The Royal Belgian Mint has issued a new silver coin remembering the centennial anniversary of a relief organization that aided much of the Belgian populace during the the country’s occupation by imperial German forces during the First World War. The Commission for Relief in Belgium was initiated by Herbert Hoover (1874 – 1964), an American mining engineer who lived London at the time of the outbreak of the war in 1914.
Hoover, a financier, found himself surrounded by his own countrymen who wanted to return to the United States. Whether working abroad or visiting as tourists, many of these Americans possessed meager travel documents and little money to book passage on the few liners still making the journey across the Atlantic. Hoover stepped in and organised an “American committee,” whose essential task was simply, “get the busted Yankee home.” By lending out needed funds and cashing American Bank drafts, the organization was able to repatriate nearly 120,000 Americans by the end of 1918 with a debt of only $300 outstanding.
During this initial period, Hoover’s work came to the attention of the American ambassador to the U.K., Walter Hines Page, who approached Hoover with a the pressing problem of providing life-saving aid to the continent. As the imperial German army had invaded several of its neighbors, conditions in Belgium specifically had deteriorated quickly and substantially. News of deplorable circumstances in Brussels had reached London and it was understood that basic food stuffs needed to be sent to avoid a humanitarian disaster, which could include the starvation of mostly women and children.
Belgium at the outbreak of the Great War was considered a very urbanized country, relying less and less on agricultural industries and more on heavy mechanization. As a consequence, they produced a very small percentage of their own food, relying increasingly on imported food stuffs. Despite the small quantity produced, occupying Imperial German forces requisitioned every bit of food to feed their own troops. Within a short period after invasion, the Belgian people were facing a crisis of sustenance unless food could be shipped in immediately.
The challenge to Hoover was two-fold. One, British forces had imposed a total blockade of Germany and all occupied countries, and getting in any emergency relief would be difficult. The second obstacle was that it was deduced that any kind of foods brought into Belgium would only be requisitioned by the German army. Thus, the Commission for Relief in Belgium (“CRB”) was set up, and their work began in earnest despite the problems that lay ahead.
They would also need to involve another organization already on the ground, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (National Relief and Food Committee), or CNSA, a relief group created in 1914. Directed by the Belgian financier Émile Francquito, the CNSA’s mission was to distribute humanitarian aid to civilians in German-occupied Belgium.
The process was at times complicated and fraught with danger, but the commission undertook the task to obtain foodstuffs from abroad and ship it directly into Belgium, preferably by land. The next step was to organize CRB monitors to supervise its distribution by members of the CNSA. This step was seen as one of the more important cogs in the wheel of procedure, since CNSA employees were in fact living under German occupation and not citizens of a neutral country. As such, these employees were legally required to obey the orders of German soldiers, whereas the employees of the CRB were not. In this instance, orders issued by German authorities could not be disputed or questioned. It was also understood by both sides that the food imported by the CRB remained the property of the American ambassador to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, throughout the distribution process, right up to the point of literally being placed on the plate of any Belgian recipient.
Obstacles also arose from the British government, which took the position that as Germany was occupying Belgium, it should be Germany’s responsibility to feed the Belgians or suffer the consequences of a starving populace and resulting riots. The Germans however blamed the British and their blockades for the Belgians’ need for humanitarian assistance. Ultimately, both sides tried to stop the activities of the CBR and CNSA.
The committee also chartered ships to carry the foodstuffs to Belgian ports under safe conduct terms arranged by Hoover and agreed to by the British and German authorities. In the end, these two relief agencies distributed more than 5.7 million tons of food to more than 9.5 million civilians affected by the war. Not only Belgians benefited in the activities of both relief agencies; it is believed that by the end of the conflict, a total of 11 million Belgians and Europeans had been fed directly or indirectly.
Flour sacks imported as part of this relief work emerged as a means of defiance and inspiration. After their use, these cotton sacks filled by American flour mills were carefully accounted for, as it was feared these valuable bags would be refilled with inferior German flour and re-sold as proper relief-supplied flour. There was also concern that they would be requisitioned by German forces and used in the manufacture of ammunition. Collected sacks were distributed to schools and sewing rooms, where many of them were transformed into clothing and, in some cases, made into delicate Belgian lace. Messages of gratitude were eagerly added to the clothes made from these flour sacks, and motifs of the American eagle and the Belgian lion also appeared together frequently.
After the cessation of hostilities and the singing of the armistice which formally ended the war on November 11, 1918, the Belgian American Educational Foundation became the successor to the Commission for Relief of Belgium, which administered the non-governmental balances of aid remaining in the hands of the commission. Herbert Hoover would go on to become America’s 31st president in 1929, presiding over the outbreak of the Great Depression in the U.S. After his presidency ended, Hoover was given a collection of the well-known four sacks to add to his Presidential library, which houses the largest collection of these war-time items.
Hoover died in 1964 at the age of 90. Although his presidency in the U.S. ranks low in terms of popularity and policy, he is remembered fondly in Belgium for his humanitarian initiatives during the First World War.
The coin is minted in sterling silver. As part of the obverse design, a portrait of Herbert Hoover is positioned next to a depiction of a woman kneeling at the feet of an allegorical figure representing “Belgica” with her three small children. Text around the primary design reads in English, THE COMMISSION FOR RELIEF IN BELGIUM.
The motif of this coin’s design is inspired from a war-time era poster that was prevalent during the First World War alerting people in America to the perils faced in Belgium. The reverse design includes a representation of the European continent with twelve stars representing the EU, along with the text BELGIQUE – BELGIE – BELGIEN, the year of issue, and the denomination of 20 EURO.
|€20||.925 Silver||22.8 Grams||37 mm.||Proof||2500 pieces|
The coin is encapsulated and presented in a custom polished wood case with a certificate of authenticity. For more information on this and other coins offered by the Royal Belgian mint, please visit their Web site. International orders will be dispatched where applicable.