Within weeks of the outbreak of war, the American Red Cross dispatched a ship to Europe loaded with medical personnel and supplies. Named the SS Red Cross, it was better known as “The Mercy Ship.” It carried 170 surgeons and nurses who were being sent to Europe to provide medical relief to combat casualties on both sides of the war. This was consistent with the articles of the Geneva Conventions and the principles of the Red Cross Movement that called for strict observance of neutrality and impartiality. Additional personnel and supplies followed but the Red Cross ended this effort after little more than a year, primarily because of lack of sufficient funding.
When the United States declared war against Germany, the American Red Cross found itself embarking on the journey that would transform it almost overnight into the large and important influential organization it is today. As the public’s patriotic spirits soared in the early days of the war, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, as honorary chairman of the Red Cross, urged his fellow citizens to put their energies to work helping the Red Cross meet the needs of the thousands of young men joining the Allied forces on the battlefields of Europe.
In those early days, Red Cross national headquarters reeled under the demands of the national war effort. Communities flooded the headquarters with requests to establish local chapters. Needs grew much faster than the infrastructures to support them and the situation was described as “chaotic.” In May 1917, President Wilson appointed a War Council to direct the Red Cross and selected Henry P. Davison, a successful New York banker, as the council’s volunteer chairman.
Under Davison’s leadership, the Red Cross accomplished the growth necessary to meet the challenges of a world war. Prominent volunteers from the banking and business communities took up key leadership positions. The organization mobilized some 8 million volunteers who were assigned to service corps at Red Cross chapters (see list below). By the war’s end, nearly one-third of the U.S. population was either a donor to the Red Cross or serving as a volunteer. In all, 20 million adults and 11 million youth claimed membership in the American Red Cross and more than 8 million adults were volunteer workers.
The Red Cross created a complex organizational structure to fulfill its mission, consisting of boards, committees, offices, departments, and bureaus. In terms of the war effort, its functions fell into four categories.
1. Service to the American Armed Forces.
2. Service to Allied military forces, particularly the French.
3. Limited service to American and Allied prisoners of war.
4. Service to civilian victims of war, with an emphasis on the children of Europe.
Once the United States entered the war, specialized Red Cross corps provided many services to American and Allied armed forces. Service to POWs consisted mostly of supplying food and comfort items to the International Committee of the Red Cross for distribution in prison camps. The Red Cross sent 11 commissions to Europe to assess needs for and administer its services to U.S. and Allied military forces and civilian war victims. The first commission, consisting of nine Americans who arrived in Paris on June 12, 1917, covered all of Europe. Later, commissions were sent to individual countries and regions impacted by the war, including France, Great Britain, Italy and the Balkan States.
While the major focus was on the war effort, the Red Cross also provided services to civilians at home. Mostly this took the form of nursing activities and emergency response to natural disasters. In late 1918, however, the Red Cross met a major challenge on the home front. Fostered by wartime conditions, an influenza pandemic hit the United States and most of the rest of the world. It claimed an estimated 22 million lives worldwide and U.S. deaths were believed to reach 500,000. The Red Cross worked as an active auxiliary of the U.S. Public Health Service providing nurses and motor corps members, in particular, to assist the sick and dying until the pandemic died out in 1919.
Four months after the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the War Council disbanded and leadership of the Red Cross reverted to its Central Committee, which had run the organization since it received its congressional charter in 1905. Chairman Davison shifted his attention to the formation of the League of Red Cross Societies, the worldwide umbrella organization of individual national societies now known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
By the early 1920s, the Red Cross had completed most of its work overseas and withdrew its commissions and most of its workers from foreign service. It also closed American Red Cross overseas chapters that had been formed by Americans living abroad. The American Junior Red Cross, however, continued to support educational and recreational programs for European youth through a Children’s Fund it had initiated right after the war. At home, the Red Cross continued to provide hospital, recreational and rehabilitative services to veterans for many years.
As the result of their wartime activities, 400 American Red Cross workers lost their lives from 1914-1921, including 296 nurses.