FOR RELIEF IN BELGIUM
THE AMERICAN REPRESENTATIVES
Most of the documents of this book deal with the relations of the Commission with the governments with whom its affairs brought it into contact. The public relations of the Commission were, of course, much broader than this, for they included both the hundreds of thousands of men and women in Allied and neutral lands who contributed money and services to Belgian relief through the C.R.B.(207) and the people of Belgium and the North of France to whom the relief was given. In the latter category, which is the subject of this chapter, relations were maintained through the American representatives of the Commission scattered through the provinces of Belgium and Northern France.
The Commission's organization in its full development in the occupied territories included two American representatives, responsible to Brussels headquarters, in each of the eleven Belgian and six French provinces.(208) The duties of these representatives were varied, unconventional, and interesting, and they are more clearly shown by informal accounts such as those which follow than by the formal reports which the delegates periodically made. Both accounts given below were written shortly after the authors had been withdrawn from the service they describe as a result of the declaration of war by the United States.
The first contingent of ten of those selected by the Commission as delegates reached Belgium in December 1914.(209) The last Americans left the occupied territories in April 1917, as soon after the American declaration of war as they could be relieved by representatives of the Spanish-Dutch Committee created for that purpose.(210) Altogether about one hundred and thirty men were engaged at one time or another in this service during these two and one-half years, but only about thirty-five were so employed at one time. During 1917-1918 these former representatives were engaged in war service of some description. After the Armistice a number rejoined the Commission to take part in its reconstruction work in the devastated regions; others, as members of the American Relief Administration of which Mr. Hoover was also chairman, contributed the experience gained in Belgium to the organization of relief in Central and Eastern Europe.
1. The American Delegate in Belgium
DOCUMENT NO. 314
An account, by FRANCIS COGSWELL WICKES, of the duties and activities of the C.R.B. provincial representatives in Belgium
LONDON, May 1917
The Délégué Américain.---The provincial representative of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, the délégué américain as he was most commonly known to the people, is doubtless the one figure who stands forth most clearly in the popular Belgian mind in connection with the relief work in that country during the great war .....
In regard to anything concerning the ravitaillement or relief work, if something was considered to be wrong, or if assistance were needed, the solution was, of course, "to write to the délégué américain," or better still to go to visit him in person. But more than this, people came to him on all possible varieties of other matters: for release from military arrest, exemption of private horses from requisition, with requests for passports for commercial enterprises which it was desired to carry on with foreign countries, letters to be sent to friends in America, for advice in a thousand and one different ways, down even to applications for a position as nursemaid in America after the war. In all these latter matters, unless they could be found to have some connection with the ravitaillement, the representative was of course powerless. He would listen, however, with sympathy and interest to each person's particular difficulty, whatever it might be. He would assure the person that he would do anything in his power to assist him, attempting at the same time to indicate the limits of his true power, and his lack of competency in matters outside the ravitaillement. Often the representative was enabled to render real service by directing the inquirer to the proper authority or by giving him helpful counsel regarding his case, and almost always he could feel assured that he had given moral support had it been but to listen sympathetically to the story of some poor creature for whom nothing could be done.
So it was that the reputation of the délégué américain persisted to the very end; and though, as the months and the years of the occupation dragged on, the people gradually came to realize more fully the nature of his position and the limitations of his powers, they continued to regard him as a powerful protector of their oppressed country in its time of trouble. So it was that when, toward the end of March 1917, the rumor spread like wildfire through the populace that les Américains were leaving,(211) the question on everyone's lips was: "What will become of us now?" Patriotically they rejoiced that their country had gained a great ally in the cause of justice, but individually they felt themselves in very truth abandoned, with no longer a protector to whom they might turn.
Such was the délégué américain as he existed in the popular mind. In reality he was a somewhat different and infinitely more humble sort of a person, as will be well imagined.
The first delegates--- . . . The original group which came as the result of the first hasty call for volunteers was chiefly composed of American Rhodes scholars and others who chanced to be studying at Oxford and Cambridge and who possessed a certain spirit of adventure together with a desire for service. Their original knowledge of French was often most scanty; their acquaintance with the country they went to relieve betrayed sometimes the deepest ignorance, and their conceptions of its conditions as a result of the German invasion were even less accurate. They left hurriedly, with a few rough-and-ready clothes, such as one takes for a few weeks' outing in the country. In more than one case they came with tents and full camping equipments, prepared to sleep out nights and to do engineering work in the devastated country, not to mention their stores of chocolate and condensed milk intended for distribution to the starving populace which they would encounter on the wayside. They expected to serve but a few weeks---no one dreamed that the war would continue for years. Their ignorance was pardonable. Few people in the outside world then knew what were the actual conditions in Belgium, and none realized the enormity of the task which was being undertaken. They discovered conditions far different from what they had conceived and soon found themselves embarked upon a project whose vastness they had never imagined. Neither their anticipations nor their training had in any way prepared them for the work which they were to do. They did the work, however, and it will be admitted that they succeeded in it. For they were intelligent thinkers with a practical turn of mind, a systematic understanding of conditions and points of view, and an ingrained quality of adaptability, accustomed to independence and initiative---they were Anglo-Saxons of the western world. What they lacked in specific preparation they more than made up for in their zeal and in their possession of more fundamentally essential characteristics.
During the course of its history the Commission's personnel was constantly changing. It comprised in its members men of all ages, varieties of experience, and professions. With but few exceptions they all rendered valuable service. But the most representative provincial member, and, it may be added, the one who in the majority of cases was most successful in his provincial work, was of the type which it is here attempted to portray. He was perhaps successful above all by reason of the very fact of his youth and his lack of experience in any specific and narrowing direction. The relief work was something unique in the world's history, for which no ordinary training could in any real sense prepare a man. Lack of practical experience in life was perhaps rather an asset, as it left open a greater degree of adaptability. As the months and years passed, the original group of Rhodes scholars largely disappeared. The men who replaced them came more often directly from America. But the average man who found his way into the provinces continued to be of much the same type and caliber---one who in the latter days was only slightly more prepared, in point of information, to meet the unusual conditions and duties with which he was confronted. His fitness for the position always continued to depend upon personality rather than upon previous training.
Duties in the early period.---The official position of the provincial member of the Commission, first called delegate, in what may broadly be considered the first phase of the work, and later representative in the succeeding period, may be summed up by the statement that it was his duty to see to it that within his province, the guarantees and conventions between the Commission and the different belligerent powers, upon which the relief work was based, were observed; that on the one hand the imported merchandise was consumed solely by the civil population, and that the native products, guaranteed against requisition, were permitted to reach the same destination; that on the other hand the food and clothing were equitably distributed without waste, leakage or individual favoritism, and that the prescriptions and rules necessary to this end were enforced. In short, the provincial representative did in small what the Commission was doing in large throughout the entire occupied country, in so far as its internal activities are concerned.
This brief statement of the representative's duties does not, however, give any notion of the many and varied activities which the position involved in its official aspect, not to mention the sometimes quite as important unofficial relations which his situation equally entailed. In those first days of the war the highly developed and largely industralized country of Belgium had been, without warning, reduced, in a day as it were, to a primitive and almost medieval state by the fact of hostile military occupation. For the population posts, railways, telegraph, and telephone had suddenly ceased to exist, and almost everywhere the public were interdicted from going from one town to the next. For the first months there were not even news papers available to the people, and the complete isolation of each community from the rest of the world was thus almost perfect. Events of only a few weeks ago---things of before the fateful day of August 4th---had suddenly become relegated to a dim and distant past, which seemed more of a dream than a reality. The national life was dead. Social lines, in a measure, disappeared. Industrial life largely ceased. The Government had gone. The communal authorities alone, even in these dark days of dejection, continued to assert a certain degree of independence and a limited exercise of their functions, and to provide the rallying point for the later gradual awakening from the coma which had overtaken the population. The country, as a whole, was numbed and inanimate, bowed down under the sudden and terrible blow of conquest. The moral isolation had even a greater effect than the physical barriers. Hope was for the moment gone; there was no one to whom the people could turn; no one who could protect them. Though accustomed all their lives to the utmost facilities which modern civilization can provide, once suddenly reduced and under such violent circumstances to a primitive state of existence, former habits of thought ceased, distances assumed the proportions of the middle ages, the next town became a foreign land from which came only rumors and the most venturesome of travelers, and the outside world was but a vague and misty unreality.
