The outbreak of World War I affected millions of troops and civilians in the United States and overseas. The American Red Cross, championed by President Woodrow Wilson, contributed in a major way during the war to not only aid the wounded, but aid troops actively in battle, families in distress, and veterans. Within the first few weeks of the war, the Red Cross dispatched the SS Red Cross, also known as The Mercy Ship, which brought surgeons and nurses, surgical equipment, and hospital supplies to seven warring European nations. 170 surgeons and nurses were aboard the ship, ready to combat casualties on both sides, with an emphasis on the idea of neutrality and impartiality.
When the United States officially entered the war in April of 1917, the organization began a period of remarkable growth. Wilson called upon the American people to back the organization in its support of thousands of young men heading to the battlefields of Europe. Bankers and businessmen volunteered to help build up the organization and expand its services, so much so that the needs for local establishments grew faster than infrastructures could be built.
Many different War posters were created in an effort to help fund the Red Cross, like our examples below, "At the Service of Mankind" Vintage WWI Red Cross Poster by Lawrence Wilbur, 1917. and "American Red Cross. Chartered by Congress" Vintage WWI Red Cross Poster by Franklin Booth, 1918. Posters such as these were successful in spreading the word about how people could help. To encourage membership, the American Red Cross enlisted the pro-bono services of several well-known artists and produced a series of posters for the Roll Call. With an annual fee of one dollar, the first Christmas Roll Call boosted membership significantly and raised millions for the organization. At the start of the war there were only about 10,000 Red Cross members, but by 1918 this number jumped into the millions, with over 20 million adults and 11 million youth becoming members. By the end of the war, about a third of the United States population was either a donor or a volunteer of the American Red Cross.
The Red Cross developed multiple different services during the War, which included home, camp, canteen, nursing, hospital, and motor services along with a production corps and hospital & recreation corps.
France received a lot of aid from the United States, specifically with the Red Cross. The country made up a large portion of the Western Front and saw some of the longest and bloodiest battles. Consequently, much of the general aid meant for soldiers went into France. Likewise, American soldiers serving in the war also received aid from the various Red Cross efforts. This French poster, Croix Rouge Américaine Vintage French Red Cross WWI Poster, Circa 1918 is dedicated to the friendship between the French and the American Red Crosses.
The corps continued into World War II, recruiting women around the U.S. to help the war and Red Cross organization. Thanks to enrollment efforts like this "Volunteer for the Red Cross Motor Corps" Vintage WWII Recruitment Poster, over 45,000 US women served in the corps.
The American Red Cross staff and volunteers also built hospitals, health clinics and dispensaries, and organized public health campaigns against diseases like typhus and tuberculosis. They took steps to reform sanitation in many countries and introduced nursing schools in several major cities. The Red Cross’ efforts for Europe went well beyond immediate material relief to include long-term, comprehensive social welfare projects. By the war’s end, the Red Cross had become a major humanitarian organization.
Resources: World War I and the American Red Cross. https://www.redcross.org/content/dam/redcross/National/history-wwi.pdf. Accessed 14 July 2022.
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