The Red Cross: Aid, Relief and Negotiator in the Great War

  • National WWI Museum
  • Written as a research paper for the course HIST 3350Y - The Era of the First World War at Trent University.

    For the victims of the Great War, the Red Cross symbolized the aid providing unit that represented the realities of war. The Red Cross, with its humble beginning, became synonymous with war aid and their role was crucial for the soldiers, doctors, refugees, families, and international war laws of World War One. It is almost unfathomable to exclude the significance of the Red Cross organization in an international war, and to this day the bright red cross hold the reputation as the symbol of relief. The Red Cross organizations set out to expand its roles as multi-relief providing units in the Great War. They succeeded in not only developing the Red Cross organization into an international aid providing forces to be reckon with, but also acted as a negotiator between countries in conflict, and contributed to the empowerment of women volunteers in the Great War. The Red Cross organizations’ contributions to the war efforts were admirable, and this becomes ever so evident when observing the sacrifices made by the heroic Red Cross volunteers.


    The Red Cross organization was born out of the dual collaboration between the author Henry Dunant and Genevan philanthropist Gustave Moynier to create a humanitarian organisation in response to the casualties of war. The Red Cross was an admirable organization from the start, which was initiated by men with good intentions. However the current historians’ debate on the how effective the Red Cross organizations were during the Great War varies among historians. While some argue that the Red Cross played a helpful and prominent role in the Great War, there are also anti-Red Cross statements that emphasize the lack of medical staff and practicality by the organizations. However, it should be noted that lack of supplies and personnel in any war aid organizations is evitable, where in times of war there can never be enough aid to compensate for the destruction of war1. Nonetheless the Red Cross and other numerous war aid organizations are given credit for shifting the focus of war from weapons and generals to the wounded and sick. The people in the home fronts were able to help those in need overseas, as well as victims of war back home, due to organizations such as the Red Cross that mediated the war efforts from home to soldiers on the field. There are some historians such as Andre Durand who emphasize the crucial role of the Red Cross in the Great War, where he poses that the reason Americans entered into the war was due to the Red Cross ship that was sunk by German ships. The sinking of a neutral Red Cross hospital ship by Germany was seen as the last straw for Americans, and some argue was the reason why Americans joined the war. Among historians it is generally agreed that the Red Cross as an international organization was preparing for the Great War far before it began and had anticipated the war, and was able to grow into an important organization precisely due to its close relations with the nations involved in the war. However, this did not mean it did not face any adversity throughout the course of the war. Historians agree that the Red Cross is a “war” organization more than anything, and as much as it was a humanitarian, it would not have existed without war.

    The Red Cross and Their Duties

    Red Cross’s role in the Great War included many services that were in no way insignificant. Providing food, training and supplying nurses and medical resources, offering aid in the home front, relief and entertainment for soldiers, taking care of refugees, children, families of war, and personal counselling among other various programs were services provided by the Red Cross organizations around the world. Epidemics and diseases were major issues of the International Committee of Red Cross organization. In the battlefields proper hygiene was crucial for survival, and in the beginning of the WW1 the Red Cross organization had contributed to educating and training such practices among novice soldiers. Henry Davison, the chairman of League of Red Cross Societies, wrote immediately after the meeting of the Armistice, “regarding the future of Red Cross and how it can serve to combat epidemics such as tuberculosis, yellow fever, typhus, ect., the adaptation of a system of reports relative to health conditions, disasters, ect., which would be cleaned through the International Red Cross.” The Red Cross sought to combat diseases and epidemics to improve the conditions of the soldiers, while nations were busy fighting one another. The Red Cross also fought for the rights of individuals who were victimized by the war. They were an organization that sought to prevent, save, revive, and enhance the health and conditions of those involved in the war.

