The International Committee of the Red Cross was formed in 1862. Initially its purpose was to try and find ways of overcoming the inadequacy of army medical services so as to alleviate the suffering of those wounded in armed conflict. Over time it has extended its work to include many forms of humanitarian aid in times of peace and war.
The Australian Red Cross Society (ARCS) was formed just after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, originally as a branch of the the British Red Cross. It is especially remembered in the the provision of "comforts" for soldiers overseas. Enormous sums of money were raised, and thousands of women volunteers contributed their time by making vast quantities of clothing: socks, vests, mittens, mufflers, pyjamas and a variety of linen. Items were sent to headquarters located in the state capitals, often using government houses as depots, where, after being sorted and packed by yet more volunteers, they were sent to Britain or the front. The effect of this work for the recipients was to bring comfort in its truest sense, for a seemingly trivial gift of a bar of chocolate of a pair of dry socks could bring the most profound relief for a soldier on the Western Front. From the date of its inception until the armistice the ARCS dispatched 395,695 food parcels and 36,339 clothing parcels
Between 1914 and 1918 more than £3,500,00 was collected and spent on Red Cross services to the Australian Forces and Empire Forces. Dame Nellie Melba raised more than £90,000 for the sick, wounded and prisoners of war by her Red Cross charity concerts and grand opera in Melbourne.
Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) also provided an important public face for the Australian Red Cross. Young women served in VADs to provide nursing and domestic services in hospitals and convalescent homes. A few served overseas in Britain.
Less well known is the work the Australian Red Cross undertook at an international level by establishing agencies overseas dedicated to supplying families in Australia with information about wounded and missing soldiers, and for providing information about and comfort to soldiers declared prisoners of war.
During the Second World War the Red Cross performed other services as well as the traditional catering, fundraising and medical work. This included welfare work, hospital visiting, vocational training, home help, library services, lorry and ambulance driving. The Red Cross VADs again worked at hospitals and convalescent homes alongside doctors and nurses. Similarly, the Red Cross contributed to the well being of prisoners of war through food parcels and medical attention.
The ARCS has been officially recognised since 1944 as an auxiliary to the medical services of the Defence Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia - Navy, Army and Air Force. The Red Cross still performs humanitarian work in peacetime, including tracing missing persons and prisoners of war.