A Day at the Belgian Relief Stations
Where American Wheat Is Feeding Hundreds Of Thousands
Of People—The Exact System By Which Every Loaf Of
Bread Is Accounted For—How The "Little Bees"
Care For The Children—Helping The
Belgians Help Themselves.
By Arno Dosch
[The World's Work, March 1915]
Crossing the Pont des Arches and starting up a narrow street in Liège one morning last December, I was caught in a stream of people all headed in the same direction. I had been out merely strolling about the city and noting the evidences of the German invasion, but here I found myself forced to walk faster to keep out of the way of the people who kept crowding in behind me.
The still narrower side streets and the alleys in this, the oldest, part of Liège were also spilling people into the stream, as I could see ahead, and the far end of the street was filled to capacity with a steadily moving mass. Rather against my will I quickened my pace considerably, but was barely able to keep up with the single-minded body which was marching along like an army.
I had the curious sensation of being thrust suddenly into some solemn civic activity and the effect was heightened by the absolute silence of the marchers. The only sound came from the clatter of wooden shoes on the paving stones. Parallel thoroughfares, glimpses of which I caught at side streets, were also full of silent people with clattering feet.
At the head of the street, nearly a quarter of a mile from the bridge, the streams converged before a narrow passageway close beside the Cathedral of St. Paul. Into this four people in a row, all the passageway would hold, were stepping at an even brisker gait. They did it almost as if they had been trained, so there was no crowding or delay. I noticed now the people beside and ahead of me had filets, the little nets with which people in France and Belgium go to market, and, as we came out of the passageway and passed the statue of Jean del Cour, they began to take from their pockets pasteboard cards about the size used in filing cabinets.
In a moment we passed under an archway into a courtyard, and one glance at the courtyard showed me what it was all about. On every side there were heaps and heaps of dark, crisply baked bread, sorted in bins according to the size of loaf. Many of the piles were from ten to fifteen feet high, and from them all came a rich, wholesome smell. It gave me a thrill of pride to see them because I knew every loaf was made of American flour given by the American people.
As fast as the people came they presented their cards and the dexterous citizens at the bins handed out the bread called for. The lines were coming almost at a double-quick, but they were disposed of so promptly they were passed out the other side of the courtyard before they could get in the way of those behind.
It was twenty minutes past eleven by the Cathedral clock as I passed through, and the distribution had been under way twenty minutes. It continued at that rate until after two, and during that time bread was given out for 60,000 people. For each there was 250 grams, the day's ration. The baking was done mostly in small, round loaves, with plenty of crust, and, though there was not more than three slices to a portion, it was enough.
The daily distribution of bread made from American flour had at this time been going on for a week. There was enough wheat in Liège to keep going several more days, and by that time more canal-boat loads were expected to arrive. It was hoped, but there was no certainty, that there would be no break in the distribution. For Liège and that whole end of Belgium had no wheat or grain of any kind of its own, and if the American grain failed to arrive there would be no bread.
Meanwhile Verviers, Herve, and the district around devastated Vise were calling for their share and it was a stretch to make the grain on hand go around. At that the wheat was being ground as coarse as possible. The difference between the weight of the wheat as it went into the mills and the resultant flour was only 10 per cent. At this time it had been impossible on account of the slowness of transportation and the difficulties of organization under strict military rule to attend adequately to either the Province of Limburg on the north of Liège or the Province of Luxemburg on the south. Farther south yet was the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, also asking for grain and anxious to pay for it, but it was beyond the jurisdiction of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium, which was shipping in the supplies.
The American Commission, organized under the chairmanship of Mr. Herbert Hoover, an American living in London, had within a few weeks reached a point where it was handling millions of dollars' worth of food a month. It was all shipped straight to Rotterdam and there transferred to canal boats for shipment to Belgium. As soon as it crossed the border it was under the protection of Mr. Brand Whitlock, the American Minister, in Brussels. It also remained under his protection until eaten, although he handed it over for local distribution to the Belgian National Society of Relief, the untranslated name of which is Comité National de Secours et d'Alimentation. Without the assistance of this capable organization the work of the Americans would have been very difficult and much less effective. It had the organization and the American Commission had the food. Neither could do without the other, but together they worked admirably.
