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Category: Army History/WW2

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The Australian Red Cross in two world wars

 Red Cross medal for War Service 1914/18

<< Red Cross badge assortment
The International Committee of the Red Cross was formed in 1862. Initially its purpose was to try and find ways of overcoming the inadequacy of army medical services so as to alleviate the suffering of those wounded in armed conflict. Over time it has extended its work to include many forms of humanitarian aid in times of peace and war.
The Australian Red Cross Society (ARCS) was formed just after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, originally as a branch of the the British Red Cross. It is especially remembered in the the provision of "comforts" for soldiers overseas. 

Enormous sums of money were raised, and thousands of women volunteers contributed their time by making vast quantities of clothing: socks, vests, mittens, mufflers, pyjamas and a variety of linen. Items were sent to headquarters located in the state capitals, often using government houses as depots, where, after being sorted and packed by yet more volunteers, they were sent to Britain or the front. 

The effect of this work for the recipients was to bring comfort in its truest sense, for a seemingly trivial gift of a bar of chocolate of a pair of dry socks could bring the most profound relief for a soldier on the Western Front. From the date of its inception until the armistice the ARCS dispatched 395,695 food parcels and 36,339 clothing parcels

Between 1914 and 1918 more than 3,500,00 was collected and spent on Red Cross services to the Australian Forces and Empire Forces. 

Dame Nellie Melba (photo left) raised more than 90,000 for the sick, wounded and prisoners of war by her Red Cross charity concerts and grand opera in Melbourne.

Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) also provided an important public face for the Australian Red Cross. Young women served in VADs to provide nursing and domestic services in hospitals and convalescent homes. A few served overseas in Britain. for details

Less well known is the work the Australian Red Cross undertook at an international level by establishing agencies overseas dedicated to supplying families in Australia with information about wounded and missing soldiers, and for providing information about and comfort to soldiers declared prisoners of war.

During the Second World War the Red Cross performed other services as well as the traditional catering, fundraising and medical work. This included welfare work, hospital visiting, vocational training, home help, library services, lorry and ambulance driving.

The Red Cross VADs again worked at hospitals and convalescent homes alongside doctors and nurses. Similarly, the Red Cross contributed to the well being of prisoners of war through food parcels and medical attention.

The ARCS has been officially recognised since 1944 as an auxiliary to the medical services of the Defence Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia - Navy, Army and Air Force. The Red Cross still performs humanitarian work in peacetime, including tracing missing persons and prisoners of war. Text from AWM

 AWM P02119.002

Vera Deakin (25 December 1891 9 August 1978)

Vera was the youngest daughter of Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. She studied at Melbourne University and at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, she volunteered her services establishing the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau of the Australian Red Cross in Cairo, Egypt in 1915. 

This office later moved to London.The aim of the bureau was to provide information for relatives of Australian soldiers who had been listed by the army as either wounded or missing, killed or a prisoner of war.

It was the official link between prisoners and their families and also maintained full casualty lists for each state. The War Memorial has the records she and her helpers in the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau created during 1915-1919. Vera Deakin was awarded an OBE in 1919 for her services as head of the Bureau.

During the Second World War she was Director of the Wounded and Missing Inquiry Bureau of the Victorian Division of the Australian Red Cross and later was Vice Chair of the Australian Red Cross.

Vera Deakin married Thomas Walter White in March 1920, and became Lady White in 1952 when her husband, the High Commissioner in London, was knighted. Lady White remained active in the Australian Red Cross until the 1970s. Text & photo from AWM

The Red Cross emblem

The Red Cross emblem carries profound significance. By its proper use it saves lives. In times of conflict it is the visible sign of the protection conferred by the Geneva Conventions. In peace time it indicates that a person or object is linked to the Red Cross movement and its fundamental principles of humanity, impartiality, independence, and voluntary service.

The emblem's origins lie with the founder of the International Red Cross Committee, Henry Dunant. Dunant was travelling in northern Italy in 1859 during the country's war of unification. By chance he witnessed the results of the Battle of Solferino in 1859, and was vividly impressed by the sight of thousands of wounded soldiers left to die without medical care. One of the reasons for this neglect was that army medical services were not distinguished by an emblem easily identified by all parties to the conflict.

In 1863 an international conference met in Geneva to try and remedy the ineffectiveness of army medical services. The following year the first of the Geneva conventions were passed, in which a red cross made of five equal squares on a white background was officially recognised as the distinctive sign of medical services of armed forces.

This distinctive symbol provides protection for the wounded and for all those who attend and care for them.

  • Red Cross fund raising buttons from WW! and WW2

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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces