The docks of Bruxelles-Maritime in 1916. Men, women and children stand watching as bags of flour are being discharged under the flags of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Before the war, Belgium imported 80% of its cereals. With the German occupation, these importations ceased brutally. The country was caught in a stranglehold: Germany refused to provide invaded countries with food, whereas Great Britain imposed a maritime blockade against the enemy. The population’s survival was directly threatened. This brought about the establishment of a vast international campaign for “Poor little Belgium”, creating a provisioning system under the protection of neutral countries, thereby avoiding a catastrophe.
Between 1914 and 1918, the Commission for Relief in Belgium transported more than five million tons of food to Belgium. The Comité national de secours et d’alimentation (National Relief and Food Committee) took over and distributed the food to local shops throughout the country. This apparently simple organisation was the result of long diplomatic negotiations. It was repeatedly threatened by the Germans, but also by the United States’ entrance into the war, since it was the main provider and funder. This gap in the international blockade nevertheless allowed to feed the Belgian population for more than four years.