War Conditions in Belgium and England

by Matthew Schaefer

In the course of writing serial posts on Herbert Hoover’s activities during World War I, it occurred to this Hoover archivist that he was giving short shrift to other actors with agency in the drama.  To correct this oversight, today’s blog will respond to Abigail Adams’ challenge to not forget the ladies.

#31-1928-f03 First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.
#31-1928-f03 First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

When America entered the Great War in April 1917, Herbert Hoover was in London.  Lou Henry Hoover was in Palo Alto.  Her initial contribution to the war effort was a 14-page address on war conditions in Belgium and England to the Stanford assembly of students and faculty on April 17th.  She starts by assuming that the audience must know all too well of the suffering of Belgians and the ‘psychology of a people in the last throes of an all-breaking war.’  Lou Henry Hoover will forbear to speak on the condition that the audience put themselves in the place of the Belgians—‘If you can do that, you can realize, a little of their suffering.’

Lou Hoover then presents a nuanced portrait of a nation under siege, painting in vivid detail the Boschian horrors of life under the German boot.  She explains that Germans control all aspects of Belgian life—transportation, production and distribution of goods, and social gatherings.  She then breaks down each aspect.  Germans control all transport–rails, roads, and canals.  If movement of people or goods is permitted, it is snarled in red tape.  For example, women might spend hours walking to the next village in search of bread, only to find none depending on the whims of the bakers and the occupying army.

All economic actions are contingent in Belgium.  Food supplies vary with the season and locale.  Stores are sufficient in fall and early winter, becoming scarce in spring.  Rural areas meet local needs; urban areas struggle.  Finding food for sustenance becomes a daily challenge.  Enter the CRB breadlines which the women go to without shame, carrying a pot for the soup of the day and a cloth to carry home the loaf of bread for their family—trading tickets for rations at schools, theaters and empty storefronts.   Despite the privations, what weighs most heavily is time.  None have work to go to; no food to cook; no travel allowed.  Belgians are imprisoned in their own country, in their own homes, starving for news of friends and family in the next village, let alone news of the war or the world at large.

Lou Hoover then turns her attention to the German occupying army.  For the most part, they embody the senseless overlord, expecting the Belgians to thank them for bringing efficiency to a backward nation.  Germans see the subjugated citizens as either too obstinate or too stupid to appreciate the benefits offered by this infusion of high culture.  Belgians refuse to be assimilated.  This is why America must join the fight, to protect the ideal of national autonomy.

Lou Hoover’s address, ranging from the mundane life of ordinary Belgian women to the most abstract ideals of human endeavor, covering each with grace and accessible prose, reminds this Hoover archivist to not forget the ladies.

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