000,000 which the CRB claimed to have spent to the end of 1915, money that had been channelled from the Allied borrowing in America to the Belgian government. Aloys van de Vyvere, the Belgian finance minister said that he would not finally discharge the claim until the government in exile returned to Brussels and could verify the data. To have automatically  approved Hoover’s accounts without careful scrutiny would have been a dereliction of duty. Herbert Hoover was outraged. His organisation was, in his view, answerable to no government and in a petulant memorandum to Walter Page, which he expected the Ambassador to sign, [22] he asserted that he had no legal liability to the Belgian government and the charitable gifts given to his organisation were his to dispose of as he saw fit. [23] Francqui and Hoover were both hewn from the same rotten elm. Their arrogance was unrestrained.

Both agencies, the CRB and the Comite National behaved like mobsters goading, name-calling and threatening dire consequences as they struggled to assert their domination over the same territory. But it was Hoover who had the protection of big brother. The Foreign Office laid down the law. Sir Edward Grey, recently ennobled as Lord Grey, ordained that the CRB must have undivided responsibility not just for the importation of food, but its distribution and use of the money raised from sales. [24] Lord Eustace Percy joined the attack by warning that British officials were of the opinion that the Comite National was not fulfilling its duty of inspection to ensure that the Germans did not abuse the importation of food. He was right. The Comite’s processes were corrupt and allowed widespread abuse.

Francqui ordered the Prosecuteurs du Roi to stop sending information to the CRB about charges brought against Belgian citizens for violating food regulations. Such reports had to be sent directly to his offices, and any request for information was to be routed through the CNSA. From August 1916 onwards, he entirely suppressed important cases and adjusted and amended official figures so that no-one could accurately measure the extent of Belgian malpractice in selling food to Germany. [25] By October, the CNSA had begun to replace American flags and bill-boards indicating ‘American Relief’ with their own banners at distribution centres. It may seem petty today but Ambassador Page in London was offended. He demanded that the message be clearly understood: ‘The Comite National is not the pivot upon which relief work revolves in Belgium.’ [26]

Hoover and Francqui; they grew to detest each other during the war

Every ounce of Secret Elite muscle was brought to bear on Francqui’s stance and by mid-December 1916 the Belgian government changed tack and agreed that the CRB should control the distribution of food in Belgium. Hoover won but Francqui was not cowed. He had to accept the British decision to back Hoover, but in doing so revealed his own ace card. He told the head of the American Legation that he had written a 600 page history of the Belgian Relief, and asked if Hoover ‘wished to risk being shown in his true colours in a book that will remain a standard history?’ [27] According to Brand Whitlock, Francqui added that ‘there is even a chapter on the role of the protective ministers’. Such an expose would have blown away more than Herbert Hoover. Unfortunately the promised book never saw the light of day. The quarrel was glossed over in a barely disguised stand-off, but relationships remained strained.

Thus the flow of food to Germany was protected, and the Secret Elite made clear their confidence in Herbert Hoover. Meanwhile, the real war continued.

[1] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 10 July 1916 vol. 84 c7.
[2] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 18 July 1916 vol. 84 c818.
[3] Micheal Amara et Hubert Roland, Gouverner en Belgique occupee, Oscar von der Lancken-Wakenitz – Rappports D’activite 1915-1918. pp 55- end.
[4] George Gay and HH Fisher, Public Relations for the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Percy to Hoover, 26 January 1916, Document 46, p. 79.
[5] Ibid., Document 48, pp. 80-81.
[6] Ibid., Document 49, pp. 81-82.
[7] Ibid., Document 50, pp. 82-83.
[8] Rapport General sur le functionement et les operations du Comite National de Secours et Alimentation, 1914-1919, p. 35.
[9] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 20 July 16 vol. 84 cc1158-60.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Hansard, House of Commons, Debate, 27 July1916 Vol. 84 cc1841-2.
[12] Mr Evelyn Cecil MP, Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 10 August 1916 vol. 85. cc1201-2.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 23 Nov 1916, Vol. 87 cc1547-8.
[15] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 31 Dec 1916, Vol. 88 cc1588-9.
[16] Brand Whitlock, The Letters and Journal,  Chapter VII, 17 November, 1916,
[17] Whitlock, Letters and Journal, Chapter VII, 6 November 1916.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Whitlock, Letters and Journal, Chapter VII, 1 August 1916.
[21] George H. Nash, Herbert Hoover, The Humanitarian p. 219.
[22] Memorandum drafted to Walter Hines Page, 3 May, 1916.
[23] Nash and Fisher, Herbert Hoover, p. 204.
[24] Tracy B. Kittredge, The history of the Commission for the Relief in Belgium, 1914-1917, p. 364.
[25] Ibid., p. 371.
[26] Ibid., p. 374.
[27] Whitlock,  Letters and Journal, Chapter VII, 17, 6 November, 1916.