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In the early days the provincial delegate was much on the road. He made regular weekly rounds of his province, attending in turn the meetings of the different regional committees, which might be as many as twenty or more in a single province; bringing them the correspondence and instructions from the Comité Provincial; announcing what shipments could be expected, and how, and when; receiving from them in turn the post destined to the provincial committee, also the money paid for food by the communes, to be transported to the provincial center. He often found himself lodging on the road with one or another committee member. To these regular trips were added the frequent impromptu excursions called for by emergencies of one sort or another---a bridge fallen into a canal, thereby blocking the lighters, and the province in imminent danger of running out of food if the obstacle were not immediately removed; a train off the track, trucks broken open and food strewn about; an entire region on the point of famine, not to mention the danger lest that food get to an improper destination, possibly into German hands.
Canals and railways being, of course, in military control, the delegate must first rush to the proper German office to set the ponderous wheels of officialdom in motion; then he would dash off to the spot of the calamity, see the local military authorities; then summon whatever local Belgian influence he could find, round up sufficient workmen, put them to work, and finally supervise the job in person, quite probably actively lending a hand in extracting the débris from the canal or in righting the derailed truck. Again it was perhaps an ignorant Ortskommandant who was reported to have requisitioned the stores of a local magasin. The matter must be remedied forthwith, and again recourse was had directly to powerful officials, until the goods were restituted or replaced. A word from the delegate would often secure passes and privileges for Belgian committee members, when they themselves had moved powers high and low without avail. The delegate alone could get railway trucks for food shipments, he alone could do many things where the German authorities were concerned, and so in a measure there was a certain foundation for the exaggerated ideas entertained by the popular mind in respect to the delegate's powers. This prestige and respect in the eye of the military did not always persist, alas! It gradually but perceptibly passed, as did also those happy days when the delegate could gaily run his car, without stopping, across the frontier into Holland, merely waving his hand to the sentry as he passed and shouting something about "Amerikaner."
The regional committees, and even the local communal committees, possessed a large measure of independence to deal with the local situation as seemed to them most wise. Uniform prices and rations were indicated by the Comité Provincial. Each committee kept its own books and accounts as it deemed best, and was counted upon to administer affairs honestly, equitably, and as local conditions seemed to demand. This confidence and independence was in almost all cases justified, although it certainly was neither centralization nor uniformity. The provincial committee was rather small at first, and concerned itself chiefly with financial matters and with the reception and reshipment of the food; it was executive, but as yet in a very small measure legislative. The delegate, of course, had an office, but he spent little of his time there. His work was in his province, and whatever problems arose he had to solve them there---Brussels could not help him even when he appealed to it. He might occasionally go to Brussels when shipments did not seem to be coming to his province as he felt they should, but even then it was generally easier to run out to Rotterdam or Maestricht to see what the trouble was. In the mind of the provincial delegate his duty was easily stated; his job was to get the food to the people, above all to his people, for his decentralized position tended to make him a provincial delegate in more than one sense. In the performance of his duty it was incumbent upon him to see that first of all sufficient food arrived in the province, and then that it moved properly out into the regions and to the communes. If there were a hitch in the machinery, he lent a hand to set it right again. It was his function to act as the medium of communication between the various committees, and it was he who acted as intermediary in all negotiations and relations between the Germans and the Belgian committeemen. For the rest he tried to be on friendly terms with everyone, including the Germans.
Unofficial service.---In these, his more purely unofficial relations, the delegate also rendered valuable service to the work in which he was engaged. The universality of his own position served as an important, element in helping to consolidate the Belgian committees which represented in their members all political and religious creeds and all social castes; though it must always be remembered that the chief factor to bring this about---and one conversant with Belgian social relations can alone realize the impossibility of the task under normal conditions---was the national crisis and the clear patriotic duty to which all men rallied with the most admirable spirit. It could not always be avoided, however, that a certain degree of class or party friction arose. The delegate would then appear to smooth away the difficulty, and his point of view would be almost uniformly accepted, his impartiality and independence being universally recognized. It sometimes occurred that it was necessary to apply unpopular measures. The responsible committee heads, involved as they were in the social and political system, lacked perhaps the courage and often the real influence to enforce them. Recourse was again had to the delegate whose word was law and against which there could be no question. To his honor let it be said that the delegate rarely exercised, and probably in no case abused, these very wide dictatorial powers which his unusual position gave him. In the vast majority of cases questions were decided in the ordinary parliamentary fashion by the committees themselves on the basis of the majority view, and after general discussion in which the delegate gave his opinion simply as an individual, though always it carried weight. His absolute decree occurred only in vital matters after mature reflection and careful consideration with the chief Belgian committee members. To this discretion, as much as to his broad personal relations, is largely due the fact that, in the best administered provinces, the delegate maintained his authority throughout the entire period of the work.
Duties in the later period.---Following the first few months of rather rough-and-ready relief work, uncentralized and lacking in specific outline, there came the period of higher organization and more systematic administration---what may broadly be considered the second of two general phases of the work as a whole in Belgium, and, in consequence, of the position of the delegate, or representative, as he came to be called in this later period in the province. The transition from one stage to another was of course very gradual, and the line between the two periods can in no way be considered as clearly marked. Many factors led to this development, but only certain of these elements need here be indicated. Chief among them was, on one hand, the return of Belgium to a more or less normal state of external conditions, with the general permission of circulation and the reopening of posts and railways to the general public; and, on the other hand, the general realization that the war might last years and that the ravitaillement must be prepared to go on indefinitely. The Commission's work had ceased to be an emergency relief measure; it had become a vast distributing organization upon which depended the existence of seven millions of human beings in Belgium and upward of two millions in the North of France, and it must be made to operate with regularity, system, and precision in accordance. These features, together with the markedly growing tendency on the part of the military to centralize all their own authority in Brussels, thus rendering it gradually impossible for the provincial delegate to achieve anything through the local authorities when negotiations with the Germans were necessary, all made for the organization and centralization of the work on a broadly uniform basis and mitigated against the former almost absolute independence and often somewhat loose administration of the provinces.
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The representative was no longer necessary as a medium of communication between the regions. The posts were open to correspondents. Several Belgian delegates from each regional committee attended the weekly meetings of the Comité Provincial, and carried back the instructions and information to their regional meetings, at which in turn were represented all the communes of the region. The weekly rounds of the province were thus dispensed with. The emergency dashes to the rescue of blocked transports also largely disappeared. Under the efficient administration of the German Army, once well organized, accidents no longer seemed to happen. Furthermore, things were better organized on the part of the committees. Regions no longer lived in the former hand-to-mouth fashion, and it was rare if a week's delay could affect the distribution to the people. Strained situations always might arise, however, and it was remarkable that, even despite the later and more perfect organization, they did not occur more often. At least one representative can remember spending the better part of a Christmas Day running about his province, trying to urge forward lighters blocked by high waters and ice-floes. A dozen and one difficulties were always capable of arising to break down the regularity of the system.
Nor must it be imagined that the representative now spent all his time in his office and no longer came in contact with the regional and communal committees except as they came to the provincial center. At least once a month, generally on the second or third day of each month, he visited every region to "take the existences," that is, the stock inventory, carrying with him a large printed sheet, lined and ruled, on which each regional bookkeeper in turn entered the exact stocks remaining in his warehouse at the end of the preceding month. Each week or so a trip would be made to attend one or another of the regional meetings, generally in company with one or two of the chief members of the provincial committee, sometimes with a definite view in mind, a local difficulty or irregularity to be rectified, or a special message to be conveyed; more often simply with the general purpose of keeping in touch with the local committees more directly than through their delegates to the Comité Provincial, and of bringing them to realize more completely the scope and exact nature of the vast organization of which these committees were only a local part. Then there were frequent trips other than those which included attendance at regular meetings of the local committees---trips on all sorts and descriptions of errands: a case of bacon or bag of rice reported to have arrived in bad shape, its true condition to be determined, and, if necessary, a report to be made to Brussels; a project for establishing a regular milk supply for a baby canteen or sick-children's committee, or a herd of cattle to be passed upon; the location of a native grain dépôt or new communal store to be decided upon; a flour mill to be inspected, more economical methods to be insisted upon, or the miller to be won over to a more generous contract; a yeast factory to be taken over under the management of the committee, or a new process for the manufacture of a coffee substitute or rice flour to be initiated and experimented with; an obstinate committee, which refused to instal the bakery control or accept prescribed rules of administration, to be brought to terms; a local laxity in the inspection or inefficiency in the transport system to be brought up to standard; a charge of maladministration in a communal committee to be disentangled, where village jealousy or differences in politics had possibly brought curé and burgomaster each to accuse the other of favoritism and unfairness and the entire local population had rallied to the support of one party or the other. Such were a few of the multifarious odd jobs which were constantly confronting the representative and demanding special trips through his province. It will readily be seen that his duties were by no means humdrum and monotonous, and that his motor was in small danger of rusting away from disuse. These were things which the early delegates necessarily had neither time nor occasion to do. Many such matters did not yet even exist, and the broader early methods did not call for any such attention to detail.
It must not be imagined, however, that the American representative was an expert in all and each of these many and varied matters, although he came to possess a large degree of experience on many technical subjects. On most of his trips upon such special missions he would be accompanied by the committee expert on the particular object in question; the head of the département d'alimentation, the State agriculturist, the head inspector, or an influential committeeman to smooth away personal difficulties, as the case might be, who often did most of the talking and permitted the representative to help the solution chiefly by the moral effect of his presence and accord. The representative's job was, in short, to keep the ball rolling. He should know all the departments of the provincial committee, be conversant with their methods, and, above all, be acquainted with their obstacles and shortcomings. As long as a branch of the work ran smoothly he would simply observe that branch. But when a hitch came, or something broke down, he must turn to and help put it in order again, and if possible in such order that that particular hitch would not occur again. He must watch the entire machine to anticipate difficulties before they arose, and to discover new and more improved methods if possible. He was in a sense not responsible for any one of the departments, nor yet even for the ensemble, except in a limited measure, yet he kept a watchful eye on the entire machine, and performed in a way the services of what would be called in modern business an efficiency man.
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Inspection and control.--- . . It was his duty, as stated above, to satisfy himself that all imported goods went to the civil population, that the guaranteed native products did the same, and that all goods in the control of the Commission and of the Belgian committees were distributed "equitably, and without waste, leakage, or individual favoritism." In a province of which the population would average between 500,000 and 1,000,000 inhabitants it was manifestly impossible for the chief representative, with his one or two American colleagues, to follow personally every gram of food and every meter of clothing from its arrival in the province to its final actual distribution. There must therefore be such a system of administration and control that any irregularity would immediately come to the American's attention. It was his duty first to organize a system which would insure this result, to insist that the measures and rules necessary to this end were put into action, and then to exercise such a supervision himself as to obtain the enforcement of the measures taken and the proper functioning of the system. The representative who strictly confined himself to the narrow limit of his actual responsibilities was still confronted with a broad field of activity.
This position of the representative will be perhaps still better understood when one considers the office side of his work, which was, in the later period, its more important feature. The American's office, in which worked his personal secretary and where were his own files and records, was generally a room apart in the same building as the various offices and bureaus of the provincial committee, occupied by the administrative heads and different departmental staffs, committeemen, and employees of that organization. In his office the representative received and examined a series of regular tabulated reports on all branches of the work: yield reports from the mills, chemical analyses of wheat, flour and bread samples, population censuses and corrections, and, most important of all, the reports of the bakery and alimentation inspectors. The Department of Inspection and Control(212) was very highly developed, with a central office for the entire country in Brussels, and a provincial chief and numerous staff in each province co-operating with the local representatives. There were two or more inspectors in each region, who visited each commune in their appointed territory at least twice a month, rendering a report on each visit, filled out on a tabulated form, and sent to the provincial center. These reports, after examination by the inspection staff, would come up to the representative accompanied by an appropriate letter to the communal committee in question, calling for the correction of irregularities noted, or suggesting possible improvements to be introduced, which, if approved, would be ultimately signed by the American and by a chief member of the Comité Provincial, and dispatched. These reports covered a broad field of questions, dealing with the communal committee in such a way as to indicate clearly all conditions of the local situation which had any bearing on the ravitaillement work. In addition to these general alimentation inspectors there was the more limited branch of the department which specialized in the bakery control. This branch had again its own inspectors, sub-chief, and system of reports, operating in much the same manner as the others. Then there were special reports on particular cases, intensified investigations of special phases of local work, which would be called for and treated as the case required, and there was the constant consideration of the entire system with a general view to possible alterations and ameliorations.
Reports to the Brussels office.---The provincial inspection looked in two directions: it controlled the ravitaillement work carried on in the province, and it sent up to the central Brussels office regular weekly reports on the different well-defined phases of the work, as well as special reports on particular subjects, as from time to time demanded. These reports to Brussels again took the form of letters, jointly signed by the American and a committee member, and it was the representative who was personally responsible for their being drawn up. In return the province from time to time received instructions and queries from Brussels, as well as occasional visits from executive chiefs or from the inspectors directly attached to the central office. It is here that the later close connection between Brussels and the provinces is best observed. That office would call for reports of a detailed nature on, for instance, the operation of the Centrales---organisms created by the German authority to undertake the distribution of those native food supplies which they refused to confide to the administration of the Comité National and its subcommittees---or with regard to a rumored exportation of native livestock. Or again, an exposition of local methods of panification and bread control would be requested with a view to gathering all possible data on the subject and deciding upon the best uniform and practical solution of the bakery problem.
An important phase of the inspection work was the attention paid to the legal side: the prosecution of cases of theft and fraud, misuse of ration cards, and illicit traffic in the imported merchandise generally. Such prosecutions were more often undertaken with a view to inspiring the population with a wholesome fear regarding such matters than with the definite intention of obtaining conviction in all cases. This entailed close co-operation between the provincial inspection and the local procureur du roi, and results were again regularly reported to Brussels. Another feature of the inspection was the so-called "Letters to the Ministers," weekly reports regarding irregularities on the part of the Germans, chiefly requisitions of native food supplies, which were forwarded through the diplomatic channel to the Brussels inspection department, which itself took the initiative in regard to the correction of all such matters.
Inventories and special investigations.---Besides the very important inspection work, the provincial representative sent to Brussels periodic "wheat-situations"---statements of the exact grain and flour situation in the province, together with the estimated needs based upon supply on hand and the most recent census figures. Each month, after taking the existences in the regions, he must see that the results were properly totaled by the provincial statistical staff and duly forwarded to Brussels; also that further statements of receipts, distributions, and consumption were made out and furnished for the required date; and that a list of the persons supplied at the soup kitchens and different varieties of canteens was regularly rendered. These and other reports went to various destinations at Brussels, some to the Commission, others to the Comité National; they were made out partly by the American himself, partly by the Comité Provincial; but in all cases the representative was held responsible for their being duly furnished. There were "shipment receipts" to be filled out and forwarded for each lighter cargo or rail shipment received, showing net receipts, "shortages" or "overs," condition of goods, state of seals, demurrage, etc., and there were the skipper's bills of lading to be acquitted and the lighters turned about and sent back to Rotterdam for another load. There was a constant shipping correspondence with Brussels regarding dilatory tugs and strayed lighters, disputes with shipowners over demurrage and with underwriters on the subject of accidents and damages, as well as claims of the provincial committee against Rotterdam for shortages. Then there was a varied correspondence on a multitude of other subjects; such matters as, for instance, a skipper who had fraudulently acquired extra ration cards and was thus securing more than his legal share of food. The surplus cards had to be extracted from the skipper's possession---as he usually spoke nothing but Flemish, this was apt to add zest to the ordinary daily routine---and the result reported to the Batelier department at Brussels. Finally, there were a quantity of special reports, besides those of the inspection department, generally entailing a detailed investigation of some technical point, for which the capital was constantly asking the province. One week it would be on the vicinaux---the steam and electric narrow-gauge railways---requiring a map, designation of different lines and mileage, tonnage of each of various categories of goods transported, and number of passengers carried during each of the last six months, and the kinds and qualities of lubricants employed during the same periods; all this with a view to supplying the lubricants necessary for the transport of food directly by the Commission in view of the exhaustion of the ordinary commercial sources of such materials. Another week Brussels would ask for a complete list of all the horses needed for local transportation in each province, with ages and detailed specifications of each animal, together with those considered to be absolutely essential, and mileage covered per month by horse transportation; this because in a rash moment the military had suggested that they might guarantee such horses from requisition. Whenever work seemed to be a little slack in any departmental office at Brussels, the time would be devoted to a questionnaire until special reports and investigations became a mania, the brunt of which fell upon the provincial representative alone. No early delegate would have dreamed of being called upon to show his experience, or his lack of it, as a veterinary or railway engineer.
Contacts with Brussels headquarters.---On the other hand, the centralization of many matters in Brussels tended to relieve the provincial member of the Commission of many of his former important duties. His dealings with the German authorities, for instance, became much more seldom, and in some cases almost rare. Ordinary matters of routine business were carried on by committee members or employees without the intervention of the American, and unusual negotiations were no longer within the competency of local officials, and had to be taken up with the Vermittlungsstelle(213) at Brussels. Passes were likewise only to be obtained through the Brussels Passzentrale. Again, if the representative went to Brussels with the idea that he could convince someone of the necessity of sending his province more food, he was almost surely destined to disappointment. He would be confronted with imposing tables of figures, based partly on the statistics that he himself had furnished, showing exactly what were the stocks available and those already sent his province, as a result of which it would invariably appear that either he was entitled to no more or else there was no more for the moment to be had. As for going to Holland, even had it been of avail, the happy days of easy passes had gone to come no more.
It will thus be seen that the early local emphasis on the provincial work had largely been supplanted in the later stage. In place of the intense provincial loyalty which certainly did not make for absolute equality, the representative felt that his first duty was toward the country as a whole, as represented by Brussels, and the broad uniformity called for by that office. Local pride among provincial representatives and a healthy rivalry, as well as a considerable degree of independence, still continued, however. The independence of regional and local committees had in large measure vanished---they were almost purely administrative, restricted to the observance and enforcement of the rules of the provincial committee. The provincial committee itself acted on principles clearly outlined by the Comité National, and in many cases enforced rules as handed down word for word by the latter organization. It was strictly held to the duty of accurate accounting, and to abstinence from methods which might make for inequitable preference. In all these matters the activities of Belgians and Americans, at Brussels as in the province, were inextricably fused and mingled. The two bodies were complementary: neither could have successfully carried on the work without the other.
Brussels conferences.---The close contact with Brussels necessitated regular visits to the capital on the part of the provincial representative. He always went for the Thursday meetings, that of the Comité National in the morning, and the Commission meeting in the afternoon, at which were present all provincial and Brussels departmental heads. In addition, every two weeks or so a general Commission meeting was called, at which all members would be present, and a prepared paper generally read. The representatives usually arrived in their motors on Wednesday afternoon, and would dine together at the houses of different groups or at certain accepted restaurants. The next day was devoted to business and to the meetings, from which each man took the printed ordre du jour, with the various instructions given. The head representatives' meeting, presided over by the Director, was necessarily much less informal than that of the Comité National, and matters were freely discussed, situations in different provinces compared, questions asked, and suggestions made. Aside from this there was always more or less business to be done personally with one or another departmental head.
Provincial committee meetings.---The end of Thursday afternoon saw most of the provincial representatives gone back to their respective provinces, to attend and take active part in the meetings of their provincial committees, which generally occurred on the following day. Here the representative had the place of honor at the side of the president, and here he was ready to support the remarks of the latter or answer general questions and give instructions on subjects which appeared to be more purely in the domain of the Commission than of the Comité National. At times representatives were known to berate provincial assemblies soundly.
The remainder of the representative's time in the province would be spent in attending various subcommittees, such as the executive session of the chief provincial committee members, the soups committee, the Section agricole, etc.; in conferences with departmental heads on different phases of the work; and in receiving the visits of all sorts and conditions of people who came on the miscellaneous and varied errands already referred to, as often as not having little or no connection with the ravitaillement.
Support of Belgian morale.---It is not necessary to enlarge upon the service rendered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium, even were it here in place. But one phase of the results which is perhaps most rarely considered may well be mentioned. Perhaps the greatest thing accomplished by the Americans in Belgium was not the bringing of food and clothing and the making possible of a well-organized system of charities without which the population would most surely have been practically annihilated by the worst horrors of suffering, want, and famine; but it was their contribution to the upbuilding of the Belgian morale from the condition of absolute prostration, in which it still was upon their arrival as a result of the terrible days of August 1914, to a point where the Belgian looked forward to the future with an absolute faith in the ultimate victory. Were it not that the material relief was absolutely essential to the life of the country, it might almost be said that this moral contribution meant more to the people than did the physical support.
This fact has already been intimated in referring to the effect upon the people of the delegate's first arrival, but it is impossible to emphasize it too much. The feeling that in the American the country had found a sympathetic friend, and a protector in time of trouble, was by no means confined to the masses. Its echo was the same throughout all classes, and among those who understood fully the exact nature of the delegate's position and the inevitable limitations of his powers. The mere fact that they had by their side, for the time intimately associated with their lives, one who still possessed rights, who enjoyed certain privileges, was to them a comfort. They felt that whereas the American could not actually protect them, except in a few exceptional cases, his presence was a very real guarantee. The greatest service in this connection was of course rendered in the first months, when the moral dejection was the greatest, and it was the provincial delegate who, by his personal contact with the people both in his official and unofficial relations, did the most to revive hope and moral energy. Other circumstances naturally contributed to this result. Mighty steps were taken in this direction when relatively free circulation was permitted to the population within the occupied territory, when posts and railways again became available for private communication, when, as a result, there began to reappear commerce and industry on a small scale and necessarily very seriously limited by the absolute lack of imported stocks and of raw material, the destruction of many plants, and the great difficulty of transportation. The Belgian people possess a great deal of ingenuity and adaptability, and they showed it in this instance by making the best of the situation, and in developing, in view of the new and unusual requirements, as much commerce and industry as the conditions permitted. The material relief is necessarily very closely interwoven with this taking up again of what came for a time broadly and externally to approximate normal life.
Well before the exodus of the Americans from Belgium, even this small degree of commerce and industry had practically again disappeared, as a result of the deportations and the wholesale requisition of all materials and machinery. But the material relief had made the improved situation physically possible, in that it kept the people from starvation. Then it gave occupation and distraction to thousands of Belgians in the administration and carrying on of the work. The more influential and intelligent persons of each community were active members of the countless committees which sprang into being when the work began, and thousands of others were given employment in the offices or in the actual handling of the goods. These elements all contributed to the restoration of the Belgian morale. Those representatives who lived through the days of the deportations,(214) already alluded to, cannot ignore the meaning of their sympathy to those who felt the full brunt of the tragedy. Nor can those who were privileged to experience the last days of the Commission in Belgium and who took part in the farewells of the departure with all its sadness, deny that their presence had been of very deep and intimate import to those whom they had come to relieve, and this quite aside from the material succor which they had originally come to provide. Many fast friendships were, of course, made during the long period of constant and intimate relations which existed between Belgians and Americans, but the emotion of the departure was not merely the expression of these personal friendships. It was far more: it was the echo of the feeling of a whole people who had appreciated the sympathy and taken strength from the moral support of the American delegate. It is this latter contribution which alone, the provincial representative could partially appreciate, and which, all unknown to itself, was one of the greatest features of the work done by the Commission for Relief in Belgium.
It will be apparent that the American representative's position was one both unique and of intense interest. This was due, as much as anything, to the catholicity of his personal relation, which, whether it were in business or otherwise, comprised the entire population from the most influential of the country to the humblest, from the powerful industriel or wealthy landed proprietor to the salaried clerk or small agriculturist. Such was the situation that, despite his own youth and comparative inexperience in most cases, the representative stood on a basis of equality-and even rather more than that-with all. In this, as in many other aspects, the position of the representative was one of the most unusual that has ever existed, even as the Commission for Relief in Belgium is probably the most unique institution which the Great War has produced.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Fig. 11. Letter, 11 November 1914, van Dyke to Hoover
2. The American Delegate in Northern France
DOCUMENT NO. 315
An account, by JOHN LOWREY SIMPSON, of the duties and activities of the C.R.B. district representatives in the North of France
LONDON, May 1917
When Glenn perched himself in a locomotive cab and conducted personally a trainload of flour into the North of France,(215) he opened the vistas of a new adventure for American youth. For this exploit was the precursor of the position of "French Delegate" or "North of France Representative," as it was variously called. And into the lives of the thirty men who filled these posts at one time or another streamed the full tragedy---shall we add comedy too?---of war and invasion, of occupation and of relief.
Paradox of a job! They were charged, these Representatives, to control the equitable distribution of foodstuffs, and to note the due observance of German guarantees in the occupied territory of Northern France. And Northern France differed as much from Belgium as Belgium itself differed from the great outside world beyond the lines of conquest and the frontiers of war. In Belgium there had been restored after the first few months some kind of social structure. There were central offices, ministers, civil authorities, negotiations, dinners---even tennis occasionally. There was nothing of this sort in Northern France; there was one dominating fact, insistent like tunnel pressure against the ears: a state of war. In Belgium the Representative performed unusual and extraordinary duties, but in circumstances exhibiting sometimes a certain semblance of normality. With all the eccentricities of his position, he had a code of action---a variable code, to be sure---but still some sort of guide to his way of doing things. In Northern France there was no normality; there was no code of action; there was no "way of doing things." There was a state of war. The North of France Representative interpreted his duties as best he might, and performed them whether or no. He was the personal spokesman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium in the French territory. He had on the one hand his network of local French distributing agencies, and on the other the German Army of the Western Front. Ahead of him was the firing line, and off in the hazy background a "Brussels office." His own small group were the only neutrals amid two million Frenchmen and nobody knows how many hundred thousands of their German enemies. His general orders were: "Report that the people are eating the food."
Two million people in the army zone.---The actual condition of two million people living in direct contact with a hostile army in active operation is not easy to portray. The lines of the picture are likely to be too heavy or too light. New delegates in Belgium have conjured up to themselves astounding notions of Frenchmen, Germans, and Americans all scampering from cover to cover in the thick of flying shrapnel. Others, who have been in Belgium but not in Northern France, may tell you that it was all very much the same. Neither impression would be correct. I was a North of France Representative for six months; I never dodged shrapnel, though I am sure I should have tried to had I seen any coming toward me; yet often as I crossed the line of the étape from Belgium into Northern France there was always something portentous about it. People were shot for crossing that line when they did not hold the slip of white paper I possessed.
That was possibly the fascination for the American youth: it was forbidden territory. Once past the line you stood where the army was supreme. Inhabitants walked outside their communes by courtesy of special permission. Civilians rode on trains only with thrice special passports. When one penetrated farther south one caught the grey sheen of moving troops; or one descried long supply trains---even occasional smoke of artillery fire. On fine nights there was the "line" to be detected by the distant flare of rockets and the dull glow of the guns. Yet always around and through everything else were the people. Here a village, and behind the hill a town. Soldiers out of number, of course, yet all so intermingled that at times one was at a loss to know whether there were people and some soldiers or soldiers and some people. It was the grim, attenuated tragedy of war which had settled down upon and enveloped a whole countryside. And withal, who shall say that it was tragedy pure and unalloyed? Surely not he who has seen a fat German soldier taking his ease in a sunny doorway and grinning broadly at a black-frocked gamin who strolled in his own composure whistling the Marseillaise.
The general character of the Representative's duties in these surroundings necessarily lends itself less to precise statement than in the case of the American Representative in Belgium. Perhaps the French work always corresponded in a very rough manner to the earliest phase in Belgium. Certainly there is no possibility of contrasting sharply in France as in Belgium a "late" period against an "early" one. There was indeed a change in the nature of the French work, due to the Germans' appropriation bit by bit of some of the power at first exercised by the Americans. But this change was too gradual, too stubbornly contested by the Representatives, to admit of a sharp classification. It may be generally said without risk of error that the Representative in relation to the French agencies occupied a more authoritative position than did his Belgian colleague in his own corresponding capacity. This resulted inevitably from the isolation and comparatively unprotected position of the French committees. The American was the one bulwark between the French organization and the Germans. In these circumstances it was not remarkable that his suggestions carried great weight. On the other hand, the North of France Representative was distinctly more hampered and restricted in his movements and enterprises by the occupying authorities than the Representative in Belgium. This was due primarily to the more intensive military control of the French territory, and in the second instance to the German accompanying officer.
A German accompanying officer.---"The American and his German officer": this was not a mere relationship of two human beings---it was an institution. It was a composite of the Siamese twins, a Punch and Judy show, a parliamentary debate, and important quantities of high explosive. I have never been told, but I dare surmise that more than one C.R.B. Director has spent sleepless nights wondering what was happening in those far-off district centers, between the "American and his German officer." The situation was essentially and fundamentally---what shall we say?---peculiar. The American was sent into Northern France to watch the food. The German officer was sent to watch the American. Of course each had his other duties. The American Representative was charged not merely as custodian of the guarantees, but as an agent sent from Brussels to report upon the exact and special needs of his district. The German officer combined with his functions as detective extraordinary a considerable activity in facilitating the moving of foodstuffs and the planing of obstacles. Nevertheless, in the nature of things there existed at each district center a mutual observation bureau. The American and his German officer rode in the same automobile, visited the same communes, talked to the same Frenchmen, slept on the same floor, ate at the same table. It was like an interminable camping trip where two individuals, confined to each other's society, find added to the general limitations of that life the lurking suspicion that "the other fellow" is dipping secretly into the sugar stock. They may like each other, respect each other, desire the utmost good fortune---but, is he really making off with some of the sugar? The American called his officer his "nurse"; what the officer called the American is one of the secrets of the German Army into which we were never able to penetrate. It is a satisfaction to know, however, that in the face of their divergencies of training, ideas, and sympathy, and despite the tension which was unavoidable in their companionship, these German officers and Americans did actually manage to persist month after month in their tasks. And the feeding went on. So that one can afford to be a little amused now at a relationship surely as strange as any since the day when "the animals marched in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo."
French committees.---Glenn's feat with his trainload of flour and his personal sales to the mayors was not indicative of the turn events were to take in the North of France work. Indeed, so little in sympathy did the authorities appear to be with this procedure that a stipulation was placed in the agreement of April 14th, 1915(216) to the effect that: "Delegates of the C.R.B. will not be allowed to accompany cars or trains in transit." However, this restriction worked little hardship other than from the standpoint of romance. Complete arrangements were soon made for handling regularly all foods. Among these arrangements one of the most important factors was the system of French distribution committees.
Almost all occupied France except certain narrow territories near the front received supplies through the Commission for Relief in Belgium. There was a general French committee for financial and distributing responsibility. This was the "Comité d'Alimentation du Nord de la France," or, as it was popularly called, the "Comité Français." It had its office in Brussels. But the French territory itself was divided into six districts: Lille, Valenciennes, St. Quentin, Vervins, Charleville, and Longwy. At the headquarters of each district was stationed an American Representative-and his German officer. It was also the general custom to have a French district committee at the same place. The districts were divided into regions or syndicats, with a local committee in each division. Finally, there were the communes and communal committees. In practice these French committees received, stored, and distributed the food. Shipments were billed from Brussels to the district committees. These made their allotments to the different regions or syndicats according to needs. The railroad was used this far, but the regions had ordinarily to arrange with the communes for the final carting of supplies to the population. Furthermore, the entire system of statistics, financial control, reports, inspection, and statements of needs, functioned through the committees. The communal committees reported to the regions, the regions to the district committees, and these last to Brussels.
In the name of France.---The splendid devotion of her citizens engaged in the feeding service will not be the least of France's glories in the present war. In these days there is so much superlative set down on paper that one hesitates to write in any but the barest terms. Heroism has been proved the common trait of all peoples; no nation holds a vested privilege in suffering. Why talk of the obvious? Yet at the risk of joining the roaring horde of hyperbole strewers, I must express my admiration for the Frenchmen who bore the brunt of this work. If one considers the circumstances of the military occupation, the fact that every inhabitant has been marshaled almost as in a prison régime, the achievement begins to appear in its true proportions. Through all the space of that sad land Frenchmen have co-ordinated their efforts in a sustained enterprise the tediousness of which has been equaled only by its difficulty.
But the tediousness has been swallowed bravely enough, and the difficulties surpassed. And the food has gone to the people. How? Because in each city, each town, each hamlet, a little group of men ---sometimes men and women---has hammered at the task day after day for more than two years. If you went to I------ I do not doubt but that you would still find M. E-----, a senator of France, in his office at the mairie. The mairie has been turned into a Kommandantur, but for some reason the authorities left M. E----- his office. It is as though he had managed to preserve there, concealed somewhere about his great oil portraits and twinkling red grate, a bit of the real France---free France. In that office he has worked patiently through the interminable months. He is one reason why the food has gone to the people.
One day I was allowed to go to C-------, a village only a mile or two behind the trenches. It was the "front line" of the feeding service. Not very much of a village, I must confess: a cluster of grey buildings half battered to pieces by heavy firing. There were bomb cellars here and there, because the place was used as a resting post by the army and was frequently shelled. But, little as was left in this war-swept hamlet to betoken the ordinary measure of human life, there was the local delegate. A rather slight man, I remember, and very nervous. Running to cellars to save your life on the edge of an instant does not conduce to a phlegmatic disposition. But he was there, shells or no shells, cellar or death, and he was doing his work in some sort of fashion. And the food was going to the people.
It was this French organization which the American Representative had as his greatest comfort in his own delicate task.
The German Army.---The other great organization with which the American was in touch was the German Army. I believe, however, that the American was much more keenly aware of the presence of the army than the army was of the presence of the American. One evening, after a long day of inspecting communes, my accompanying captain took me to dine at an officers' mess in a post close behind the front. The chaps were men just off the line, quite a different lot from the various functionaries and officials one comes in contact with thirty miles "inland" from the battle. One young lieutenant gazed at me across the shaky candle-light, and asked very courteously and in perfect English: "But what in the world are you doing here?" I explained something of the C.R.B. and of my own position. He listened with great attention, but said he had never heard of any such relief service. On the whole he took a friendly and curious interest in me, nudged me when it was time to respond to a toast, told me about his work, yet could not refrain from glancing at me now and then as though to say, "After all, my dear chap, it's deuced funny that you should be here." He thought it rather decent of the German Army to give me an automobile to ride in, and hoped I would tell my friends when I went home that not all the Germans were "brutes."
"America! You've never been neutral, you know," he snapped; and then added quickly, "You must pardon me; my brother was killed at my side a few weeks ago, and I am not quite myself."
The incident is a casual one, but represents in a manner the attitude of the army toward the American Representatives. Relations were not intimate. When we were remembered at all, our position was recognized. Personally we were treated with courtesy and consideration. In the society of the army our place was among the officers. English was spoken to us with the greatest goodwill by those who knew the language. Negatively, the army was bound by its agreements to allow the food to be distributed to the population without let or hindrance, and to permit the Representative to supervise and verify the distribution unmolested. Positively, it was necessary to look to the army for means of transportation; telephone, telegraph, and mail service; permits and passports for movements of local delegates, cartmen, book inspectors, etc.; the allotment of suitable office quarters and warehouse facilities for all the committees; and many other authorizations and dispensations.
The greater part of these business relations with the army, however, were maintained through the intermediary of the German accompanying officer.
The American and his German officer.----When the Commission for Relief in Belgium began pushing its enterprise into the North of France, the German accompanying officer came into being. He was part of the agreement finally concluded between the Commission and the German Army authorities. He was attached to the Representative as a safeguard against the difficulties which might be encountered by a stranger in the army zone, as adviser, as co-operator, and as a military precaution against any abuse of the Representative's privileges. As a matter of fact, it is in this last capacity that he lives most vividly in the memories and imaginations of most of the Representatives. The restrictions on the Americans which he was empowered to enforce were sweeping. One was forbidden so much as to converse with a Frenchman beyond the presence of the officer or some other military person designated by him. Joint quarters were taken by the officer and the American in each instance, and countless daily incidents tended to emphasize to the latter the sense of oppression and confinement. Furthermore, for reasons to which I shall refer presently, the position of the officer gradually strengthened itself at the expense of the American's.
It was perhaps this singular relationship with the German accompanying officer which more than anything else made the position of the American in France difficult to define. I have heard it rumored currently in our society at Brussels: "The director sends only the best men to France." On the other hand, there still echoes through our memories the supreme insult which was once uttered: "North of France delegates are about as important as so many mosquitoes." Of course the answer to the paradox is that the circumstances were unique. Effort and accomplishment could not be gauged by ordinary standards. Before I went to Vervins an "old stager" took me aside to caution me. "It's very easy," he said. "Just get on with your German officer---that's all there is to it---get on with your German officer." He put the case too simply, no doubt; but it was true that to succeed we had to "get on." A holiday jaunt to Cologne or Wiesbaden was sniffed at by the Belgian Representatives. But those little friendly week-end trips with the officers helped mightily when there next arose a question of a German soldier being lodged too near a bakery.
A trip to Germany with his officer was a net asset to the Representative; and a munitions discussion may be counted as a disaster. No topic on earth seemed so pregnant of disagreeable possibilities as American shipments of munitions to the Allies. President Wilson was always hauled into the discussion by some hook or crook. While my companions were denouncing him as trying to precipitate war between Germany and the United States, I was usually trying to hide a grin. I could not but think of those at home who were criticizing the President's too-pacifist policy. However, our job was not to settle the munitions question, but to see that the French people ate the food. So we eschewed discussions so far as possible, and there are recorded but few retorts similar to that one, perhaps the most famous in C.R.B. folklore:
"Well, anyway, Captain So-and-so, we elected our President, and you had your Kaiser wished on you."
Some of the Germans were not so lacking in all sense of humor as the nation is reputed to be, and could appreciate the fine lights of this situation. An officer who was a guest at our house one evening remarked to me that I must find my position taxing, even very unpleasant, engaged as I was in a work on behalf of a population hostile to the occupying power, and surrounded as I was by the army's restrictions. "Get out!" exploded my officer. "He thinks he's very cute standing up against the German Army. He glories in it!"
Duties of the Representative.---Besides living on reasonably amicable terms with his accompanying officer, the American Representative had other duties. He was charged generally to assure himself: first, that no imported food was appropriated by the army; second, that an equitable distribution obtained throughout the district. His responsibility extended over an average population of more than 300,000 in an area some thirty to fifty miles square.
This necessitated the establishment of an American office in the district center for the handling of documents and correspondence. Usually one or two secretaries, either German soldiers or specially selected Frenchmen, assisted the Representative at his office. But this "bureau" is by no means to be confused with the hierarchy of French committees. It was entirely separate and apart, the personal headquarters of the American Representative. Through this office passed all communications between the higher French committees and Brussels. Sometimes the Representative required duplicates of important reports and documents, so that his own files might show a complete record of the relations between the committees and Brussels. Shipment receipts passed through the Representative's hands; in some districts he countersigned them himself, in others merely signed an accompanying voucher. In order to be thoroughly aware of the exact condition of supplies from day to day, the Representatives sometimes received telegraphic announcements of arrivals of cars. Furthermore, as the official French reports of stocks, arrivals, distributions, etc., were made to Brussels only once a month, the Representatives in certain of the districts had special reports submitted to them by the French committees, three times a month, once a week, or even daily.
The extreme development of the Representative's personal office was not characteristic of all the districts. Sometimes the French district committee itself maintained such comprehensive files and compilations of statistics as to render it unnecessary to repeat the work. At other posts the German officer and his staff of assistants centralized all the important information, and since the Representative had access to these records he felt that sufficient. "At my own station, Vervins, the division of the district into three (later two) subdistricts, and the absence of any central committee for the whole territory, made an unusual amount of office system necessary.
In all cases, however, the Representative sent out from his office circular and special letters to the French committees transmitting instructions from Brussels, with additional measures added at his own initiative to suit the special features of his district. He wrote calling attention to irregularities, authorizing changes when necessary, and occasionally responding to requests for information or for the settlement of local disputes on the part of the French committees. He furthermore used his office communication system to assemble statistics and information from the different parts of the district at the behest of the Commission for Relief in Belgium or the Comité Français in Brussels.
With the information at hand either in his own office or in that of one of his collaborators in the district center, and with the assistance of his secretary, the Representative prepared his own special reports which he rendered to the Commission's Brussels office. These supplemented the routine reports of the French committees to Brussels. The French reports covered all supplies in general. The Representative gave particular information, when required, on such subjects as clothing, stocks, and needs, the possibility of making up garments in the district, public health and vitality, disposition of empty cans and crates, variations in population, etc. He also reported personally each week on the exact amount of wheat and flour remaining in the district.
In some cases his duty was merely to make sure that the French committee rendered a report on an exceptional subject, such as shortage claims, accidents to supplies in course of shipment, or acknowledgments of indebtedness for food delivered. In other strictly financial relations, as insurance, the dealings were directly between the Comité Français and the district committees. The Representative simply took cognizance of such transactions.
Abroad in the district.---But the organization and direction of his office did not constitute the most important of the Representative's functions. His personal trips or expeditions, his "field work" if you like, made up a far more interesting and valuable part of his duties.
In Belgium there was developed during 1916 a thorough-going system of Inspection and Control. By means of a large staff of Belgian inspectors the Comité National and Commission for Relief in Belgium were able to ascertain the manner of conducting affairs in every commune. No such scheme was possible in France. The much heavier restrictions of the army rendered out of the question the free circulation and easy communication necessary for that work. In some instances inspectors for small regions were allowed access to ten or fifteen communes. But there was no co-ordination or systematization of their work. Consequently the Representative was himself compelled to do an immense amount of traveling and inspecting. He and the German accompanying officer spent days on end touring the country in an automobile. They attended meetings of the district and subdistricts, visited the delegates of the syndicats and regions. The Representative discussed rulings and orders, delivered directly and personally the instructions of the Brussels offices, examined stocks and arrivals, advised as to storage, adjusted rations, settled questions arising between region and district. This personal contact with the French delegates of the middle order---those of the syndicats and regions---one may believe to have had a real value in maintaining the stability of the organization. In the district of Vervins there were some twenty-two (later twenty-five) regions. The Representative tried to visit each regional headquarters once a month. That meant that once a month every regional delegate had a chance to present his grievances, state his needs, ask his questions---in short, put himself in touch with the higher authorities of the relief service. He was by so much the less lost in the wilderness of German occupation.
