accessibility & help

History of British Red Cross nurses and hospitals

Red Cross nurses made a name for themselves by helping the wounded during the First and Second World War, but they were still needed after the wars. The British Red Cross also set up auxiliary hospitals throughout the twentieth century.

First World War

Country house hospital ward© InfoAt the outbreak of the First World War, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem combined to form the Joint War Committee to pool resources under the protection of the red cross emblem. Because the British Red Cross had secured buildings, equipment and staff, the organisation was able to set up temporary hospitals as soon as wounded men began to arrive from abroad.

The buildings varied widely, ranging from town halls and schools to large and small private houses, both in the country and in cities. The most suitable ones were established as auxiliary hospitals.

Auxiliary hospitals were attached to central military hospitals, which looked after patients who remained under military control. In all, there were over 3,000 auxiliary hospitals administered by Red Cross county directors. They were usually staffed by:

  • a commandant, who was in charge of the hospital (except for medical and nursing services)
  • a quartermaster, who was responsible for the receipt, custody and issue of articles in the provision store
  • a matron, who directed the work of the nursing staff
  • members of the local voluntary aid detachment, who were trained in first aid and home nursing.

In many cases, women in the neighbourhood volunteered on a part-time basis, although they often needed to supplement voluntary work with paid labour, such as in the case of cooks. Medical attendance was provided locally and voluntarily, despite the extra strain that the medical profession was already under at that time.

The patients at these hospitals were generally less seriously wounded than at other hopitals and needed convalescence. The servicemen preferred the auxiliary hospitals to military hospitals because they were not so strict. Also, auxiliary hospitals were less crowded and the surroundings more homely.

Second World War

Nurse with recovering soldiers© InfoAt the outbreak of the Second World War, the War Office initially only requested that the British Red Cross and Order of St. John – which had regrouped under the name of the Joint War Organisation – provide auxiliary homes and hospitals for officers.

However, by June 1940 the War Office approached the Joint War Organisation for help providing 20,000 beds in homes and hospitals for other ranks. Again, many privately owned properties were used to house patients, which created an atmosphere more conducive to recovery than would be found in a standard institution.

The homes and hospitals themselves also started to become more specialised. Certain homes were selected for servicemen of particular nationalities, so their needs could be more specifically catered for, while some hospitals allocated cases on the basis of nature of service.

Separate homes were also established to cater for the needs of liberated prisoners of war in need of convalescence.

A percentage of the hospitals were reserved for the treatment of specific disabilities. Physiotherapy played an important role in the recovery of many of the patients and selected homes were able to organise physical training and remedial exercise classes under the supervision of an Army physical training instructor.

Due to the changing nature of war, the convalescent homes and auxiliary hospitals run by the Joint War Organisation during the Second World War also admitted civilians. The Joint War Organisation also provided residential nurseries for children, many of whom were the victims of air raids.

Post-war auxiliary hospitals

Nursing duties, 1970s© InfoAt the beginning of 1946, the Ministry of Health and British Red Cross began discussing the role of the Red Cross’ auxiliary hospitals. The health minister assured the Red Cross that the organisation’s beds would still be needed when the National Health Service Act came into being.

The Red Cross launched a five-year plan to help in the interim period before the Ministry of Health, and its fledgling NHS, could fulfil their gigantic hospital programme. The Red Cross continued to administer its hospitals and homes after the act, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

The auxiliary hospitals were designed to act as stepping stones between general hospitals and patients’ return home. In 1946, nine auxiliary hospitals opened, with a total of 505 beds.

Some of them were truly innovative. Burley-on-the-Hill auxiliary hospital in Oakham, Rutland, for example, was a centre for convalescent male diabetics, and the first of its kind in this country. There was a huge need, with over 60,000 male diabetics in England alone. Before the centre opened, there was no place for them to convalesce with special supervision and dietary requirements.

Surgeons today

The British Red Cross has a long tradition of supplying surgeons to work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) during armed conflicts. The British Red Cross and London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital developed a surgical training course because early specialisation by UK surgeons meant fewer had sufficient skills to operate under conflict conditions.

The first ICRC war surgery seminar took place in the UK. As a result of the specialist training, two British surgeons were able to treat war-wounded people in Sudan in 2003.

See photos of our post-war hospitals

Become a health and social care volunteer


Blog: First World War archives

Red Cross volunteer nurses

Read letters, recipes and other items from our archives.

More on our blog >

Audio: Nursing wounded soldiers

Black and white photo of Judy Stokes in nurse's uniform

Judy Stokes became a Red Cross nurse after D-Day, the start of 70 years volunteering.

Listen to an interview with Judy >