World War I: The American Home Front--Volunteer and Charity Effort

Red Cross World War I
Figure 1.--The most important volunteer group in America during World War I was the American Red Crooss. Here an American town holds a fund raising parade for the Red Cross.

The outbreal of World War I resulting in an outburst of charitable activity and orgnization of voluntary efforts. The initial effort was Belgian redlief bgan with efforts to get Americans home from Europe, but soon addresing the devloping humnitrian crisis in Europe as a result of the Geman invasion. There were some wll finded volunteer and chaitable efforts, but thee was also a hige outpouring og loval efforts, people in vurtually every city nd tiwn in america that wanted to help. No one kmows the number of the numbers of committees and other groups to help the various groups put at risk by the War. Local groups could collect maney and supplies for Europe. But they had no way of getting the relief aid overseas. The American Red Cross soon became the primary coordinating body for voluntary groups eeling to aid desperate people in Europe. In part because they set up operations overseas and had the cpavility of getting relief supplies overseas to the people who needed it.

American Red Cross

The most important volunteer group in America during World War I was the American Red Cross. The Red Cross was, however, still a very small organization and not yet a very well known group in the United States when World War I broke out in Europe (1914). With America as a neutral nation, the Red Cross' first major project was to equip a ship with emergency supplies and medical workers. The ship was the SS Red Cross which became known as "the Mercy Ship." It was staffed with 170 surgeons and nurses who were assigned to assist in the medical care of combat casualties. It was to assist the casualties of both sides of the conflict, although I am not sure how this was accomplished as the ship I assume could only get to Allied ports. (I'm not yet sure about the port of calls.) This policy followed the Geneva Conventions and the principles of the Red Cross Movement which required strict neutrality. The American Red Cross shipped further supplies, but eventually had to terminate the project because of inadequate funds. It was after America entered the War (1917) that the Red Cross began to grown and become a major humanitarian organization. The American Red Cross played an important role in coordinating volunteer efforts. President Woodrow Wilson was appointed the honorary chairman of the Red Cross. The President urged Americans to support the Red Cross. There were programs such as ambulances, medical supplies as well as a range of other efforts to support the troops. One of these was a nationwide knitting campaign to produce woolen socks and other warm weather clothing. The Red Cross helped to recruit and train ambulance drivers and orderlies at various universities. There was also a youth effort. By the time the war ended in November 1918, the Red Cross had become a major national humanitarian organization. It had developed a huge membership base with chapters throughout the country. This enabled the Red Cross to play a major role after the War in fighting the influenza epidemic. Volunteer workers, for example made masks. The American Red Cross did not just conduct programs at home or for merucan soldiers overseas. It played a major role in American relief efforts overseas that prevented millions of Europeans from starving. This was because of its overseas organization, made it the organizational infrastructure to handle food and other relief programs. This was especially the case after America entered the War.


The Red Cross was by far the single most important American charity/volunter organization during World war I. The red Cross not only raised money, but played a major role in destributing relief supplies overseas. This merican effort began almost immediately after the outbreal=k of the war, more thn 2 years befre amerivan entered the war. An incredable number of charities were organized in America and wung into operation. Few will ring a bell with Americans today. But they playe a major role in the american relief effort in Europe. Millions of lives were saved by these organizations in countries ll over Europe, including the Central Powers an the Soviet Union which almost immediate launced efforts to destroy the United states. Most of these orgnizations were primarily involved with collecting food nd relief supplies in america. Distribution overseas was mostly turned ovr to the American Red Cross. l

American Ouvroir Funds

The American Ouvroir Funds was the umbrella orgnizatiom for 10 French charities caring for French war orphans. We are not sure about the charity's name. 'Ouvroir' seens to mean sewing or wirk room. The charities aided the children of French Navy and Army officers and some Belgians. It provided photographs and histories of the children aided. Ther was no advertising and publicuty other than some posters we have seen. It raised $11,5 million in 3 years and planned to operate another 5 years. The focus was on education expenses.