A CARD INDEX OF NEEDY PEOPLE
The Belgian National Society was responsible for the card system I saw at work. Each card represented a known need. It had been issued by the society after investigation. I must hasten to add, however, that this investigation was a communal affair made with the assistance of mayors, and did not bear the imprint of charity. No one was pauperized, and no one need feel ashamed to apply. Those who had money were paying, and those who did not were victims of war. A record of what every family got was kept. For that matter, when it comes to a final accounting, it will be possible to show what part of the American food went into every house in Belgium. The system is as complete as that.
When I went into Belgium after the American food began to arrive, I thought, as most of the people at home probably think, that Americans were doing whatever was done. I pictured Belgium as not only prostrate, but helpless. I expected to see whole stretches of country uninhabited, as they were after the first sweeping movement of the German invasion. But I found that only about twelve per cent, of the Belgians had emigrated. The prominent citizens of communities, the usual leaders in public movements, were all there, trying to save their wreck of a country from even a worse fate. They had been working on the question of food from the very beginning, and for nearly four months had done it without outside assistance. They received no help until it became a certainty Belgium would starve if left to itself and Mr. Whitlock sent his appeal to the American people. Meanwhile the working people in the many manufacturing districts, who were never more than a week or so from starvation at any time, had to be fed and the Belgians did the feeding.
I have before me a report of the Comité' de Secours aux Victimes de la Guerre, formed at Verviers to take care of that city and the surrounding communes, on the ninth of August. The first three days it distributed about 100 francs a day. Within two weeks it was ' giving away bread and was spending 15,000 to 18,000 francs a week. By the twentieth of August it was feeding 13,000 people and has been feeding more than 20,000 a week since, with a weekly expense of more than 20,000 francs. It was also giving away 5,000 quarts of milk a week. I attended a meeting of that committee held around the directors' table in the National Bank of Verviers. All the prominent bankers, manufacturers, and business men were present, and voted the weekly appropriation out of their own pockets.
RATIONS OF 250 GRAMS APIECE
Verviers had bread that day for the first time in more than a week. It had received a small shipment of American flour, enough to take care of the one day. It had been divided into 35,000 rations of 250 grams apiece. It was necessary to get more flour there at once, which was not easy as Verviers is right up against the German border, but the American Commission was doing what it could.
What was going on in this little corner of Belgium was going on everywhere on a much bigger scale. The National Society, with headquarters in Brussels, was trying to cover the whole country, but local committees everywhere were helping, too. Long before the Americans took a hand the Belgians were at work. At first it was a question of money. There was food for those who could buy, but by the first of the year food was giving out and could not have been bought at any price if it had not been sent from America.
In Brussels the work of relief also began in August and was placed on a practical basis at once. Every one was given short rations, and all who could were required to pay. Each was given 200 grams of bread and half a litre of soup, for which five centimes, or one cent, was asked. For the price you might expect something pretty poor, but I ate some of this bread and soup, and it was very good. The bread I ate, by the way, and the rice and salt in the soup came from America. This was three months later, however, and by this time very few were able to pay even the one cent.
A RECIPE FOR 49,000 PORTIONS OF SOUP
One of the chief satisfactions in feeding the Belgians is that they know how to get the most value out of the food. The soup in Brussels is made according to recipes carefully made out by the best cooks in the city. The quality does not seem to be affected even though it is made in large quantities. The soup I ate and found so good was made to feed 49,060 people. It was cooked in kettles holding a hundred gallons. This is the recipe for the whole of it:
5,000 kilograms of potatoes,
900 kilograms of meat,
1,200 kilograms of carrots and celery,
500 kilograms of onions,
500 kilograms of rice,
500 kilograms of crusts, and
70 extra kilograms of fat.
That much soup was feeding about one fifth of the people in Brussels who came to the points of distribution that day. Altogether there were 280,000.
In addition to this, another society, the Little Bees, have been taking care of all the children under three. It has done its work so thoroughly that every child it feeds is on a diet prescribed by a doctor. He distributes cards covering five months, and, by the color of the cards, as soon as a mother or sister appears for a child's daily ration, the attendants know at once what proportion to make out.
