Monday, April 10, 2017

The American Red Cross in the First World War

When the German Army invaded Belgium in August 1914, it sparked a massive humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Belgian civilians were desperately in need of food, clothing, and medical care, and as the war advanced, this need extended to the occupied regions of northern France as well. Americans quickly moved to support the organizations that were formed to address the crisis. Future president Herbert Hoover first came to national attention as the chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, administering the distribution of over 2 million tons of food in two years. 

Poster for Red Cross clothing drive
Also at the forefront of humanitarian aid was the American Red Cross. First established in the US in 1881, the Red Cross was still fairly small, but it was one of the few national organizations that was prepared to take on this kind of work. The ARC was able to launch a ship, the SS Red Cross, within a few weeks of the war’s outbreak, carrying medical personnel and supplies to be distributed in England France, Germany, and Russia. Although the United States was still neutral at this time, in September 1914 the ladies of West Chazy were busy making up garments from material donated by local businesses, which they sent to the American Red Cross offices in New York. 

When the US officially declared war on Germany in April 1917, the role and responsibilities of the Red Cross changed dramatically. The ARC would continue its humanitarian work with civilians in Europe, but would now also take on the responsibility of attending to the needs of American soldiers and their families both at home and overseas. In May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a War Council to direct the Red Cross and appointed New York banker Henry P. Davison as its chair.

Official Red Cross pajama pattern
Image from Unsung Sewing Patterns
Davison, with the assistance of other men from the banking and business communities, completely reorganized the Red Cross. They created 13 geographical divisions, which were further subdivided into chapters (e.g., the Plattsburgh Chapter, which encompassed all of Clinton County) and then into branches (Chazy, Champlain, Mooers, etc.). As Davison wrote, each chapter was “a complete miniature Red Cross” with its own offices and committees. The goal was, as much as possible, to standardize the production, collection, and distribution of the items being made at the local level—socks, bandages, pajamas, “comfort kits,” etc. The Red Cross issued official patterns for knitted and sewn items, and set standards for everything, down to the number of bandages that should come out of each yard of gauze.

Red Cross War Fund Week poster
In addition to producing clothing and other items for soldiers and refugees, the Red Cross raised funds to be used for war relief work. Most of this fundraising was concentrated into two “war drives,” one-week periods when Americans were urged to focus their efforts on the financial needs of the Red Cross. The Red Cross set a goal of $100 million for each drive (June 18-25, 1917 and May 20-27, 1918) and both times exceeded that goal, collecting over $283 million total.

Alice Miner played an important role in helping Chazy raise its share of the second drive’s goal. War Fund Week began with a patriotic meeting at Chazy Central Rural School, at which representatives from the chapter offices spoke about the work of the Red Cross. Three days of canvassing to collect donations followed. Alice, as head of the entertainment committee, organized a screening of the film “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” at the school auditorium, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Glee Clubs performed, raising additional funds. The week culminated with a tea at Heart’s Delight, followed by a dance at Harmony Hall. Guests were free to stroll about the grounds, which were furnished with chairs and hammocks. In all, Chazy raised $1394.59 during War Fund Week in 1918.

Louise Trainer’s Red Cross Service Medal
Alice’s sister Louise Trainer must have also contributed to War Fund Week and other Red Cross activities in Chazy, because she was awarded a service medal for her work in 1918. While the higher levels of administration were mostly filled with men, at the local level, Red Cross work was largely in the hands of women like Alice and Louise. Providing medical care, clothing, and “comforts” for soldiers and their families fell within the realm of activities thought suitable for women, and many of them already had experience working with charitable, missionary, and other volunteer organizations. For people who were unable to fight due to their age or sex, the Red Cross was the ideal organization into which to channel their energy and patriotism.


“World War I and the American Red Cross,”

“The American Red Cross,”

Henry P. Davison, The American Red Cross in the Great War (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919)

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