At 11am, 93 years ago today, an armistice was signed to end the First World War on the western front. It was, quite rightly, a day of rejoicing. Florence Baker, a member of the Red Cross’ voluntary aid detachment at Bethnal Green Military Hospital in London, described the Armistice Day celebrations in London in a letter to her mother:
“If everywhere is like London then all England must be mad. […] Never will I forget the sight – you are sure to see photographs in the paper. We were perched on top of a bus which was stuck along with many other[s] first between the Royal Exchange and Mansion House at exactly 11 o’clock. As each flag was unfurled everyone tried to outdo the next person in din – it was just lovely…”
The Red Cross’ work is far from over
While it is almost a century since the First World War began, its impact is still recognised – and remembered – today. Unfortunately, the armistice in 1918 did not put an end to the suffering. Many soldiers were left shell shocked, injured, or permanently disabled. Civilians were undernourished and many had lost family members. On top of this, a devastating epidemic of Spanish influenza broke out, killing over two million civilians and 30,000 troops between 1918 and 1919.
During the First World War the British Red Cross played a vital role. It provided 90,000 volunteers to help wounded and sick soldiers in the UK and abroad; established 1,786 auxiliary hospitals and staffed ambulances, hospital trains and motor launches to evacuate the wounded to hospitals; and despatched more than 47,000 food parcels a month to prisoners of war and wounded soldiers.
But, while the British Red Cross’ purpose was to aid the sick and wounded in time of war, there was no provision for peacetime work. So, in 1919, a Supplementary Charter extended its aims to include “the improvement of health, the prevention of disease, and the mitigation of suffering throughout the world”.
Nursing the country back to health
This was the beginning of the Red Cross’ involvement in peacetime activities. Among other things, these changes enabled Red Cross nurses to care for those affected by the Spanish influenza epidemic in post-war Britain.
In May 1919, the Surrey county director wrote the obituary for a volunteer named Miss Long, describing how she “nursed through the war at the Esher Red Cross Hospital, where she never missed a day, and was the most devoted worker; this is in addition to domestic work at her home. On demobilisation, she went to nurse village families during the influenza epidemic, contracted the disease, and died on Easter Day. It is on such foundations that the British Red Cross is built”.
Around 500 Red Cross volunteers lost their lives serving in the voluntary aid detachments during the war. Many more – like Miss Long – died of Spanish influenza after the war, having caught the disease from their patients. To this day, Red Cross volunteers continue to risk their lives to help others. Only two months ago, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer died from injuries sustained while evacuating an injured person to a hospital in Homs.
War is devastating and its impact can often be felt long after the laying down of weapons. In the case of the First World War, recovery took decades. We can however take comfort in knowing that, thanks to the Supplementary Charter of 1919, the British Red Cross will be there helping people in both wartime and peacetime.
Read more about the history of the organisation
Find out how you can become a Red Cross volunteer