    The Red Cross organization also sought to help the prisoners of war, who in the early 1900’s were restricted by law to be accommodated in any way, and was often in the worst conditions to survive. Between January 1914 to the end of the war, 67,726 prisoners of war were admitted to hospitals to Switzerland, by the initiation of the Red Cross organization. These soldiers who in the custody of enemy country were often not given food or any form of comfort and were often times doomed to diseases. Other examples of services of the Red Cross included supplying items or refreshments such as coffee, sandwiches, cookies, doughnuts, ice cream, candy, chocolate bars and fruit, and cigarettes to soldiers. These relief programs were crucial to the lives and experiences of soldiers serving in the war, where these everyday items become immensely important and valuable to a soldier’s spirit in the field. It is also important to note, that the Red Cross as an organization had the advantage to act fast on traumas and relief calls around the world, while government aid agencies were hindered by laws that prohibited them from giving aid without proper, time consuming paper work. This meant that as a neutral, international war aid organization, the Red Cross could help war victims faster due to their freedom from nations’ specific laws on helping certain citizens. This illustrates the significance of the Red Cross organization in the Great War, especially at the onset of the war where many nations lacked programs to properly treat their own soldiers and enemy soldiers. The Red Cross was a fast, multi-service providing unit that provided much needed services in the Great War.

    The Red Cross Uniform and Transition from Civilians to Active Volunteers

    At the onset of the Great War, the International Committee of Red Cross stated “From now on, the Red Cross movement will have to commit itself to a degree of activity unprecedented in its intensity.” This thought was prominent and effective in transforming the organization into an internationally powerful symbol. The Red Cross uniform, which in 1914 shed its civilian-looking form and became distinguished into a military-like appearance symbolizes the change in Red Cross volunteers from “civilian” to “men and women in action” The Red Cross volunteers gained value and importance on the battlefield, and the upgrade in their uniform illustrated this change. By 1918 almost 5 million personnel were associated with ICRC, and in France, 24 hospitals, 12 convalescent homes, eight infirmities, and 13 dispensaries were set by the international Red Cross and American Red Cross organizations. American Chairman Fosdick wrote observing the practicality of war aid organizations: “If the thing could be done all over again, I believe it would be wise to eliminate every organization in France except the Red Cross, and expand the latter… This would mean a single contact between the army and civilian agencies; it would mean that one organization alone would represent the entire American people in ministering to the non-military side of the soldier’s life abroad.” The Red Cross organization was deemed superior by supporters. The upgraded uniform of the Red Cross volunteers mirrored the growth of the organization in WW1. The Red Cross went on to represent a significant and powerful aid providing symbol.

    Red Cross as Negotiator in WW1

    The Red Cross often served the important role as negotiator in the relationships between nations during the war. Due to their identity as a neutral aid organization, the Red Cross often acted as the mediator between enemy countries struggling to come to a solution. In the First World War, no comforts, supplies, or care of any kind was given to the soldiers in the enemies hands, who were not sick or wounded. They were not permitted to the proper care due to the lack of protective laws towards prisoners of war. In the Franco-German agreement in Bern of 1918, the International Committee of Red Cross, or ICRC, acted as the mediator between the countries to negotiate rules for war time prisoners. Laws such as “A prisoner of war, whether sick or able-bodied, should not remain in captivity for more than 18 months.”, or “There shall be no civilian captives.” were possible due to the presence of a neutral party in the two enemy countries. The ICRC would later state in 1917 “The war has piled up so many ruins, so many bereavements, and has caused so much blood to flow, that we must listen to the call of the heart, the voice of pity, and give back to their own countries all those who can still be saved.” Statements such as these from the Red Cross organization provided the authoritative voice that served as the medium between nations that reminded them of humanitarianism and basic war etiquette in the times of war. They proved to be effective for France and Germany, since on 26 January, 1916, where 101 French prisoners and 100 German prisoners suffering from tuberculosis were admitted to hospitals. The Red Cross served an important function in the times of war, where nations even in conflict came to comprise due to the negotiator such as the Red Cross organization. Another example of how the Red Cross served to negotiate between nations to protect the victims of the war is the after care program of severely wounded soldiers in Britain. Britain at the onset of the Great War had little interests in setting up programs to help soldiers severely wounded who came back to the home fronts. The British government only allowed volunteer-aid organization such as the British Red Cross to take over the after care of soldiers severely wounded. When countries were lacking in practice at the onset of the war to help individuals, the Red Cross was crucial in initiating international laws and practices that sought to protect victims of war. The Red Cross was also an authorities figure on the ethics of war. The ICRC publicly condemned certain actions or weapons in war, such as gas warfare or torpedoing of hospital buildings and ships. Regarding the use of chemical warfare the ICRC stated: “a barbarous innovation which science is in the course of perfecting, that is, making it more murderous and more refined in its cruelty.” Statements like these from ICRC is significant, because it creates a sense of legal authority on the ethics of war, where certain weapons, tactics, or ways of war became condemned by the public, armies, national committees, and can affect the course of war. The words of the Red Cross can have impact on the military armies and government leaders in matters of war. The reputation of the Red Cross had significant influence on the ethics of war, where they served as an important voice to speak out against atrocities committed in times of war.

