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What we did during the war

Red Cross volunteer nurses

The Red Cross did everything from nursing and air raid duty to searching for missing people and transporting the wounded.

Our primary role was to help the naval and military medical services treat sick and wounded sailors and soldiers.

Working together: The Joint War Committee

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the British Red Cross formed the Joint War Committee with the Order of St John. We fundraised and worked together under the protective emblem of the red cross.

The Joint War Committee organised volunteers and professional staff. It also supplied machinery and services at home and in the conflict areas of Europe, the Middle East, Russia and East Africa.

Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs)

Members of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John were organised into Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). The term ‘VAD’ was used for an individual member as well as a detachment.

All members were trained in first aid and some trained in nursing, cookery, hygiene and sanitation. The majority of female VADs volunteered as nurses, trained by the Red Cross. They were despatched throughout the UK and Europe during the conflict.

Auxiliary hospitals

During the war, we provided auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded servicemen. Many people offered their properties to the cause. Hospitals were set up in town halls, elementary schools, and private houses.

Find out more about auxiliary hospitals.

Working parties

Red Cross working parties throughout the country organised the supply of clothing for soldiers in hospital. They also made vital hospital items such as bandages, splints, swabs and clothing. Their work was co-ordinated by The Central Work Rooms.

Work depots

Work depots were established in every major town to collate and despatch clothing from the working parties. Items were sent to the Red Cross headquarters or directly to soldiers in auxiliary hospitals at home or abroad.

Transporting the wounded

Male detachments were almost entirely in charge of transporting sick and wounded soldiers from ambulance trains or ships to local hospitals. They also ferried patients between hospitals.

Male volunteers were frequently sent to France to work as ambulance drivers, often coming under fire as they transported men away from the Front.

Rest stations

At train stations, VADs provided food and supplies such as cigarettes to soldiers arriving by ambulance train. The soldiers used the rest stations whilst they waited to be transported to local hospitals or to travel to another destination.

Fundraising

Fundraising was of vital importance throughout the First World War - and we still rely on donations. Money and gifts-in-kind gathered through a variety of funds, collections and donations went towards services for soldiers both at home and abroad.

By the end of the war, £21,885,035 had been raised and £20,058,355 spent on hospitals, medicine, clothing, grants and aftercare for the sick and wounded.

Missing and wounded service

In February 1915, the London Branch of the Red Cross appointed VAD members to make enquiries at London hospitals because a large number of families did not know where their loved ones were. The VADs were provided with lists of missing officers and men. They then sent their reports to Red Cross headquarters.

Later this service was taken over by headquarters. There were offices in the UK and branches in Paris, Boulogne, Rouen, Malta, Alexandria and Salonika, all of which looked for missing soldiers in hospitals.

We still help to restore contact between families separated by armed conflict, disaster or migration.

Air raid duty

The police accepted the offer of VADs for aid raid duty made by the London branch of the Red Cross. The emblem of the Red Cross seemed to inspire a feeling of confidence in the crowds which assembled in the underground railway stations and other refuges.

Red Cross war library

Books and magazines were sent to sick and wounded soldiers and sailors in France, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Malta, Salonika, Italy and Bombay. During the war, 1,237,246 books were bought for the library and 2,889,233 were received as gifts.

The armistice

  • By the end of the war the Red Cross had provided 90,000 VADs, who had volunteered at home and abroad.
  • Over 1,786 auxiliary hospitals had been established, with patients arriving by staffed ambulances, hospital trains and motor launches. After the war, equipment from the auxiliary hospitals was distributed to local general hospitals, rehabilitation centres, sanatoriums and other medical centres.
  • Over £21,885,035 had been raised through fundraising efforts and the majority of the money was spent on hospitals, medicine, clothing and care for the sick and wounded.

Mobility aids loan service

The Red Cross provided short-term loans of medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, for sick and wounded soldiers. At the end of the war, local Red Cross branches found themselves with lots of equipment left over from the temporary wartime auxiliary hospitals. Medical supply depots and the medical loan service were soon established in many counties so that people could borrow this equipment on a weekly basis.

The mobility aids service has continued to grow and our volunteers now loan wheelchairs and medical equipment to tens of thousands of people in the UK every year.

Teaching resources

Our teaching resources for 11-14 year-olds will help teachers show young people how to search for volunteers' cards and explore this chapter in history. The free resources also explain the humanitarian impact of conflict and the principles of international humanitarian law.

See the lesson plans.

More information

For more detailed information, browse the pages in this section and download our information sheets using the links below:

Supported by

  • Kingston University London
  • Heritage lottery fund