Note: For some reason the footnotes don't come over from my cut and paste, so you'll have to trust me that I do have footnotes wherever appropriate.
Behind the Lines
Chapter One: August 1914
There Once Was a Nice Little Town in That Place.
On a cold evening in late November 1914, a German officer named Coumbus was drinking with a boisterous group of fellow officers in the luxurious Hotel Astoria. Situated in Brussels, Belgium, on Rue Royale near the city's major park, the hotel was in the fashionable upper part of town and had been commandeered by the German occupation forces for their officers, staffs and privileged guests.
A little more than three months before, on Tuesday, August 4, the German Army had started World War One by invading neutral Belgium on its way to its real objective, France, and Coumbus had been a part of that invading force. A "fine-looking man" with "agreeable manners," he was in his mid thirties and had lived in England for years before returning to Germany to become a cavalry officer in the Kaiser's army.
Even though it was late -- past midnight -- and all the other Germans had stumbled off to bed, Coumbus stayed at the table and spoke in perfect English to two Americans, E.E. Hunt (a war correspondent) and Lieutenant Herbster, USN (a neutral observer) visiting the German-occupied city.
Referring to the August days of the invasion, Coumbus calmly stated that the Belgians " 'do not understand war, and they do not understand the rules of war. I remember once riding into a little town down here in the South of Belgium and finding my four scouts lying dead in the streets. Civilians had butchered horses and men – shot them from behind.
" 'I ordered my men to go into the houses and kill every one they found. Then I ordered them to burn the town.'
"He leaned back in his chair and took a short swallow from his drink.
" 'There once was a nice little town in that place. There is no such town now.' ”
Hunt would never forget the German's calm, brutal words, and they would follow him as less than a month later in December he joined a small group of Americans who would try to save more than 9 million Belgian and French civilians from starving to death.
The interlacing stories of German brutality, Belgian resistance, the struggles against starvation and the American men Hunt joined in the burgeoning Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), all began back in those chaotic days of August 1914 when the Germans attacked the little Low Country. Few could have guessed it then, but the invasion acted like a toppling domino that would cause a tumbling together of extraordinary people into a chain reaction of life-and-death situations far from the trenches and killing fields of World War One.
And hanging in the balance were millions of civilian lives.
It is a story that few have heard.
* * *
The Invasion: August 4-30, 1914
"To understand Germany, you must think in centuries."
While the German who said that believed he was speaking philosophically about his country alone, he was aptly describing the soul of every European power at the turn of the twentieth century. Major conflicts from the past such as The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) were still very much alive in the hearts, minds and attitudes of many Europeans. As a result, each country's collective memory was as much comforting as it was confining and controlling.
So it was inevitable what happened next.
By the summer of 1914, decades of European political posturing, diplomatic wrangling, treaty negotiations and international skirmishes – inflamed by the June 28th assassination of Austria's Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie – led inescapably to Tuesday morning, August 4, when a million German soldiers comprising five German armies amassed along the country’s western border.
This was the largest invasion force ever assembled and it was to follow Germany's revised Schlieffen Plan of attack, which called for the five armies to sweep in a wide arch through Belgium and down into France, overwhelming the French Army and capturing Paris for a quick victory. This was essential, the German General Staff believed, so it could shift troops to the eastern front and help its Austro-Hungarian allies defeat the Russians before they could fully mobilize their troops. It was critical that the sweep through Belgium be lightning fast or the Germans would be caught in a prolonged, two-front war.
Belgium was no stranger to invading armies. In fact, it was known as the cock-pit of Europe, referring to the cock-fighting ring where two fierce roosters would battle to exhaustion or death...
End of First Few Pages.