    Propaganda and Funding of Red Cross

    The Red Cross produced some of the most memorable propaganda in the Great War, which proved to be extremely successful. Throughout the course of the war the American Red Cross was able to raise more than $400,000,000. This amount of funding that they were able to raise only at the end of the war illustrates the intense dedication of the public to support the war causes such as the Red Cross organization. Henry P. Davison, who was the head of the American War Council, supported the Red Cross organization intensely, stating: “Our job in the American Red Cross is to bind up the wounds of a bleeding world… Think Red Cross! Talk Red Cross! Be Red Cross!” This idea of actively helping aid organizations was hugely popular across nations throughout the Great War. The Red Cross, as well as other war aid organizations impacted the idea of what a citizen’s duty was at times of war. This idea played a great role in shifting the concern, efforts, and money towards charitable organizations rather than to the military and their weapons. This shift in idea of what a citizen can accomplish in times of war is illustrated by ICRC’s declaration: “the totality of modern war, in which civilians may have to be as heroic as the men in uniform.” In response to the campaigns citizens became increasing involved in organizations such as the Red Cross, where supporting the war charities reflect the success of the Red Cross movement.

    Women and the Red Cross

    As the Red Cross societies grew it became apparent that women were crucial component of the volunteer organizations. The Red Cross is responsible for empowering women in the WW1 where volunteers and nurses were seen as portraying “real feminism”. This thought resonated within the public, as illustrated by their propaganda with goddess-like figures and women in the Red Cross campaigns. At the onset of the war in 1914 Canada was thoroughly prepared for the war, especially thanks to the women who were involved in the organization. Women’s work in the Red Cross was not unique to Canada. In the American Red Cross Organization, 8000 qualified nurses would rise to 24, 000 actively serving qualified nurses, 2558 dieticians, 2248 nurse aids by the end of the war. These nurses were some of the war’s bravest, and they experienced first hand the atrocities of war. Lyn Macdonald, who wrote “The Roses of No Man’s Land” describes the Red Cross nurses working in the fields and outposts: “These girls had to be tough. They worked in flooded operating theatres where, in a big ‘push’, there might be four operations going on at the same time, and as many as ten amputations in an hour.” Women were not only the faces of the Red Cross campaigns and posters, but truly were faces of relief and recovery for the wounded soldiers. Some Red Cross nurses went out of their way to help anyone in need, even enemy patients. Edith Cavell was a Red Cross nurse working in Germany occupied Belgium, and after she helped allied soldiers to escape from their fate in the camps, she was shot dead. Her story was mediatised in Britain with outrage, where she was described “She has taught the bravest man amongst us a supreme lesson of courage; and in this United Kingdom and through the Dominions of the Crown there are thousands of such women, but a year ago we did not know it.” Edith Cavell’s remarkable bravery was indeed not alone, but only represents one Red Cross nurse’s admirable experiences during the war. Florence Farmborough, a Russian qualified Red Cross nurse, wrote in August 1914, “We are very raw recruits, and it’s not surprising that we sometimes wince, even shrink into the background, when an unusually ugly wound is bared for dressing, or when a man’s cry of anguish follows an awkward attempt to alleviate an excruciating pain. It is, however, astonishing how quickly even a raw recruit can grow accustomed, though never hardened, to the sight and sound of constant suffering.” Her diary entries represent the painstaking journey that Red Cross nurses serving in the field, where their first hand accounts truly speak the sacrifices made by volunteers. On April 20th, 1915 she wrote of her unforgettable experience:

