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The International Red Cross in WWI

The concept for the Red Cross was created in 1859, at the Battle of Solferino in Italy during the War of Italian Unification. Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessed 40,000 dead and wounded men on the battlefield without medical attention. On his return to Switzerland, he proposed a permanent agency to provide humanitarian aid during wartime and an international treaty recognizing the neutrality of the agency, allowing it to provide aid.

The agency became the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), formed in 1863 by Dunant and four others.  Its emblem was a red cross on a white background, the inverse of the Swiss flag. A year later the first Geneva Convention was adopted initially by 12 nations, codifying acceptable treatment of sick and wounded soldiers during wartime.  Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 for these accomplishments.  The 1864 Geneva Convention was followed by a second treaty in 1906 designed to cover members of armed forces at sea. 

The ICRC encouraged the creation of national Red Cross societies, today known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.  These organizations were independent from the ICRC, which acted as a liaison between the national societies, keeping them informed of ICRC activities and assisting with the formation and recognition of new societies. During World War I the ICRC expanded from ten employees to over 3,000 and organized itself into national bureaus for each of the combatant nations, tasked with gathering and disseminating information, especially about the fate of POWs.

The American Red Cross

Clara Barton, famous for her pioneering efforts to improve nursing during the American Civil War, became aware of the ICRC while visiting Europe. She and a group of associates founded the American Red Cross in 1881, and the following year the United States ratified the Geneva Convention.  The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping people in need throughout the country and world. It received congressional charters in 1900 and 1905.

The International Committee of the Red Cross provided invaluable services during World War I. The ICRC established the International Prisoners-of-War Agency, which was responsible for arranging the exchange of over 200,000 POWs, gathering records on millions of prisoners, and transferring mail, money and aid packages. Records gathered enabled over two million POWs to be reunited with their displaced families. The Red Cross also sent delegates to inspect 524 POW camps during the war.

Soon after the war began, national Red Cross societies deployed nurses from around the world to help deal with the unprecedented number of casualties. Thousands of nurses came to the aid of the combatant nations, most of which already had operating Red Cross societies. Medals were created to commemorate and raise funds for these societies during and after the war.

The ICRC was also charged with monitoring combatant nations’ compliance with the Geneva Conventions and forwarded complaints to the countries in violation. A leader in international protest over the use of chemical weapons, the Red Cross was instrumental in having their use banned after the war. For its work, the ICRC was awarded the 1917 Nobel Peace Prize — the only one awarded during World War I.


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Additional information on WWI and the Red Cross available at Tales From the Vault.

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