Belgian Relief Committee

Herbert Hooverafter assisting americans stranded in Britain, turned to a far more daunting task, how to feed Belgium, which although neutral had been invaded and overrun by the Germans. The Germans had anticipated a quick victory over the French in the West. When the War bogged down into static trench warfare, food supplies soon dwindled. The German Army seized Belgian food supplies for its men. At home Germany did not have a food surplus and was unwillikng to send food the Belgian civilains, especially as they had sides with the French. Belgium before the War imported large quantities of food, but The Allied naval blockade now prevented food from reaching Germany and Germany occupied areas. Thus a humanitarian disaster was unfolding in Belgium of epic proprtions. The Belgians managed to get a guarantee from the Germans that they would not interfere with food shipments brought into Belgium by a Belgian Relief Committee (CRB). The British, however, were dubious about the German guarantte, woried that the food might be used to feed German soldies. Delegations from various Belgian cities came to London pleading for permission to bring food through the blockade. After consulting with Walter Hines Page, the American Ambassador, and Emile Francqui, a Belgian Banker, Hoover decided to make the task of feeding Belgium his own personal crusade. He worked through the Committee for Relief of Belgium. It was a daunting undertaking. He needed to find and pay for food to feed 10 million people. Shipping and transporting that quantity of food required a major logistical undertaking involving ships, trains, and trucks. Distribution was a major concern. He had to ensure that the food was equitably distributed in Belgium and that the German Army did not take any of it. And hde had to guarantee to the British that the food would not fall into German hands. Somehow Hoover managed to pull it off. Here is great strngths as an a practical organizer and his sence of morality made this achievement possible. Hoover accepted no salary or remuneration of any kinds and many of his colleagues working on the CRB did likewise. Hoover appealed for support from all over the world, but it was in America that the public responded overweal an America volunteer staff in Belgium as neurtral Americans were more acceptable to the Germans as well as the Allies. The CRB over 4 years fed 11 million people in Belgium and northern France (the Germans had also overrun part of northern France. Hoover collected more than $1 billion to finace the CRB--mostly from America. The task was unpresedented. It was the first major relief undertaking of such dimmensions. It was also a learning experience. The CRB found that young children needed a special diet to prevent disease. Doctors invented a special cookie containing all the essential foods needed for young, growing children. This was provided to 2.5 million Belgian children daily along with milk and a stew. The American people supported the effort with almost missionary zeal. States dispatched special "state food ships" to Belgium. Along with the food came clothing. Hoover insisted that an accounting firm manage the CRB books so that no one could ever charge that any of the money had been misspent or embelzed. Amazingly the final saccountijg showed that not only had the money been carefully spent, less than 0.5 percent had gone for administrative purposes. For this effort alone, Hoover has to be considered one of the great heroes of World War I.

European Relief Council (1919-22)

he European Relief Council (ERC) was an American umbrella organization to coordinate the fund raising activities of American charitable relief organizations. American rlief efforts began during World War I and focused on beligered Belgium. Aid eas also delivered to France and Italy, but the War prevented aid to much of the rest of Europe. With the end of the War, it became possible to aid all of Europe which was starving becuse the War has seriously impaird agricultural production. The ERC was called European because that was where the relief was needed. The ERC was organized to lauch a coordinated charitable drive in America. Some $40 million were collected, an enormous sum at the time. The funds were turned over to the American Relief Administration for distribution in Europe. The mandate as to focus on saving children. [Bane and Lutz, p. 5.] The ERC members included: American Friends Service Committee, American Red Cross, American Relief Administratiom, Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, Joint Distribution Committee, Knights of Columbus, National Catholic Welfare Cojuncil, Young Men's Christian Asociation, and the Young Women's Christian Association. Notice that most of the members were religious groups. Nost were Christian groups. The Joint Distribution Committee was a Jewish group. These were the most important groups in American committed to saving European children. Through the Council, these groups organizedan a joint appeal to the americn people an publicize the desperate need of European children. The Council elected Herbert Hoover Chairman and Franklin K. Lane Treasurer. Relief assistance in 1921 was delivered to: Albania, Austria, Turkey (Constantinople), Czechoslovakia, France (northern area), Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Danzig (Free Sity), Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Palestine, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Yugoslavia. There was a special program for Russian refugee children. There were also programs for refugees in Shanghai and Vladisvostock. Notice that Belgium was no on the list. That was because by 1921 Belgium had began to recover and was able to feed itself. These were refugees that had made in to the Pacific across the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The Literary Digest helped publicize the desperat need and collect money.


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Created: 3:53 AM 11/9/2007
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Last updated: 1:23 AM 4/29/2017