As Europe became engulfed in the Great War, the American Red Cross was still a very small organization unable to provide any major relief to those engaged in the conflict. Despite their small size and underfunding, the Red Cross made a concerted effort in the early years of the war to raise capital, recruit new personnel, nurses, and medical professionals, and gather medical supplies and other necessary treatments. Unfortunately, in the early stages of the Great War, the American Red Cross found it difficult to appeal to a nation that was committed to neutrality. Without any Americans in danger, few citizens found it necessary to offer relief to the distant Europeans.
Despite the difficulties the Red Cross faced in the outset of the war, the organization was able to launch a single ship to the relief of Europe. The ship, known as the SS Red Cross and later gained the moniker, “Mercy Ship,” donned a single red stripe along the hull of the ship marking it as a neutral ship. When the SS Red Cross arrived in England it distributed supplies, such as medical gauze, anesthetics, clothing, and camp supplies throughout England, France, Russia, and Germany. The ship also staffed 170 surgeons and nurses who were assigned with the task of offering medical care to combat casualties.The Red Cross called for impartiality from their medical workers in Europe and demanded they treat combat casualties of all sides.
It would not be until the United States of America officially declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, that the American Red Cross would begin its dramatic transformation from a small organization with a limited staff and insufficient funds to a massive and globally influential institution that is easily recognized today. By the spring of 1917 the war in Europe was at its most intense. Word about the dismal trench conditions in France and Germany were reaching citizens of the United States and the reality had sunk in that American combat troops were going to be deployed in Europe in large numbers. Driven by these circumstances and a growing patriotic duty in America, citizens offered their help to the Red Cross in greater numbers than ever before. In May of that year, President Wilson appointed a War Council for the American Red Cross in order to raise funds, increase the extent and reach of the organization, and properly plan how to best use their treasury to gain maximum benefit in the war.
In the first year of the war, the Red Cross steadily expanded their operations. Membership had swelled to twenty two million, with eight million volunteers, by the end of the year. Members spread across thousands of chapters. Each chapter sent out circulars on how members could help the Red Cross effort. The most popular means for helping the Red Cross was by knitting goods. The “Home Service” also became a powerful instrument of the Red Cross during World War I. Home Service provided aid to the families of military personnel. This included providing communication between troops and their families, offering financial aid to families who had lost a serviceman, and detailing information on acquiring government assistance.
The Red Cross also provided women an unprecedented opportunity, both at home and abroad, to show their patriotic spirit and strip away preconceived notions of women and the public sphere. Women played a vital role in the Red Cross and in the relief effort overseas. Nurses were deployed to France and England at the outbreak of war in 1914. When the United States entered the war, seventeen Base Hospital Units, each supported by sixty five Red Cross nurses, were sent to France with many others held back ready for deployment. The work nurses performed in France was typically emergency work, lasting many hours in fairly poor condition. Red Cross nurses treated infections, terrible wounds, mustard gas burns and exposure, and other severe war traumas. Nurses also experienced the horrors of war first hand by not only treating casualties of war, but by giving their own lives to save fallen soldiers on the battlefield. By the end of the war, over two hundred nurses had lost their lives, many from contracting diseases when treating patients. Many were decorated for their valor and a small few were even awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
As the war came to a close in 1918, the Red Cross was faced with an entirely new and far more deadly issue. The Influenza Pandemic, which broke out in Europe in the last months of the war and spread throughout the world, claimed an estimated 22 million lives and close to 500,000 United States Citizens. The Red Cross worked in conjunction with the United States Public Health Service providing nurses to assist the sick and dying until the pandemic subsided in 1919.
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