    A soldier was lying in a corner, breathing heavily, but otherwise quiet. It was his turn now; I went and knelt down on the straw at his side. His left leg and side was saturated with blood. I began to rip up the trouser-leg, clotted blood and filth flowing over my gloved hands. He turned dull, uncomprehending eyes towards me and I went on ripping the cloth up to his waist. I pushed the clothes back and saw a pulp, a mere mass of smashed body from the ribs downwards; the stomach and abdomen was completely crushed and his left leg was hanging to the pulped body by only a few shreds of flesh. I heard a stifled groan at my side and, glancing around, I saw the priest with his hands across his eyes turn and walk heavily across the room towards the door. The soldier’s dull eyes were still looking at me and his lips moved. But no words came. What it cost me to turn away without aiding him, I cannot describe, but we could not waste time and material on hopeless cases…

    Such passage perpetuates to communicate the realities of the Great War for the Red Cross nurses, and the emotional blockade that they must have experienced. She wrote in July 1915 “[O]ne hears, one feels, but in a numb, apathetic kind of way – as though all the edges of reality had been smoothed away…” The sacrifices and dedication of women serving in the Red Cross outposts during the war cannot be emphasized enough, and it is these individual cases that truly speak to the humanitarian nature of the Red Cross organizations.

    With the new advents and technologies of the new modern warfare, nations soon realized the importance of war aid organizations. Countries began to understand the crucial role of these organizations, and began building their own aid and relief societies to deal with the destruction of the war. The collective organizations of the Red Cross were truly a symbol of war aid. The red cross symbol soon became a “national obsession” and was supported by many famous and important advocates and governments. The Red Cross organization that was born out of two men’s hope to better treat the victims of war grew to become an international organization with a power presence in the Great War. The intentions of the organization were admirable, its practices and contributions significant, but most importantly the sacrifices made by individuals purely for the sake of helping a fellow human being are entirely honourable. The sacrifices and services of men and women in the Red Cross illustrate the humanitarianism that intensified in the Great War, and the selflessness of volunteers who have made significant contribution to the War and its victims. As volunteers, many members of the Red Cross societies put aside their jobs, comforts, and personal lives, and made immense sacrifices for those suffering and victimized by the war. The Red Cross organization and its role in the Great War was indeed significant, where all the credit goes to the self-sacrificing nature of the honourable individuals who served in the Great War. They truly were the heroes and heroines that the world needed at its most desperate time.

    1. John F. Hutchinson. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1966), 11-12.

    2. Ibid, 354.

    3. Ibid, 19.

    4. Andre Durand, From Sarajevo to Hiroshima: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Geneva: Henry Dunant Institute, 1984), 63-64.

    5. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity, 275.

    6. Ibid, 355.

    7. Ibid 291.

    8. Clyde E. Buckingham, For Humanity’s Sake: The Story of the Early Development of the League of Red Cross Societies. (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1964), 23.

    9. Durand, From Sarajevo to Hiroshima, 59.

    10. Buckingham, For Humanity’s Sake, 13.

    11. Ibid, 16.

    12. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity, 283.

    13. Ibid, 351.

    14. Ibid, 283.

    15. Buckingham, For Humanity’s Sake, 9.

    16. Ibid, 18.

    17. P.H Gordon, Fifty Years in the Canadian Red Cross. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 78.

    18. Durand, From Sarajevo to Hiroshima, 62.

    19. Ibid, 61.

    20. Ibid, 59.

    21. Jeffery S. Reznick, Healing the Nation: Soldiers and the Culture of Caregiving in Britain during the Great War. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), 120.

    22. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity, 283.

    23. Ibid, 283.

    24. Buckingham, For Humanity’s Sake, 13.

    25. Ibid, 8.

    26. Ibid, 7.

    27. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity, 354.

    28. Ibid, 352.

    29. Gordon, Fifty Years, 96.

    30. Buckingham, For Humanity’s Sake, 10.

    31. Jane Potter, Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literacy Responses to the Great War 1914-1918. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 202.

    32. Arthur Marwick, Women at War 1914-1918. (London: Croom Helm London, 1977), 109.

    33. Ibid, 109.

    34. Bernard A., Cook, Women and War: a Historical Encyclopaedia from Antiquity to Present. (California: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 179.

    35. Ibid, 179.

    36. Florence Farmborough, With the Armies of the Tsar: a Nurse at the Russian Front in War and Revolution, 1914-1918. (New York: Cooper Square, 2000), 101-102.

    37. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity, 350.

    38. Ibid, 268.