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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 January, 2005, 12:25 GMT
History's other great relief effort
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

It does not detract from the relief operation in Asia to question the title almost routinely given to it as the "world's largest relief operation ever".

World War I ruins of Louvain in Belgium
People were fed by the relief effort throughout the First World War

The huge American undertakings that fed millions of people during and after the World War I rescued not sections of populations but whole peoples.

Today they have been largely forgotten.

Yet 10 million people relied on food shipped in during the German occupation of Belgium and Northern France between 1914 and 1918. Tens of millions more were kept alive right across continental Europe after the war.

These operations saw nearly 11m metric tons of supplies delivered at a cost of nearly $3bn -- and that is the dollar amount from the time. The US government ended up paying for most of it, though Britain and others did contribute.

In 1921 there was another massive operation to help a further 10 million starving in the Soviet Union. Even so, an estimated one million people died in that famine.

The Hoover way

The common factor in all these operations was a man who later became an American president reviled for not doing enough during the great depression - Herbert Hoover.

Between 1914 and 1922, he certainly did something. He got money from governments and charity, sailed his own fleet which flew his flags, took over railways, set up a telegraph network, issued his own passports, made treaties with governments, negotiated safe passages through war zones on land and sea and saved countless lives.

It was not a charity he ran. It was an industry. It was almost a state.

A British diplomat remarked that Hoover had set up a "piratical state organised for benevolence."

Herbert Hoover was a successful mining engineer and businessman in London when war broke out in August 1914. A hundred thousand American tourists had to be got back home and he was called on to organise their return.

He did so. If they had no money, he lent his own, accepting only promises of repayment in return. Only a very few were not honoured. One lady demanded a written assurance that her ship would not be attacked by a German submarine. He wrote out the assurance himself.

Natural choice

His flair and drive made him a natural choice to lead a relief effort when it became apparent that Germany, under a naval blockade by Britain, was not able or willing to feed the people under its occupation in Belgium and North East France.

Hoover set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium, and, as a neutral American, negotiated with the British and the Germans. The British were suspicious and Hoover was even accused by the Admiralty of being a spy. He used the same argument with both sides - the United States would look more favourably on them if they helped civilians. They did so.

The first ship, the Coblentz as it is called in the official record, left London on 7 November 1914 for the neutral Dutch port of Rotterdam with 1018 tons of wheat, rice, beans and peas.

A further 1319 ships crossed the channel, negotiating minefields by agreement with the belligerents, and another 993 came across the Atlantic. A few ships were lost but 5m tons were shipped. The operation continued even when the United States entered the war in 1917.

It all cost money of course - more than $800m, much of which came from the United States. Belgium and France took out loans to pay for some of it but these loans were abandoned in the Depression of the 1930s.

A history of the operation concluded: "It may be pointed out that a large portion of the 10m people in the occupied regions might have perished."

With America in the war, Hoover was sent to organise food production and distribution at home. So successful was he in getting people to economise that the word "Hooverise" took its place for a time. His efforts meant that there was enough food to spare to send to Britain and France.

Battleship network

Then came peace. He now had to feed millions in the defeated countries as well, including Germany. Through the American Relief Administration (Ara), he organised the distribution of nearly 6m tons to almost every country in Europe.

Herbert Hoover, relief organiser and later US president.
Herbert Hoover, relief organiser and, later, US president

Hoover left some vivid accounts in his memoirs about the problems he faced.

His communication network was particularly enterprising. He persuaded Admiral Benson, the US naval representative at the Versailles peace talks, to station a destroyer or cruiser in every major port. He then used the ships' telegraphs to pass his messages to and from Washington.

When the Navy went back home, he got governments to assign telegraph circuits to his own network, which he staffed with US soldiers. He even rented these lines back to diplomats at the Versailles peace talks.

Once, he appointed one his team, Col Anson Goodyear, as Duke of Teschen - then a city in Austria. The colonel asked what his powers were. "To stop food if they don't cooperate," Hoover replied. The colonel accepted the title.

His cohorts re-organised the broken railways of Europe, using barter if necessary to trade rolling stock. One message to headquarters read: "Have arranged sell Galicia ten locomotives for eggs. How many eggs go to a locomotive?" The reply was laconic: "Does not matter. We have no confidence in age of either."

Hoover was invited to a display by children in Warsaw. He wrote: "They had been brought in from soup kitchens in trainloads, 50,000 of them. Each carried a paper banner of American and Polish colours."

A French general, he reported, broke down in tears, commenting to Hoover: "There has never been a military review in history which I would have preferred to the one given to you today."

And all during his time in Paris, from where he directed his organisation, he did little but work. "I did not go to a single theatre. I visited no museum or gallery. I never went into a shop. I worked from 12 to 18 hours daily," he wrote.

A history of the Ara said: "The peoples of Central and Eastern Europe would have died by the millions in the greatest famine the world had seen in 300 years."

Soviet famine

Even more remarkable perhaps, given the politics of the time, was the American relief operation in the Soviet Union in 1921.

The Bolsheviks had not been in full control for long when famine started taking hold along the Volga. The writer Maxim Gorky put out an international appeal "to honest European and American people."

Hoover responded. However he insisted on having a free hand which was reluctantly granted.

He got $20m from the US Congress and set up yet another relief administration.

In his book about the relief expedition "The Big Show in Bololand", Bertrand M. Patenaude describes how one of the front-line workers, 29-year-old Will Shaforth, reported seeing a group of villagers digging a pit near the city of Samara. But there were no bodies to bury. They told Shaforth they were preparing a mass grave "for the dead to come", saying they feared they would not have the strength to do it later.

The new relief team organised food shipments from abroad, railway timetables, convoys of horse-drawn wagons - one of which trekked 100km across snow from Finland - warehouses and soup kitchens. By now it was almost a well-practised routine.

Helping 'Bolos'

They called the Bolsheviks "Bolos" and the Soviet Union "Bololand."

The "Bolos" later thanked Hoover "in the name of the millions of people who have been saved."

Years later, during the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev tried to downplay the American relief effort by reducing the number to "thousands."

It is strange that Hoover, so effective in relieving hunger, was later so ineffective as president.

He served only one term and in 1932 lost to Roosevelt and the New Deal.


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