As Mr. Whitlock has made it his business to keep a close watch on the distribution of American food in Belgium, I sought his advice on how to see the machinery in operation. The result was an informal, but thorough, inspection made by Mrs. Whitlock and me under the leadership of Mr. Jarvis E. Bell, an American who went from London to Brussels, at his own expense, of course, to act as general supervisor of distribution.
The first thing I discovered was that no distinction was being made between what food was supplied by the United States and what was supplied by Belgium, once the books showed the record and it was determined all the food was going to hungry Belgians. The Belgians were made to feel that we were a great and generous nation coming to their rescue. They knew how we felt as a people toward them and they were conscious of the generosity, but I think they were even more appreciative of the way in which it has been done.
A CONTEST IN COURTESY
I make this point because it might very easily have been done wrong. But Mr. Whitlock, who knows the Belgians and appreciates their sense of courtesy, has insisted on keeping in the background and acting as much as possible through the Belgians. As a matter of fact, if it had been our national purpose to take all the credit for sending food to the Belgians, no better means could have been devised. For the Belgians appreciate generosity of spirit even more than generosity of pocket. You need only ride through Brussels with an American flag on the automobile to see the respect paid to it. The Belgian National Committee, not to be outdone in courtesy, has insisted on giving Mr. Whitlock complete reports, even insisting upon his experting their books. So the working arrangement could hardly be better, and it has come about in a manner that is typically Belgian: through a contest in courtesy.
When we three were taken around Brussels to see the work of relief we were shown some things with which the Americans have little to do. At the time the distribution of American food was confined largely to wheat, rice, salt, and staples of that kind. By the time this is published, however, it will include almost everything except a proportion of the meat and vegetables. For the existing amount of food in Belgium could almost be measured, and it was expected the pinch would even affect the well-to-do by the middle of February. They could still buy food that would be a luxury for the poor at any time, but they were already buying bread made from American wheat. Every mouthful I ate in Belgium, I could not help realizing, was diminishing the total supply by just that much.
For the poor, and for the families of working men and clerks, the free distribution of food was already a necessity by September and had been growing in importance up to the time I saw it in operation in December.
HOW THE FOOD IS HANDLED
Not to make ourselves too conspicuous we went on foot to the first point of distribution. But we were easily distinguishable as Americans, and, as we passed the waiting line, we received smiles and nods, as much as to say, " O, yes, we know who you are. You are friends of ours." At the moment a wagon was being backed up to the curb and out of it big kettles full of steaming soup were being carried into the building. I noticed that most of the people in the line sniffed the fragrance of it as it passed over them. The kettles were quickly placed at half a dozen convenient points close beside bread bins, and the doors immediately opened. On both sides of the kettles and at the bins were volunteer helpers, mostly girls and young women of more prosperous families, who had been long enough at their tasks to be quick and sure in their movements. The applicants, each carrying a pitcher, came in, half a dozen at a time, with their cards in their hands, and passed through what seemed to me at first a mere formality. Each card was marked to show the "sale" had been made, and the appearance of that particular card was recorded. It took only a second and did not cause any delay, but, aside from the necessary record, it had another purpose. At the end of the distribution the record showed at a glance who among the regular "purchasers" had not come. Within an hour the mayor of the district and the priest of the Parish would be at the home to find out what was wrong.
I could see that the applicants sought particular girls. A friendly relation in each case had already sprung up, and some words of greeting or inquiry were always made. The place had none of the atmosphere the phrase "soup-kitchen" connotes. It had a certain social aspect, and, far from feeling pauperized by the taking, the applicants enjoyed the democracy of it. No other race, not even the French, could have kept the air of charity so completely out of it.
If they were at all conscious of our presence, they did not show it. I was sure they knew where the wheat came from to make the bread, but only a few said anything. They felt it would embarrass us. One old woman, holding up her loaf, so she could get the fragrance of it, remarked, "You have good grain where you come from." To which Mrs. Whitlock replied, "You have good bakers."
There was a certain expedition to the serving I did not at first understand. And, once the applicants had their pitchers filled and bread in hand, they did not waste any time. When I asked, I learned some of them had to go several blocks to get home and the family was sitting around with waiting soup bowls hoping to get their meal while it was still hot. In most cases, I fancy, they did.