However, the field work of the representative did not end with the regions. He pushed his investigations and inspections as often as possible into the communes themselves. This statement must naturally be given a reasonable interpretation. There were, on an average, 350 communes in a district. No Representative could score a very large percentage of inspections against that number. But it was possible to choose a village here and there---one in this region, another in that corner of the district---for examination. Thus an idea could be formed as to the way affairs were handled in various quarters. A normal inspection consisted in looking over the books, viewing the storehouse for the food, ascertaining the quality of the protection from the army, inquiring into the manner of distribution, noticing the arrangements for baking, the quality of the bread, etc.
Charleville and Brussels.---What knitted together all the other powers and duties of the American Representative was his close touch with Charleville and Brussels. Charleville, the headquarters of the German officials associated with the feeding service, was also for a time the residence of a Chief Representative for the North of France. With him the local Representatives were able to communicate for information and advice. Occasionally he visited the different district headquarters, and on rare occasions the American Representatives were called to Charleville. However, these relationships were still altogether in the army zone; hence there was always a certain lack of ease and freedom. In May 1916 there ceased to be a Chief Representative for the North of France.
The weekly meeting at Brussels was really the strength of the Representative's position. These meetings were held every Saturday morning, and all Representatives were allowed by the army authorities to attend, except in cases where traveling was "undesirable for reasons of a military character." In practice Representatives were only occasionally detained. The Director of the Commission presided at these meetings, and gave full information regarding supplies, negotiations, policies, dangers, reports, and so many other things that if I enumerated them I should be re-writing the minutes of the last two years. Each Representative was given an opportunity to present his particular problems and questions. Discussion was free, decision finally taken by the Director after hearing all views, and instructions issued. Ordinarily the Representatives reached Brussels, every one with a dozen questions, inquiries, "points" of all kinds, about the work. After the meeting each had a new collection of notes to remind him of his answers and instructions for the coming week.
It is worth adding that the weekly meetings at Brussels saved the situation in more than one respect. In most of the districts the strain told appreciably upon those who occupied posts. The Commission did not ordinarily keep a man in the North of France more than six months at a time. Naturally, the effect of the sojourn depended upon both the particular district and the temperament of the individual. But in almost every case traces of the tension were noticeable. Some men who have been among the best of the Belgian Representatives have been quite unable to remain in the North of France. Against the sultriness and irksomeness of that life the weekly trip to Brussels was literally a godsend. It meant freedom for a day or two, fellow-countrymen, unrestrained intercourse, the sense of being still a human entity. The Brussels meetings probably doubled the period of usefulness of the aggregate of North of France Representatives.
The rôle of the German officer.---It has been stated that the greater part of the Representative's relations with the army was through the intermediary of the accompanying officer. The importance of this fact should not be passed over lightly. One is perhaps a little too inclined to remember these officers' arrogant usurpation of power in the feeding work, and to forget that they did actually render some extremely valuable services. They dealt with railway officials and with local Kommandants. They arranged to have storehouses and offices put at the disposition of the committees. They ousted soldiers from the bakeries, demanded the passports which made district meetings possible, sent telegrams far and wide, escorted Representatives into villages well within the zone of artillery fire. They were the buffers between the American and French organizations on the one hand and the German Army on the other. I well remember the evening when Captain ------ rescued me from the clutches of a decrepit Landsturmer who was marching me off with fixed bayonet to a fate I dare not divine. On the other hand, the officers' control of communications gave them a considerable power over the Representatives. The former had the right to censor all incoming and outgoing mails, not only between the Representatives and Brussels, but within the district. This could give rise to most heated differences, particularly when the power to censor was used to dictate the substance of instructions to local French delegates. Furthermore, by an interpretation of "military requirements" a show of justification was made out for all sorts of interferences in the functioning of the service.
It was not always thus in the North of France. Reference has already been made to the gradual strengthening of the officer's position at the expense of the American's. The fact is that at the beginning of the work the officer was really an "accompanying officer," and was so styled in German: Begleitoffizier. But as time wore on the personnel of the Americans changed. New men, unfamiliar with the work, came to relieve those who had engaged in its creation. It was found necessary to abandon the original custom of having two Representatives at a post; after that in each district one American had to wage his battle alone. The officers remained. Naturally they gained all the advantage of an "old hand" over a "green" one. Unfortunately it was impossible to find Americans who could devote indefinite stretches of time to the task, and man after man had to be replaced. With every replacement the accompanying officer edged his advantage a little farther. He was charged with certain duties on behalf of the German Army in regard to the distribution of native foods. Then he was no longer called officially an accompanying officer, but a Verpflegungsoffizier, an "officer dealing with matters of feeding." In the meantime the American Representatives were disputing inch by inch this aggression into their province. "It is trench warfare," someone once told us, "and you are losing, and you will lose. Only, you must lose as slowly as possible." So we lost as slowly as possible. And the people kept eating the food.
But sometimes a veritable crisis precipitated itself ere one could catch his breath. I had such an experience before I had been in the North of France three weeks. The trouble arose over adding some new communes to the district, and my instructions to visit them and to report to Brussels before sending any food there. The Germans refused to allow me to enter the communes ahead of the food. It was really not a matter of stupendous importance, and was finally compromised by having, first, a meeting of communal delegates from the territory in question but at a point already in the service, then the first shipments, then my tour of inspection. But before we arrived at that arrangement my officer had completely lost himself in rage, I had had to go to Charleville to interview the higher powers, and there had been a special meeting of officials at Vervins. Such were not daily occurrences in the North of France, fortunately, but from time to time life was embellished with that sort of incident. The Representative had usually to rely on the resources of his own judgment at those moments. On the one hand, the maintenance of the guarantees and protective provisions; on the other, the undesirability of an open break with the Germans. It was for the Representative to hit somehow a middle course. The food had to go to the people.
Six districts.---In the Brussels office the big green boards speckled with black and white figures showed supplies going into six districts in the North of France. They were Lille, Valenciennes, St. Quentin, Vervins, Charleville, and Longwy.
Lille District included the territory farthest north, and contained the great industrial centers of Lille, Roubaix, and Tourcoing. Valenciennes lay just southeast, between the Western Front and the Belgian border. This was a region of coal-fields, an extension of the Mons belt. The Representatives for the two districts lived together with their officers at Valenciennes during the greater part of the work. Later the Lille Representative and his officer moved to Tournai in Belgium. But both Representatives dealt with much the same sort of problem: thickly massed industrial and urban populations, comparatively little agriculture, acute distress. At Lille the want was greatest, and the difficulties of the Representative's task were complicated by the fact that he could visit the city of Lille and his chief committee only twice a week. On the other hand, in these districts the business training which accompanies industry gave a high degree of efficiency to the committees.
Next to Valenciennes came St. Quentin, named after the city. Two officers were ordinarily stationed there with the American. The French committee was strong, under the guidance of the mayor of St. Quentin. Altogether the co-operation among the French, German, and American forces was probably more practicable and better in this district than in any of the others.
At Vervins, the district in which my own experience was had, a system of extreme decentralization prevailed. The country was almost entirely agricultural, and the population scattered among a few small cities and innumerable towns and villages. It seemed impossible to effect one organization for the whole district, so three subdistricts were formed. Later two of these were combined. There were thus two or three chief committees instead of one, and none of them had its headquarters with the Representative at Vervins. This meant a considerable amount of office work for the Representative. But finally that was systematized and given largely into the custody of a very capable French secretary. Two or three German underofficers or private soldiers acted as secretaries to the captain attached to the post, and these assisted in the routine work of telegrams, correspondence, etc. Toward the middle of 1916 a lieutenant was added to the German staff.
Charleville(217) was in some respects the most difficult of all posts. The Representative resided, not only with the German officer responsible for the district, but with the officer in general charge for the North of France. Charleville always seemed fairly bristling with "military exigencies," and the Representative found himself hedged about by an unusual number of absurd restrictions. An active, intelligent French committee redeemed the situation in some measure, but it took all the skill and tact which one individual could well muster to cope with the problem. Even here, however, the Representatives could usually assure themselves as to the proper conduct of the service.
Longwy was a straggling district, half agricultural, half industrial. The two German officers were genial spirits; life for the Representative usually ran rather smoothly. There was little office detail and considerable personal touch with local French committees. The most picturesque feature of the work here was the bi-monthly trip into an isolated portion of the district in the Vosges.
A day on the road.---A day on the road in the North of France: it used to be such a casual, how-do-y'-do sort of thing, and already it is tinged with the rambling half-light of bygone romance. . . . .
At some chill morning hour you clambered into the car and plumped down beside your officer. The fat chauffeur trod gingerly around and about his engine. He knew that if it did not start promptly he would be cursed with great German curses. An indefinite number of orderlies and secretaries pottered here and there with rugs and leather bags and things. At last you were off. The secretaries and orderlies froze into indescribable salutes. The car swept through the village and out on the long, thin road, as though determined to fly straight at the trenches, and over them, and to draw up for lunch in Paris.
Too fast and too cold for much talking, so you set about watching for the spire of M----- to appear over the hill-line.
At M----- there was a subdistrict meeting, some fifteen regional delegates gathered to discuss their problems and to receive instructions from the French chief delegate. You and your officer clattered in. Everyone rose. You shook hands with the chief delegate and those nearest, and then sat down at his right. The American was always seated at the right of the chief delegate. It was for the French a way of expressing something they couldn't well say. Did "Monsieur le Délégué Américain" have announcements? Yes, he did---so you pulled your French together with both hands and talked about the necessity of moving stocks of condensed milk to the regions having the fewest cows, and insisted that all empty cans be smashed, and asked where the greatest need for clothing was. Then the officer entered into an interminable discussion of accounts, and everyone nodded, and finally you clattered out as you had come.
On the way to T-----, another subdistrict center, you stopped off at C-----, whence had issued echoes of untoward happenings. Yes, you found it very bad; an inhabitant in charge of distributions had been establishing a private cache of food. Your German officer had a spasm of righteous indignation. He became lobster-red; and his voice soared high and then broke, like a rocket. Had he been proportionately as incensed at Germany seizing the North of France one shudders to reflect upon what might have happened to him. The mayor was called in, and the Kommandant, and the man who had taken the food was removed from his position and replaced. Then you pushed on to T------.
At T------ there was no meeting, but you discussed matters with the chief delegate, explained a letter he had received from Brussels, and had a look at some soap just arrived. A bookkeeper remarked surreptitiously that he was convinced the war would be over within three months. Poor chaps! they had been saying that for two years. But you had little time to spend at the office, for your captain hustled you off to lunch with the Kommandant of T------ They were great friends, your officer and this Kommandant, both from the same city in Germany. So you had a good lunch, and toasts all around; everyone was most agreeable to you; you and the Kommandant resorted to French as a means of communication, and vied with each other as to who could speak it the more atrociously.
After luncheon your officer left to call upon some other friend and found a young lieutenant to "take care" of you. With this substitute twin you looked in upon several communes in the vicinity, thumbed over account books, solemnly smelled loaves of bread, and cocked an eye to the protection signs and the security of the lock on the bakery door. After two hours of that business you picked up your officer, and found he had planned to take afternoon coffee at I-------. You preferred to examine some more communes, but "anything for peace in the family." So you went and drank eight cups of coffee, smoked seventeen cigarettes, listened to German for an hour and a half, understood nothing of it, yawned, silently cursed the day you were born---and when all hope was vanishing your officer announced that it was time to go.
On the way home you persuaded him to stop at one more commune for an inspection. Things were perfectly arranged there, so you felt better. Then the car scudded along, mile upon mile, under a frosty wintry moon. The villages began to loom as great splotches when they slipped into view and passed. As though they had quite bundled themselves up in the night and the cold and the moonlight.
Questions of power.---It must be clear that the North of France Representative had the reins less securely in his hands than the Americans in Belgium. The spirit of the French organization was splendid, and the committees and delegates were eager to receive advice and suggestions from the American. They felt that he was their bulwark. Furthermore, the particular sorrow of the situation in France gave a special zest and enthusiasm to the work of the Representatives there. Yet the practical difficulties were great. The Representative faced the same obstacle which beset the path of the. French---a lack of freedom.
It was therefore a problem of personal ingenuity. Friendly relations had to be maintained in all quarters, German and French alike. Accomplishment had to be by suggestion and discussion with as few "ultimata" as possible. Great care had to be taken not to exhibit too keen a sympathy for the French; on the other hand, it would have been easy to offend the French by an apparent alignment on the side of the Germans. A solution could only be attained by announcing flatly that one's sole consideration was the proper continuance of the work. It was impossible to enter into any other disputes or claims. Were the guaranties being maintained? Was the distribution equitable? Did the people receive the food? Those questions, and those only, concerned the Representative.
For all that, the moral effect was not entirely lacking. Though he might not openly champion their cause, the American was there with the French. He was a friend, obviously, or he would not have come. I am sure the French realized that. I am sure that, quite apart from material considerations, they were glad because of the presence of these young Representatives. And despite all the delicacy of the situation, things could be done sometimes. Those of us who attended a meeting of Germans and Americans at Charleville one memorable day will not forget the discussion of the deportations from Lille.(218) Those deportations were checked shortly after that meeting.
In his own proper sphere the accomplishment of the Representative was probably less satisfactory to himself than to anyone else. The fact stands that the guarantees have been generally maintained and the people have been fed. After all, that is what Mr. Hoover and his colleagues set out to achieve. The test of the success or failure of such an undertaking does not hang upon the question of whether an American Representative has commanded or cajoled a German officer. I recall that I once visited with my captain a commune where soldiers were sleeping in a room opening on the committee's flour storehouse. I was still new to the work. "This must of course be changed , " I observed. "Nothing of the sort," retorted the captain. "Your business is to see that no food is taken by the army. You have no proof that that has occurred here. I deny that you have the right to demand a change." I finally closed a fruitless argument by stating that I intended to report the matter to Brussels. "Very well," snorted the officer. In the afternoon we passed by the place again. The officer absented himself for a few moments, and on returning announced: "On my own initiative I have ordered new arrangements made here. We shall examine them when next we pass in this vicinity. But you understand that it is I who have done this, that I deny absolutely your right to insist."
I grunted, and, still outraged, I privately recounted the whole incident to my Director at Brussels the following Saturday. "If such a principle is admitted," I protested, "the power of the Representative ......
"The power of the Representative!" The director smiled.
"By the way, Simpson," he added, "I believe you said that Captain ----- ordered the place to be put in shape, didn't you?"
"Yes, he did."
"Well, I guess that's what you wanted, wasn't it?" remarked the Director. And I am sure that his eye twinkled.
The front line of relief.---One fine evening in late spring we stopped, the inevitable German officer and I, at a little commune a few rifle shots behind the front., A wrinkled old woman and a bent old man came out of a house to scrutinize us.
"Good evening," I ventured (the officer was in decent humor);
"You don't know me, but I am the American Representative. I am here with the food."
"Really?" exclaimed the venerable person, in wonderment. "He's the American," she informed her husband knowingly. They both looked at me, and smiled. They were too full of years to be overwhelmed by even so strange a thing as "the American."
"They're fighting up there," the old woman remarked just then. I glanced about. Over the dingy grey houses of the village the glow of a fading day still streaked across the sky. Some clouds straggled not far above the horizon, but below them one could make out a few black specks. Each speck gradually expanded, the while it grew dimmer. Of course that meant that near the trenches someone was firing at an aëroplane.
The ancient lady shielded her eyes with her hand and watched the scene. She was still smiling a little, as though to say:
"My word! Americans here, and people always shooting at one another. It's extraordinary how folk act."
I watched her as she watched the specks, which were always appearing and then growing larger and fainter.
I thought of the Commission's New York office, where clerks were scurrying about, and telephones whirring, and people were buying grain by the thousands of tons. Then there was London, with its shipping questions, and negotiations, and finance. I knew the London office too. And I had seen the harbor at Rotterdam, and the grain being sucked out of ships into lighters for Belgium. At Antwerp men were working to transfer some of this grain into smaller lighters for the North of France. At Brussels somebody was forever shifting the little black and white figures on a green board headed "Lille," or "Vervins," or something like that. And back in the town of Vervins itself my secretary was sorting telegrams in his own fashion.
But this old lady and old man standing in the sunset were different. They were what it all meant. New York was a long way off, and over on the horizon shrapnel clouds were floating. An old lady and an old man peering at shrapnel clouds. "And the people were eating the food."
That was really the front line of relief.
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