Australian Red Cross Society records (1DRL/0428): Prisoner of War Department

The Australian Red Cross Society's Prisoner of War Department was established in July 1916. It existed to act on behalf of prisoners of war, to trace missing soldiers and to provide information to their families. The Department also provided for the comfort of prisoners in the camps in Germany, Turkey and Holland. Elizabeth Chomley managed this department in London. The Department's records fall into two categories: lists of prisoners of war and individual case files.

The lists of prisoners of war are typed lists of British and Australian prisoners of war in Germany from 16 November 1916 to 27 November 1918. They are in German and appear to be lists forwarded by the German Red Cross Society to the British Red Cross Society, via Geneva. The lists are chronologically arranged within each list. The following details are given for each man:

  • name
  • date and place of birth
  • date and place of imprisonment
  • rank
  • the address of a contact relative (where applicable)

These lists were the working copy of the Department, often providing the initial notification of imprisonment. The Australians on the list are annotated. There are several carbon copies of each list.

Individual case files of correspondence from 1916 to 1920 relate to the administration of Red Cross parcels and other amenities to prisoners. Included are officers, non-commissioned officers, other ranks and merchant marine servicemen. The files on prisoners of war cover the dispatch and acknowledgement of parcels, descriptions of imprisonment and information on repatriation.

Each file could include the following:

  • letters and postcards to the Australian Red Cross to acknowledge receipt of parcels;
  • copies of the secretary's replies;
  • typed copies of letters received by the Department to be forwarded to that prisoner;
  • copies of correspondence between the Department and any sponsors, donors or relatives.

The bulk of each file consists of cards which record the content and parcel number and date of dispatch to that prisoner, and the acknowledgement card included in the parcel and returned by the prisoner. The postcards also record any special requests for kit, books or supplies from the prisoner. The files often record the eventual fate of each prisoner: escape, repatriation and training on release, or death. They are arranged alphabetically by surname. There is a finding aid available for consultation in the Memorial's Research Centre.

From the date of its inception until the armistice the ARCS dispatched 395 695 food parcels and 36 339 clothing parcels. These parcels also included requests or orders when possible. The Department was responsible for ordering the contents of parcels, packing them and administering the distribution and receipt of parcels. In certain cases the distribution of monies or supplies from general donations in Australia and specific donor/prisoner agreements were administered. As the entry of items to enemy territory was censored, the Australian Red Cross eventually had sole control of the distribution of items classified as "forbidden articles".

Elizabeth Chomley wrote in her final report that action in aid of prisoners of war had become one of the most important aspects of the work of the Red Cross:

"When the first Australian prisoners of war were taken by the Germans in July 1916 a separate department of the ARCS was formed to take care of them. Up to that time the only other Australian prisoners of war had been captured by the Turks at Gallipoli and the care of these men had been left to their friends. The dispatch of private parcels was allowed by the War Office until December 1916 when it was decided to control the amount of food and clothing going to Turkey and Germany."

It was at this time that the ARCS Prisoner of War Department took over the complete charge of Australian servicemen held in captivity.

When the Prisoner of War Department ceased operating Chomley was directed by the Council of the ARCS to " all you can to reduce the records to a minimum consistent with their value". The records that survived this process were transferred to the Australian War Memorial in the mid 1920s. The private records of Elizabeth Chomley are held in the Memorial in the Private Records collection (1DRL/0615)

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