About four thousand people were getting their food from this point, but it was all over within the hour. Meanwhile relays of hot caldrons of soup kept coming, so those who arrived last were just as well taken care of as those at the head of the line. It was figured down to such a nicety that there were not fifty portions of bread left, and about an equal proportion of soup. The Belgians leave no margin for waste.
Next we went to the source of the soup, a large, circular building, one of several of the actual soup-kitchens. The whole place was filled with a delicious fragrance. The morning's soup had no sooner departed than the evening's soup was being prepared. Here I learned how it was possible for the pitchers of soup to arrive on individual tables before nearly 300,000 people still piping hot. The departure of the wagons for the various points of distribution had become so carefully systematized, not a second of time was lost and boiling kettles were sometimes delivered still boiling a quarter of a mile away from the kitchens.
A COMMUNAL SYSTEM OF PAYMENT
There is just one more step in the backward progress of the soup necessary to tell. Each commune paid for its own. Those who still had money paid for those who did not. The man, for instance, who could afford to pay five cents, bought for four other people besides. The daily cost was distributed among the communes served by the central kitchens and they paid their share.
The bread was all baked in communal bakeries. There was just one line of cleavage, Catholic or Socialist. Each baked its share, the ingredients being provided by the commune, the commune getting its flour from the National Society, which, in turn, received and accounted for the American wheat. These bakeries also bought flour on their own account, for, after all, only 280,000 of the 800,000 people in Brussels were being fed and the rest were buying their food as usual. But to make bread it was necessary to have flour, and there was very little left except the American flour.
NO FOOD FOR GERMAN SOLDIERS
Here and at one other point there were difficult problems to solve. Some of this bread was sold to soldiers and some to families with whom soldiers were billeted. It would not do for the soldiers to have any of the American food. The American Commission had guaranteed neutrality would not be broken in that way. Mr. Whitlock took the members of the Belgian Society into conference and they decided, after a trial, that they could find out through the bakers where the bread was going. This could not have been done if it had not been for the organization already at work. There were a quarter of a million soldiers in Belgium. Their presence had to be determined by commune. But it was successfully done and the amount of bread consumed by them was figured out. These figures Mr. Whitlock submitted to the German military authorities and they were promptly accepted. Flour to make that amount of bread was delivered by the Germans.
Here at the beginning it was chiefly a question of bread, which offered a comparatively simple problem. As other foods have given out the detail has grown. But no difficulty in determining the amount of food eaten by the soldiers was anticipated. The hotels were the gauges and they showed the practicality of an exact record. They kept account of whether their guests were civil or military and struck an average. As far as I saw their question was still one of flour only, but they felt they could as easily make the division through the whole kitchen.
In one hotel in which I ate in Brussels seventy-five per cent, of the guests were German officers, so seventy-five per cent, of the bread had to come from the German army supplies. Another hotel, entirely occupied by German officers, could not get any American flour. In a restaurant in Tirlemont I noticed the German soldiers were being served one kind of bread, and the civilians another. The proprietor told me he found that the easiest way to keep the matter straight.
One reason why it has been possible to preserve the neutrality of the American food is the eagerness of the Belgians to see it done. There is no part of Belgium where there is the least conciliation between the Belgians and the German army of occupation. Everything the Germans eat is resented, and the record is burnt too deep into hate to be overlooked.
THE WORK OF THE "LITTLE BEES"
The work of the Little Bees is not shadowed by this problem. They feed only babies and little children, and German soldiers will not take food away from children. Mrs. Whitlock and I were taken to a dozen of their places. Mr. Whitlock might have gone on this occasion, but begged off. "It's too pathetic," he said, "I can't bear to stand and watch those distressed children passing by."
The first place we went to was in a department store, which, in itself, gives some idea of the collapse of business in Brussels. It was the day before St. Nicholas Day, the sixth of December, when every Belgian child receives a present. A floor of the department store was given over to the arranging of presents for the 2,200 little children who were daily supplied with food at this one point. Each little package was marked with a name. Despite the number, the gifts were not to lose individuality. Each child was to get its own, marked with its own name, and the gift was to be handed by some one who knew the child. The fifty or more girls busily putting the finishing touches on the arrangement had the whole affair in hand, and I doubt whether three of them were twenty years old.
FEEDING CHILDREN BY PRESCRIPTION
The Little Bees do all their own cooking on the spot, and on the stoves were big kettles of chocolate and soup. On a counter were the accessories which go to make up a baby's diet and close at hand were the cans of milk. As a mother or sister came in, usually carrying the child, she held a card in her hand, issued by the doctor who had examined and prescribed for the child. The cards were in six different colors, and frequently the applicant had more than one. I carried away a set of these cards. The yellow is for milk, green for half milk and half phosphatine, red for phosphatine, pink for half milk, orange for cocoa, and blue for soup and bread.
If the child thrives, it is examined only once in five months and its diet advanced. But the sickly are under constant attention. The girls at the counter never let a sickly child pass without inquiring into the circumstances, and frequently sending the mother directly off to the doctor. As this was a district of ignorant Marollians, they made sure it was done by taking up the cards. To get more food for the child necessitated a visit to the doctor. For all their gentleness and their eagerness over the children's presents these girls could be firm.
One of the kitchens of the Little Bees was at the house of Mr. Lewis Richards, the American pianist. Six hundred came there. Here, as in every place I saw food being distributed in Belgium, the arrangements were models of neatness. And, of all the work that had to be done every day, all was volunteered except the peeling of vegetables. An old woman was hired to do that. The soup was provided by voluntary contributions in the neighborhood. As each woman marketed for her own house she bought and had set aside a portion for the soup. The Little Bees gathered this up.
AMERICANS COORDINATING RELIEF WORK
The Little Bees were beginning to get some of their supplies from the American food. They have taken to themselves the task of seeing that no little children suffer; but, as the society is almost entirely in the hands of girls, their efforts are necessarily local. Like the National Society they are also hampered by the difficulty of getting permission to go about the country. On this account the representatives of the American Commission, about thirty when I was in Belgium, serve as the connecting links for all the different societies in the whole of Belgium.
If the local Belgian organizations could hold a meeting in Brussels, the work of food distribution would be much simplified. But the Germans are not permitting gatherings of Belgians for any purpose. So the American skeleton organization has become the framework on which the whole gigantic business has been hung.
This difficulty in moving about has resulted in a remarkable organization in Brussels for the distribution of clothing. It was less than six weeks old when I saw it, but no jobbing house was ever better prepared to handle rush orders. During the short time I was at the headquarters a man came in from Namur and another from Mons. Each required many different varieties of clothing, which had to be supplied at once, as the passes they had obtained allowed them only the one day in Brussels. Namur needed full equipments for sixty new-born babies. Both needed stockings, underwear, shoes, clothing, and so on, but the baby layettes struck me as being the most difficult things to assemble in a few hours. But Madame Phillipson Wiener, who received the requests, and Madame Renée Verhoog, who superintended the immediate delivery, knew at a glance that they could deliver the requirements. I followed Madame Verhoog into the warehouse, as she went from room to room and instructed the women in charge in each room what to deliver and from what point to refill the depleted shelves, so they would be ready for the next "customer." Presently we entered a room in which all the shelves were piled with little bundles of sterilized linen. These were the layettes.
Women are in entire control of this depot for clothing distribution, and they told me proudly they had not yet failed to deliver within an hour every request made upon them. They have hundreds of women working for them, washing, sterilizing, and sewing. Their wages are paid by voluntary contributions. I also noticed many piles of new clothing. These had been donated by stores.
The old clothing department is the most interesting. Despite the need for quick action, the old clothing is fumigated on arrival. A wing of the National Bank of Belgium was the fumigating department. Each piece is gone over and warehoused, awaiting demand, and the clothing which seems too far gone for any use is turned over to Madame Victor Pechère. In her department she had whole rows of warm winter caps for children made from the tops of old stockings. Old shirts became little dresses. I remember particularly a pair of short trousers for a boy of six made from a pair of man's trousers which were good only from the knee down.
The Belgians are capable. They do things well. In ordinary times Belgium is efficient, and asks aid of no one. For that matter it has asked none now. It went ahead doing the most with what it had left. That is what makes the participation of the United States so satisfactory. Even under the difficulties of a severe military rule the Belgians find it possible to make the best use of everything. Whatever comes from America is received in the spirit, in which it is given, and is used to the best advantage. We are merely helping the Belgians weather out a storm.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald