Red Cross marks a ton of service
Red Cross youth member Aisling Blackmore gets into the spirit of the organisation's 100th anniversary with Heritage Committee chairwoman Audrey Poole, 80. Picture: Lincoln Baker/The West Australian

Nine days after the outbreak of World War I, the Red Cross established its roots in Australia, launching a lifesaving legacy that celebrates its 100th anniversary this week.

An integral part of Australian society since August 13, 1914, the organisation remains one of the nation's strongest because it evolves and develops in line with community needs, according to Red Cross WA executive director Steve Joske.

"We are continually evaluating 'who is vulnerable in Western Australia in the 21st century' and ensuring that our focus and resources are directed to those most in need," Mr Joske said.

The Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society was founded in 1914 by the wife of the-then Governor-General, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, at Government House in Melbourne.

It spread to WA in September after she asked the Governors' wives to form a branch in their State to support the humanitarian needs of a nation at war.

It took longer to reach the west coast because the State was in the midst of drought and a trade depression, according to Flinders University history professor Melanie Oppenheimer.

Her book The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of Red Cross in Australia will be launched by patron Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove on Wednesday and details how Lady Clara Barron, the wife of the West Australian Governor of the time, opened her home - Government House - to Red Cross volunteers.

The organisation grew "enormously, very quickly" thanks to the industrious volunteers who joined forces around the State.

West Australian women flocked to the branches - including the State's longest continuous-running unit in Brunswick Junction - because it was one of the most important ways women could contribute to the war effort, Professor Oppenheimer said.

"The concept really touched women because it looked after the wounded and sick soldiers on the other side of the world, and one of the ways women could help their menfolk was by making them things like pyjamas, rolling bandages, and supplying pillows and blankets because these sorts of things weren't provided by the military," she said.

Members of the Claremont branch of the West Australian Division winding bandages in 1942. Pictures and information courtesy of The Power of Humanity, 100 years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014 by Melanie Oppenheimer.

"Men were wounded on the battlefield and transported to hospitals and all their muddy clothes were taken off them so their wounds could be dressed, but then they had nothing to put on. So the Red Cross provided pyjamas, which is a basic sort of thing but it's essential."

Loading bottles at the Red Cross Waste Products Depot, Hay Street, Perth, June 1943.

The volunteers' successful fundraising efforts back home ensured they could afford to buy and make basic necessities for the soldiers.

"There was no government money going into this - it was all the people of WA," Professor Oppenheimer said.

Perth volunteer and WA Red Cross Travelling Suitcase Exhibition curator Kris Bizzaca said it would have been a comfort for women to join the Red Cross.

Red Cross Motor Cycle Transport Unit, WA, 1943.

"After Gallipoli it was a frightening time for the women of WA, knowing that their sons, husbands and fathers were out there serving," she said.

Volunteers prepared hundreds of thousands of care parcels for Australian soldiers. Packages were also sent to prisoners of war with "two shirts, two undershirts, three handkerchiefs, two pairs of socks, a toothbrush, powder and shaving gear, a comb, insect powder, a pipe, playing cards, needles and thread".

"There were anecdotal reports from the patients and those serving in WWI and WWII saying that without the parcels and knowledge that they were still supported at home, they wouldn't have got through the experience; especially the POWs," Miss Bizzaca said.

The Red Cross played a lifesaving role in the war effort.

Red Cross Cycle Transport Unit, Gloucester Park in 1943.

"It was essential not only in terms of ambulance officers, nurses and doctors who served on the front and in hospitals - who knows how many lives they saved - but also in terms of the importance of the work with the Wounded and Missing Inquiry Bureau, which put families in touch with each other and brought hope in a period that was truly devastating and so uncertain," Miss Bizzaca said.

"It was all about hope and the men knowing that they were fighting for something and there were people back home who cared and worried about them."

During the post-war period, Red Cross focused on social welfare, national emergencies, natural disasters, the blood bank and first-aid programs sustained by the branches and volunteers.

"After WWII, Red Cross became the guardians of Australia's blood supply, the nation's sole collector and distributor of blood and blood products," according to Red Cross Australia.

Red Cross Horse Transport Section, WA. In September 1941, a group of horsewomen formed the Red Cross Transport Section to help the war effort and specifically to run messages if under enemy attack. Those aged 17 to 25 were trained in first aid, gas and stretcher drills, and all care of horses, map reading and morse code.

"Today one million Red Cross members, volunteers, donors, staff, blood donors, recipients and supporters make a positive difference to the lives of people in need every day."

Voluntary service had been the hallmark of Australian life for more than 100 years, Mr Joske said.

Professor Oppenheimer said that in an indirect way the Red Cross had touched nearly every Australian.

"One of the positives that came out of WWI is not only the Anzac legend but also the Australian Red Cross because it is a voluntary organisation spread right across the country - in rural areas in particular - with a very strong female base," she said.

The West Australian

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