Friday, August 1, 2014

5 Things You Didn't Know About the Red Cross in World War I

By Michelle Fordice, Volunteer Contributor

The approach of the 100th anniversary of World War I causes many of us to reflect on the impact of that conflict. The war was a formative one for the Red Cross. Though the organization celebrated its 50th birthday just a few weeks after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, there was no assurance that the humanitarian zeal of its leaders and volunteers would be enough to alleviate the suffering of the war that was about to rage through Europe and the world. 

In an August 15, 1914 circular to the national Red Cross societies, Gustave Ador, president of the organization, remarked, “From today, the Red Cross is called to an intense labour of a kind never seen before.”  Yet, despite setbacks, challenges and even failures, the Red Cross rose to the occasion. 

Here are 5 things you might not have known about the Red Cross in World War I.

The Red Cross Supported a Massive Information Gathering Campaign for Displaced Civilians and Prisoners of War 

When President Ador instituted an international agency to respond to inquiries about prisoners of war, as dictated by the 1907 Hague Convention, he staffed it with nine members of the International Committee, two boy scouts and a student. Their first list of prisoners of war arrived with 29 names. Soon they realized that the changed nature of warfare meant that displaced civilians would also need to be found, and added that challenge to their mission.

Word of their efforts soon got out and within two months they were receiving 3,000 inquires a day from families. By the end of the war, for French prisoners of war alone, they would fill 228 volumes, each 400 pages, with information about individual soldiers and their whereabouts. By 1918, 120,000 people had arrived in person looking for assistance.

In spite of these staggering numbers, the most inspiring part of this story is the people who were involved. Many of the first volunteers for the agency were travelers who had been stranded in Geneva by the fighting.  These bankers, teachers and homemakers took up the call to help. Eventually 1,200 volunteers would work in shifts around the clock to answer the calls of families looking for their loved ones.  

From Comic Books to X-Ray Machines, the Red Cross Provided a Vast Amount of Services and Material during the War

The Red Cross provided more than you might think during the war. The Danish Red Cross quickly amassed 20,000 books for prisoners of war, soliciting comic books in particular so that the soldiers would not “forget how to laugh.”

The American Red Cross brought enough bandage material to Italy to “provide a five-and-three-quarter girdle of gauze around the world,” and some British medical units in the field came with their own mobile x-ray machines.

In August of 1916 one of these x-ray teams reported that they had examined, “not only 49 heads, 58 thorax, 8 abdomen, 27 pelvises, etc. but 2 horses and a mule.” Canteen units supplied troops with necessities and comfort items.

In a single month in 1918, the Red Cross in Vichy distributed free items that included, “78,278 packages of tobacco, 7,480 tubes of toothpaste, 7,650 toothbrushes, 3,650 combs, 3,460 so-called comfort bags (small cloth bags filled with treats and necessities), 2,850 packages of chewing gum, 1,650 cakes of soap, 1,245 bars of chocolate, and 1,200 sticks of shaving soap.

Other gifts for the troops included pencils, matches, shaving brushes, cards, washcloths, sweaters, razor blades, checkers and other games, thread, pipe cleaners, drinking cups, gloves, canes, socks, pajamas and underwear.”

During the battle at St. Mihiel, Red Cross volunteers served over 160,000 gallons of hot cocoa. Across the war zone Red Cross volunteers hosted holiday celebrations, wrote letters for injured soldiers, delivered mail, arranged funerals and recorded the gravesites, tended the sick and wounded, and more.

Activities Surrounding World War I Caused the Red Cross in the United States to Blossom

When the war began, the American Red Cross only had 107 chapters. American Red Cross members did respond to the war from its outset, sending mercy ships and fundraising, but they were outpaced by their European counterparts. Yet, when Congress voted for war in April of 1917, Americans embraced the cause and turned out in droves to support the Red Cross. By the end of the war, the American Red Cross had 3,864 chapters and nearly a quarter of the country’s population—28 million people— were members. 

Americans supported a variety of Red Cross operations as old services expanded and new ones were added, such as the motor corps and canteen services. Even President Wilson grazed sheep on the White House lawn and auctioned off the wool for the cause.

Red Cross Supporters Got Creative with Their Fundraising

Like fundraisers today, Red Cross volunteers were faced with the challenge of needing to raise huge sums money to meet their goals. They often approached this problem in creative ways. In Britain, Lady Northcliffe called on the women of the British Empire to donate their pearls. She collected 3,597 pearls and had forty-one necklaces made. They sold at auction for £84,000. 

Others followed her example of organizing auctions. By the end of the war, Christie’s auction house hosted seven sales that raised £322,000. American Red Cross President, Henry Davison convinced Wall Street bankers to turn out their pockets and Henry Ford to donate 5,000 Model Ts. Harry Gardner, the ‘human fly,’ scaled a New York skyscraper in a white suite with a large red cross painted on his back to draw attention and draw in funds. 

Even the average volunteer got in the game: An Ohio woman donated a hen and a dozen eggs that was auctioned for $2,002.

The Red Cross Sponsored a Project to Create Masks for Disfigured Soldiers

After receiving support from the Red Cross, sculptor Anna Ladd began creating realistic portrait masks for soldiers with faces marred from shrapnel, burns and other wounds. Ladd custom-made pieces for each soldier, recreating noses, ears, and jaws. Each mask consisted of a thin copper form covered with hard enamel painted to match the wearer’s skin tone. Even mustaches were recreated with real hair fastened to the mask.  These masks allowed the men to feel more comfortable in public. 

Ladd wrote, “People get used to seeing men with arms and legs missing, but they never get used to an abnormal face. And so these men are the object of aversion to almost everyone. A man who is repulsive to look at cannot get a job which will bring him in contact with the general public, and so it is so much harder for these men, who have already given so much, to earn their living.”  

With their self-esteem bolstered, these men went home ready to start over. They sent letters back to Ladd reporting of how they found new jobs and got married. One man, who had not wanted his mother to see his face, finally returned home after two years. By 1918, Ladd’s studio had produced 185 masks. It seems a small drop in the bucket against the estimated 20,000 facial casualties of the war, but for those men it was an invaluable service. 

Want to learn more? This article referenced the following materials:

Alexander, C. (2007). Faces of War: Amid the horrors of World War I, a corps of artists brought hope to soldiers disfigured in the trenches. Smithsonian Magazine

Gavin, Lettie. (1997). American Women in World War I. Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Martin, I. (2002). 'When Needs Must': The Acceptance of Volunteer Aids in British and Australian Military Hospitals in World War I. Health and History, 4(1), 88-98

Morehead, Caroline. (1998). Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross. New York, New York: Carroll & Graff Publishers, Inc.

Woolley, A. (1986). A Hoosier Nurse in France: The World War I Diary of Maude Frances Essig. Indiana Magazine of History, 82(1), 37-68.

Zeinert, Karen. (2001). Those Extraordinary Women of World War I. Brookfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press, Inc. 

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