By FRED MARSHALL
Without a doubt there are very few people alive today in the U.S. who remember the concerted effort to save the lives of Belgian civilians during the brutal German occupation of that country in World War One. It is likely, however, that many native Belgians today remember those relief efforts of long ago through stories handed-down from their parents and grand parents. We know that the Belgian people of that day, especially the children, very greatly appreciated the efforts of the United States and its people. And we know this to be fact because of the many hand-written letters of that time that found their way to the U.S.
This relief effort to save the starving people of Belgium had its genesis with future U.S. President Herbert Hoover in 1914. Lisa Franklin of the Alabama Historical Commission and current Site Director at the State Capitol says that the situation in Belgium quickly went down hill after the German invasion in August, 1914. At that time, Belgium relied heavily on imports of food to sustain its population of several million people. Because of the war, these imports of food slowed to a trickle, as the British tightened their naval blockade of Belgian ports.
On the other side, the Germans couldn’t have cared less about the starving people of Belgium. Their objective was to feed their own army. At the same time, the British feared, and rightly so, that if they loosened the naval blockade to allow some food through, the Germans would simply capture if for their own use. Something had to give, and soon, or many thousands of Belgian civilians were destined to starve to death. Pleas went out from around the globe for the British to relax their blockade stranglehold for humanitarian reasons, and that’s when Herbert Hoover became involved.
Finally, after weeks of negotiations, Hoover was able to establish the Commission for Relief in Belgium. The British agreed to let food pass through its naval blockade, and the Germans agreed to let the food be distributed, unmolested, to the starving Belgian people. The Commission would go on to feed more than nine million people a day in Belgium! It wasn’t long before the people of Belgium began to express their sincere appreciation in letters, especially letters from children. Letters poured-in addressed to Mr. Hoover and to Alexander Heingartner, U.S. Consul General in Liege, Belgium. These letters are known today as the “Glory and Gratitude to the United States” letters.
It is reproductions of some of these letters that make up the current exhibit in the Old Supreme Court Library in the Capitol. Lisa Franklin says the exhibit will run through April 30th. The letters are written in French or Dutch and translated into English. One of my favorite letters reads in part: “We thank you with all our heart. We have put you and your families in our prayers. In your honor, we celebrated today the birthday of your dear country, and we sang your beautiful National Anthem.” It is signed: “4th grade pupils from St. Victor’s School, Rue- Hors- Chateau, 61, Liege, 1917.” You need to stop and see it for yourself.