Mobilising troops, militarily weakening the enemy, administering a foreign country and ensuring the survival of a new population… This is the occupier's great challenge upon its arrival in Belgium. With the railways, ports and industrial production under control, access to foodstuffs was, starting in August 1914, one of the greatest concerns for both the occupier and the occupied. A country whose neutrality was interrupted had to respond to the difficulties imposed by the occupation with regard to supplying the population. Was this a duty that fell to the Germans? To the controlled Belgian government? To the overall international community? The private initiatives of a group of businessmen, of considerable importance within the country, and under the direction of Ernest Solvay (Belgian chemist and industrialist), Emile Francqui (diplomat) and Jean Jadot (industrialist and governor of the Société Générale de Belgique) allowed them to find an answer as of September 1914: the creation of an independent and neutral national supply institution authorised by the occupier, namely the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CNSA –National Relief and Food Committee), and supported by the producer countries directed by the Commission for Relief of Belgium (CRB).
A country whose neutrality was interrupted had to respond to the difficulties imposed by the occupation with regard to supplying the population. Was this a duty that fell to the Germans? To the controlled Belgian government? To the overall international community?
As part of the tension of supplying the enemy and combating famine within the Belgian people, the German authorities, unable to guarantee a system capable of supplying the occupied country, authorised the creation and operation of the CNSA: "We would firstly recall that the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (National Relief and Food Committee), as its name indicates, has been created solely in order to provide food to the Belgian civilian population, and to assist the needy. The institution is essentially private and neutral." (Letter of 7 May 1915. Sent to the chairmen of the provincial committees). Bearing in mind that, at the start of the 20th century, Belgium imported at least one third of the products needed to feed itself, new sources were required and the traditional purchase of foodstuffs no longer responded to the pre-war dynamics.
Over and above the conflict's purely political and military implications, the Belgian population had to be supplied, and the international community decided to collaborate with the CNSA. The plenipotentiary ministers (ambassadors) of Spain and the United States, and later of the Netherlands as well, initiated the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Headquartered in London and directed by Herbert Hoover, future president of the United States, this commission successfully obtained aid from more than 200 commissions providing aid to the Belgians, that were sending supplies and, especially, donating money (easier to transport!), from around the world: Spain, Portugal, Canada, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Ceylon, New Zealand… all ready to help the country nicknamed "Poor Little Belgium" by the press, advertising campaigns and caricatures.
Subject to guaranteeing that foodstuffs would be distributed only to the Belgian civilian population not involved in the conflict and without hindering the occupying administration, food supplies crossed of the country from their place of origin through to the Belgian provinces in boats, regional trains, lorries and even by horse. The arrival of primary foodstuffs such as flour, corn, cans of meat and fish, rice, powdered broth, peas and carrots, depended on a shared effort that was organised in two steps. The CRB was responsible for routing products to the port of Rotterdam, the primary base since the blockage of Antwerp at the start of the conflict, and the CNSA distributed them to the rest of the country with an initial distribution in Gand, Antwerp, Brussels and Liège.
North American aid without the Americans?
Since the start of the conflict, the Belgian population was aware of the key role in its survival played by the American government. Nevertheless, after the mobilisation of American troops, the Belgians were stricken with fear and uncertainty in the early months of 1917; the neutrality of the United States relative to the conflict was the linchpin of the correct and authorised operation of the CNSA and CRB in Belgium.
Once again, relying on the organisation already set up by the Committee, the international community found a way to continue ensuring the supply of the Belgian population: "A new Committee called the "Neutral Committee for Protection of the Supply", made up of Spanish and Dutch subjects, is replacing the CRB with regard to performing its functions in Belgium in terms of the fulfilment of the guarantees given by the various civilian and military authorities and the distribution of aid in Belgium and Northern France." (Letter from the Spanish and Dutch ministers, Marquis de Villalobar et Van Vollenhove, sent to the CNSA Protecting Ministers on 1 May 1917, in view of the American mobilisation in April of that same year).
This Spanish-Dutch Committee for the Protection of the Supply had to deal with certain changes caused by the American mobilisation, such as the departure from Brussels of Brand Whitlock, the United States Ambassador, and the replacement of the personnel controlling the distribution of foodstuffs in all of the provinces. More surprising were occasions when foodstuffs crossing the ocean in the direction of Belgium finished at the bottom of the sea after attacks by German submarines that were not always able to distinguish a boat filled with troops from one filled with bags of flour.
The how and why of the supply
The occupier's authorisation for the operation of the food supply was based on the principle – sometimes not necessarily applied – that the newly installed German authorities did not have the right to requisition imported products. The distribution had to be monitored by the 125,000 CRB agents arriving with the food shipments since the start of the conflict. Cars bearing flags as an indication of their neutrality therefore crossed Belgium in order to protect the correct arrival and fair distribution of the foodstuffs, which also bore the logos of the CRB or the CNSA.
Based on independent operation that relied neither on the controlled administration nor on the new governance established by the Germans, the neutrality of the CNSA was the only way to implement this food supply machine that constituted a state within a state. According to a December 1918 press article in the Gazette de Liège, "At the National Committee, heaven forbid there should be any talk of politics!". However, the country's political organisation since the end of the 19th century was the key to the correct operation of the food distribution. By addressing the conditions for the supply of each Belgian province and community, the products, whether imported or purchased nationally with special guarantees, were available for the CNSA's various programmes. These notably included the School Soup programme and the economical restaurants. For the most part, these products ended up by being purchased, resold or distributed as a result of the application of the rationing rules within the main distribution centres: the Communal Stores.
At the National Committee, heaven forbid there should be any talk of politics!
Talking about the food during the war period necessarily means bringing up products that have left a bitter taste in the collective memory as a result of their repeated usage, such as chicory and rutabaga during the 1914-1918 period. However, what role was played by fish, such as the canned tuna and salmon that found their way into Belgian stomachs in great quantities for the first time during the Great War? Given their previous parsimonious usage, how were rice and corn introduced? The concept of new foods, often forgotten when thinking about the conflict, could be found in each of the cans coming from Spain and Portugal, in the boats containing – thanks to technological progress – cold rooms in order to cross the Atlantic with Argentine meat, tonnes of sugar and coffee sent by Brazil, Canadian and Australian cereals, and bags of corn flour imported from the North American side of the world. The objective of the CNSA, "to properly feed the population at a good price when commerce can no longer do so" facilitated the arrival of 700,000 tonnes of foodstuffs (corn, peas, beans, bacon, cocoa, coffee, malt flakes, bran, etc.) between December 1914 and late October 1915, as well as 320,000 tonnes of flour over the period of the war!
Despite the best efforts…
Provincial burgomasters getting rich while fattening pigs using National Committee goods, abuses in the sale of very poor quality flour in the Communal Stores, quantities below what labourers needed in nutritional terms… this is just a snapshot of the series of complaints that attempted to focuse on the weaknesses of the decisions made by the Committee's central head office or by the various Belgian provinces. A tinsmith (manufacturer or retailer of tinplate objects) from the community of Diest indicated in November 1916: "For about 4 months, I've received no flour from the Diest National Committee. As for a reason, this is what I was told: at that moment, the Committee had beef from America, with few people or no one interested in this product. The Committee therefore wanted to apply some pressure on the buyers of flour in order to oblige them to simultaneously buy beef at 2.45 francs per kilo. I didn't buy any beef and therefore didn't get any flour."
The confrontation between the regulations that determined who, how much and at what price a person could get supplies and the reality that affected the daily lives of Belgian households sometimes led to quite unfavourable situations. With its two main nationwide programmes – the School Soup that guaranteed one serving of soup and bread per day and per child, and the Communal Soup that served the same function for the most destitute – attempted to meet the correct nutritional needs at least once each day, for each person. However, in a letter sent to the CNSA authorities, it is it indicated that "There are, for example, family fathers who can't buy bread from a baker because they receive the communal soup. Bread is given to them at no cost, this is true, but with such a small ration that the free issue is absolutely insufficient for a large family. We're therefore looking after the ways and means of remedying this problem."
The Committee's apparent – and unavoidable – injustices were naturally described in the press and we find that in certain committees, Committee employees were imprisoned, deported and issued fines as a result of authorising the publication of certain communications such as ones that put forward messages of the type: "Who deserves to be shot? Activists, or the men of the National Committee?" (Berchem, 8 February 1918), "It's no mystery to anyone that the Charleroi District is a victim of a difficult situation in terms of its supplies, when compared with other districts" (1918), or calls for community meetings such as the one organised in Sint-Niklaas (Eastern Flanders) that proclaimed: "Well done! Sensational discoveries!! Thefts committed within the committees! For anyone who would like to find out how the rich frenchy Flemish and the big flag-wavers on the committees are looking after feeding the people, they should come to the meeting on Friday, 15 March 1918 at 8 o'clock."
Without going into value judgments nor into generalizations based on a few testimonials of this type, the services provided by the Belgian CNSA go far beyond whatever injustices may have occurred when one realises that, without their logistics, the Belgian famine would have been exponentially worse between 1914 and 1918. The millions of assisted Belgians, especially the ones living in cities far from gardens, potato fields, cows or chickens, are proof of the success of the Committee that, only a few weeks after its set-up in Brussels, expanded to cover the entire national territory. As indicated in a letter sent in 1916, without international aid, the products arriving via Rotterdam would never have made their way to Belgian tables during the conflict: "We must now pay homage to the American nation, without whose generosity Belgium would not have escaped the horrors of famine and the popular insurrections that would inevitably have accompanied it!"
We must now pay homage to the American nation, without whose generosity Belgium would not have escaped the horrors of famine and the popular insurrections that would inevitably have accompanied it!