The story of Red Cross in Australia begins on the home front during WWI.
Tuesday April 22, 2014
Red Cross Voluntary Aids attend to returning soldiers, WWI
Red Cross is an international movement dedicated to lasting peace amongst all peoples, yet its origins are founded in war. Our fundamental mission is to relieve suffering through humanitarian aid to those people most in need regardless of their nationality, race or religion.
Australian Red Cross was born out of the humanitarian demands of war, formed on 13 August 1914, days after the outbreak of World War One. One hundred years on, we are commemorating the proud and enduring legacy of our humanitarian support for the ANZACs, which has shaped our organisation throughout its 100 year history.
After 100 years Red Cross continues to respond to the critical community needs of the day, relying on our strong national network of members and volunteers who assist the most vulnerable people in need, during times of disaster and personal crisis such as hardship, homelessness and social isolation.
Red Cross has grown over a century to become the nation's largest humanitarian organisation, with over one million Red Cross volunteers, members, staff, donors, aid workers and supporters reaching across the country. We are part of a worldwide movement operating in 189 countries. Our size and our national reach are built on the foundation of generations of Australians who rolled their sleeves up in two world wars.
A labour of love
The story of Red Cross is a significant part of Australia's social history, which begins on the home front during WWI with the extraordinary voluntary role played by urban and rural Australian women.
Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) were trained in first aid and worked tirelessly as quasi-nurses, caring for sick and wounded returned servicemen in hospitals and convalescent homes.
Red Cross volunteers raised millions of pounds for patriotic causes, and provided millions of pounds worth of in-kind support through volunteer labour and goods. Women worked together in cities and country towns to produce an astonishing volume of knitted, sewn and baked goods by hand, and then arranged to ship them overseas to bring comfort to Australian servicemen and prisoners of war.
As one example of the emotional labour of love carried out by women for Red Cross, the members in the Northern district of Tasmania produced by hand over 40,000 items in less than one year, valued at nearly £5,000. These included shirts, pyjamas, belts, socks, helmets, scarves, mitts, towels, sheets, bandages, hospital swabs and cloths and kit bags.
Australian Red Cross also supported prisoners of war, despatching parcels of "two shirts, two undershirts, three handkerchiefs, two pairs of socks, a toothbrush, powder and shaving gear, a comb, insect powder, a pipe, playing cards, needles and thread". From that time on, a weekly parcel with five shillings worth of foodstuffs were sent by Red Cross.
Red Cross letters bring news to loved ones at home
From the outbreak of WWI Red Cross helped Australian families in their desperate search for news of the fate of loved ones, forming a Wounded and Missing Persons Information Bureau in each state. Thousands of civilians at home had either lost their loved ones or had no certainty of their fate on battlefields on the other side of the world.
The NSW Bureau was formed in July 1915 and within four months over 500 cables had been requested on behalf of relatives of Gallipoli casualties. By 1919 Red Cross was handling 36,000 cases discovering the fate of the missing and wounded. Those Red Cross letters can be read on the Australian War Memorial website.
Red Cross letters dating back to WWI paint a powerful picture of the plight of families searching for any news of family. "I would like to know how long he lived after the wound', one mother Ellen Jones from Armidale in northern New South Wales, pleaded. "Did he suffer much, and was he conscious, did he ask for his parents in any way and did he send any message … I am so anxious to know all about my dear boy".
By June 1918, towards the end of the war, Red Cross had established over 2,400 membership branches in each state. Most of these branches were run by women, who went on to give a lifetime of service in their local communities - a remarkable legacy of humanitarian service borne out of WWI.
In our Centenary year, Red Cross is celebrating 100 years of people helping people, and thanking those generations of Australians who helped to forge our legacy.
This ANZAC Day our staff, members and volunteers will honour the ANZACs in cities and towns across Australia, and pay tribute to past generations of Red Cross volunteers.
Read our Centenary stories of Red Cross volunteers from WWI until today on our Centenary website.
1 Source: Australian Red Cross archives (National), Melbourne; ARCS, 5th Annual Report, 1918-1919; 'The Power of Humanity' by Dr Melanie Oppenheimer, Harper Collins (to be published in August 2014).
2 Source: Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 1 DRL/0428, 6076 Private Thomas Russell Jones, 24th Battalion, letter from mother, 28 May 1917, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.