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Americans in Occupied Belgium Cover

Americans in Occupied Beligium, 1914-1918

Accounts of the War from Journalists, Tourists, Troops and Medical Staff

Ed Klekowski and Libby klekowski

McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2014, 296 pages

Book Review published on: January 12, 2017

This book surprised me. I had little expectation that a volume titled Americans in Occupied Belgium, 1914-1918: Accounts of the War from Journalists, Tourists, Troops and Medical Staff could hold the interest of a serious military professional or student of military history. I expected an eclectic travelogue at best, but the authors delivered a different result. Ed Klekowski is a retired professor of biology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and he writes with his wife, Libby Klekowski. They openly admit that the book grew out of their visits to a daughter and her husband who live in Louvain, Belgium, but they felt compelled to tell this story. They have produced a worthy historical account.

This book capably sets the experiences of Americans who lived or travelled in Belgium during the Great War in chronological context. Most historians of the western front largely ignore Belgium, except for early German atrocities or the battles of Ypres, and they certainly do not set events in the full context from German invasion until war’s end, illuminating the effect of combat on the noncombatants. The Klekowskis do that, and meanwhile they interweave some fascinating tales of personal American experience from a great variety of perspectives. The story of Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium is a principal part of this book. Americans also fought on both sides, Allied and German. Aid workers, ambulance drivers, curious businessmen, nurses, journalists, and adventurers all have a voice in this story.

Ed and Libby Klekowski employ their primary sources in a most adept way, and no pertinent source is wasted. The book is primarily based on the memoirs of those Americans who experienced World War I in Belgium, but it also makes great use of visual records, such as period postcards and photographs, as well as contemporary sources such as newspapers and journals. The Klekowskis have travelled extensively in the region, and their knowledge of place and setting adds much to the tale and is almost scientific in its thoroughness. The book merges the facts of the story with an amplifying visual record.

Americans in Occupied Belgium illuminates the experience of those Americans who were in Belgium when the Germans invaded. One of the protagonists is the head of the American Legation, Brand Whitlock, who remained in Belgium until just before the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. He was a critical actor in mediating with the occupying Germans and in diplomatically ensuring the welfare of American citizens trapped in or transiting Belgium during the German occupation, sometimes at personal cost. Brand Whitlock was both a model diplomat and a selfless humanitarian.

The Klekowskis’ motivation to write the book originated in their visit to the reconstructed library in Louvain, paid for after the war principally by Americans. The inexcusable burning of an entire library of books, including irreplaceable medieval manuscripts during the sacking of Louvain, is one of the great human tragedies of the war, and it certainly contributed to Allied propaganda depicting the Germans as beasts and butchers. This volume amply illustrates the pathos of the Louvain and Dinant sacking. Anyone with any doubt as to the atrocities committed by the Germans against the Belgians should read this book for careful illustration, documentation, and increased understanding.

Book Review written by: Col. Dean A. Nowowiejski, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas